Power through Piracy

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, so what is the corresponding response to generations of physical, cultural, and institutional oppression? Piracy. For nearly every system of censorship employed to keep the people of the DPRK loyal and uninformed there is a group of people who have found a way around it and have made it their mission to share their discoveries. Though some individuals remain bound in their loyalty to their nation out of fear and a lifetime of conditioning, others are desperate to know more about the outside world, or at the very least to hear a more diverse selection of music. The media that the citizens of North Korea uncover through acts of piracy and contraband devices are a source of incredible informational power, and are often cited by people who have escaped as being the motivating factor for their mission to seek freedom beyond the borders. They have also caused a shift to weaken the strength of political propaganda and control, making progress toward a revolution more possible than ever before.


One of the reasons that radio is so guarded in North Korea as previously mentioned is the fact that in the right hands these receivers can be doctored to receive foreign broadcast frequencies. North Korean airwaves are under a constant barrage hoping to reach the ears of at least one person within the media red zone. Stations like North Korea Reform Radio, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and countless others provide a source for factual insights and information untouched by government manipulation. For those who are unaccustomed to such unfiltered communication it can initially come as quite a shock, as one defector explains:

“Frankly, the ideological education in North Korea is so strong that many people including myself could not believe the content of the outside world radio. I was once certain that this radio signal was sent by someone who was trying to deceive us. But this radio played a strong role in motivating me to escape North Korea. My friends and I used to regularly listen to NKRR and other radio programs inside [an]underground hideout.” 1


Aside from altered radios there are a number of options available to those who can afford them, but the wave of change they generate extends far beyond the wealthy and privileged. Computers, USB drives, and smuggled cell phones and mp3 players have created an entirely new environment for media in North Korea in a way that could have never existed in years past. Though expensive and dangerous to obtain, things like personal computers and illicit music devices are beyond government monitoring and provide a more covert format to hide and share illegal media, causing the trade of pirated music, movies, and television to be much more efficient and widespread.2 Smuggling rings in particular are more prevalent than ever because of the new ability for person-to-person contact by means of illegal cellular devices. For those in North Korea who can afford the cost to bribe border officials and pay for illegal goods there is someone on the other side of the border with the means and the will to take down the cult of personality one dvd at a time. South Korean television dramas, episodes of Friends, K-Pop albums, and just two days after its release even The Interview has found its way into North Korean hands.3 As time goes on the innovations developed by people looking to liberate one of the most oppressed nations in the world continue to grow in number and scope. Engineers have developed slingshots, balloons, and compact satellite dishes all with the aim of sending over information and media to inspire and enlighten.4


A consequence of being able to access banned foreign music for the first time is the fact that everything North Korea has to offer loses all ability to compete, let alone be taken seriously. Once people have listened to K-Pop bands and seen music videos full of flashy cars, beautiful clothes, and the lavish Seoul lifestyle it becomes especially hard to appreciate songs about how the Kim family made the happiest and most prosperous nation in the world. Thanks to the boom in music piracy, K-Pop bands like Girls Generation, who are wildly popular internationally, have garnered a new secretive fan base among the youth of North Korea for their catchy songs and non-propaganda related content. The government has caught wind of the trend in K-Pop popularity among the youth and in 2012 Kim Jong-Un devised his own cultural counter-attack: His very own pop group, The Moranbong Band. In a press release concerning the group’s first performance, a North Korean news report stated “Kim Jong Un organized the Moranbong band as required by the new century, prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins.”5 They perform lively interpretations of old classics as well as propaganda pop with song titles like “We Can’t Live without his Care,” “Let’s Learn,” and “Fluttering Red Flag.”5 Here is a Moranbong Band music video versus a Girls’ Generation music video. (English subtitles are available in both videos)


Lyrics vs lyrics:


Medley, Moranbong Band Lyric Highlights:

Let’s follow him every step,
Beloved Comrade Kim Jong Un
Let’s stand by him in arms,
Our Supreme Commander!

Those who provoke or touch my country
would by diminished by the lightning anywhere in the world no matter what
We do not have a limit distance of my gun
It is a straight shot it in the place that I aimed for with my heart!

Our Armor was forged by our courage and belief
Tanks, we go out
Once the stomping incarnation of Valor
The Enemy becomes a sea of ​​fire.

We are the brave tankers of Korea
We will open the breakthrough of annihilation
Tanks are open at any time!


Genie, Girls’ Generation (SNSD) Lyric Highlights:

Tell me your wish

Tell me the little dream that’s in your heart
Draw the ideal type that’s in your mind
And then look at me
I’m your Genie, your dream, your Genie

Ride on your dream car
Sit next to me on the passenger seat
In my magnetic charm, just throw it all away
Even though it feels like you heart is about to explode
Even though it feels like you’re blown away by the wind
Right now, at this moment, the world is yours

Tell me your wish
Aren’t you sick of those boring days?
Are you used to your ordinary life?
Enough now wake up already

As you can see, the two are as different as night and day. North Korea stands no chance to compete against South Korea’s pop empire.


For as many people reached by smuggled media the most prevalent source of information is still by far word-of-mouth, something that is accessible to everyone regardless of wealth or status. Those who are fortunate enough to possess their own source of contraband media and devices gather with friends and loved ones to share music, watch movies, listen to news broadcasts, and learn about the outside world. It is a risk, even in their private homes, but it is a calculated risk that is taken knowing that the media North Korea has to offer is insufficient and poisoned with misinformation. People who once believed what their government told them about other countries now have evidence to prove that there is the potential to escape hunger, poverty, and persecution elsewhere. Huddled masses gather to hear the stories of others who live without fear, those who have overthrown oppressive leaders, and those who have found asylum. It is a way of bonding together and rising above, and it begins with their first songs of freedom.

Read More: Section Three

1 Ahn, JH. “North Korean Pirate Radio: Homemade Devices Deliver Banned Broadcasts.” The Guardian. July 28, 2014. Accessed April 28, 2015.

2 Kretchum, Nat, and Jane Kim. “A Quiet Opening: North Koreans in a Changing Media Environment.” Washington, DC: InterMedia. 2012. Accessed April 15, 2015.

3 Greenberg, Andy. “The Plot to Free North Korea With Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends’.” Wired.com. March 1, 2015. Accessed March 25, 2015.

4 Greenberg, Andy. “Headline: Silicon Valley Has a Few Ideas for Undermining Kim Jong-un.” Wired.com. March 10, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2015.

5 “Kim Jong Un Appreciates Demonstration Performance of Newly Organized Moranbong Band.” Korea News Service. July 7, 2012. Accessed April 2, 2015.