All media is state-controlled in North Korea. Authorities jam foreign radio, outlaw foreign movies, and imprison those who distribute foreign music. Despite strict laws and brutal punishments, foreign media presents an escape from the hardships of life for many young North Koreans. But for these slaves to the system, what price for true freedom?
Since 1998, 31,000 North Korean refugees have escaped to South Korea and come to know the cost that freedom demands. Arriving in a megalopolis of neon lights and skyscrapers fuelled by technology and modernity, North Korean exiles enter a world on the edge of comprehension. Encouraged to assimilate and quickly become ‘South Korean’, a realization that freedom is not necessarily free quickly dawns. Far from finding acceptance, many encounter discrimination, suspicion, and unemployment. In 2017, two young exiles, Lee Hyang-Mi and Kim Ha-Na, sought a different path toward freedom in South Korea, forming a new girl-band under the exile-run organisation ‘North & South Entertainment’. Yet to make their full debut, training must take place in conjunction with their work at North & South Entertainment’s other venture: a newly-opened restaurant, named Hyangugak (‘Friends From One’s Hometown’). Singing to an audience of curious diners, many of whom come to sample the restaurant’s speciality — the food of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital — the girl-band wait on tables in between performances of wistful North Korean ballads and high-tempo covers of South Korea’s bubblegum K-pop.This is no fairytale story. The fame and fortunes of South Korea’s extravagant entertainment industry will likely remain beyond their grasp. The discrimination they experience as North Korean exiles in daily life is all too real. But it is the opportunity to freely sing and dance, experiences still outlawed in their home country, that have become the real prize.