Getting jiggy with North Koreans

Sent on: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 7:33 PM
Greetings, all!

Over the past nine months in South Korea I've gotten to know a lot of people. Perhaps the most unexpected new friends I have are four people who escaped from North Korea. Overall, I've met more than 40 former NKs at three different events and meetings, but I guess there are four former refugees that I talk to regularly. They all have fascinating stories about escaping from the hell-hole that is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

I'm a curious person who always asks questions--I've been a reporter, a researcher, a radio talk show host, a traveler. So when I first met some North Koreans earlier this year I had many questions. I was asking the North Koreans so many questions that a radio reporter at the meeting wanted to interview me to find out who I was!

Yes, I had many questions--about NK, life and politics there, about how they were enjoying themselves in South Korea, about the "tipping point" that motivated them to escape from NK, what they would say to NKs today if they had a chance to speak to them, etc, etc., many more questions, etc..

But all of that was intellectual camouflage for my main question:

Do they have noraebang in North Korea?

* * *

The North Koreans there thought it was funny that I was asking such a question. One lady answered: Yes. But it is only for foreigners, rich North Koreans, and government officials.

I said: Oh. In that case, I don't mind if NK invades SK. Assuming I survived the invasion, I would still be able to go singing because I'm a foreigner here (and there).

* * *

It was February of this year that I first met North Koreans. The NKs I got to know the best that first night all happen to live outside of Seoul. I invited my new NK friends to go singing with me when they returned to Seoul. They returned in June, for the summer. About two weeks later we met to go singing along with friends of theirs who were in Seoul.

If you have ever gone singing with me then you know that I hate to give up the microphone.
I don't have a naturally great voice but I love singing. As I like to say: "I can't sing, but I won't stop." Not only do I sing, but I like to get up and dance while I do so. I even like to get up and dance while others are singing.

People are constantly suggesting that I should buy a noraebang machine. But I won't. I know that I would never leave home.

* * *

When I went with my NK friends I tried to be patient. They were eager but shy. With my personality I know that it is easy for me to sometimes dominate gatherings so I try to hold back at times. They had all sung at noraebang before, some did so for the first time in China, some in South Korea. So I waited a little more. But they were encouraging me to sing. How many times could I say no?

The first song I sang: Getting Jiggy With It by Will Smith.

What a shock. One of the women later told me that she felt like she was at a rap concert. She had seen American singers on TV but had never gone singing with anyone singing American songs. It was the first time anyone had ever sung in English in her presence.

After I finished singing they all applauded. Not just polite applause, but like Kim Jong-Il had ordered it. They started talking in Korean.

Then one asked: "Jiggy? What's that?"

I guess the question isn't that strange, some of my South Korean and American friends have asked.

* * *

Then I sang
������������������������, a Korean song from the early or mid-1990s. They had never heard it. Later, I sang another Korean song they had never heard. It was so funny to be with people who are Korean, grew up nearby in the other part of Korea, but were so culturally unaware of many things about South Korea. I later quizzed them on South Korean history--I know more, at least about South Korean history from 1945. I started saying they were the real foreigners in South Korea (all of them there are now South Korean citizens).

When they were in North Korea they were blocked from contact with the outside world. Things aren't as bad as they used to be, there are now some South Korean movies and music being smuggled into the country. A problem with that is that NKs are getting the impression that every SK looks, sings, and lives like those beautiful and rich people they see in smuggled videos and movies. I don't watch TV but I guess if everyone here looked like those on TV then the rest of the world would be trying to bust in here.

That reminds me of when boxer Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He famously said, "Ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger." A reporter supposedly asked Ali if he knew where Vietnam was. He said, "Yeah. It's on TV." The reporter then informed him that it was in Southeast Asia. Ali asked, "It's there, too?"

* * *

I had heard that NKs have been cut off from the outside world, but in my presence, one of my North Korean friends called her mother. An activist called his father. Their friends and relatives had bought phones (illegally) through China. They send money through brokers (who take 30 percent of the money) to relatives in NK. They can send letters through China. Some have met relatives who took trips to China.

Several NK friends said they had seen Korean music videos, heard Korean music, and watched South Korean movies when they were in NK. I know the South Korean and U.S. governments constantly seek to slap sanctions on North Korea, but I'd suggest trying to smuggle more music videos, music and TV shows into North Korea. As Eric Hoffer said, "It is not actual suffering but a taste of better things which excites people to revolt." Apparently it was even some Korean movies and music that helped some North Koreans learn that there is some fun stuff outside of North Korea's borders.

Perhaps the videos that my NK friends have taken of me may end up smuggled into NK?

* * *

So then it was time for my NK buddies to sing. They sang slowwwwwwww NK songs. I felt like the world was moving in slow-motion as they sang.
Hip-hop clearly has not made its way to NK. My life passed before my eyes as they sang.

I had one friend write down the name of one song, "��������� ���������������." I patiently waited for them to sing their slow songs.

They kept encouraging me to sing again.  Then I sang "No Diggity" by BlackStreet (of course they wanted to know who or what "diggity" is).

When I sang Getting Jiggy they had quietly sat, watching me. But for No Diggity, I told them all to get up and dance. It was funny because one of the women apparently was waiting for the command to dance. She did her best to mimic my dance steps, to the amusement of everyone present.

She escaped from North Korea five years ago. The first three years she was in China, in hiding, afraid she might be caught and sent back. Then she came to South Korea two years ago. She became a citizen a short time after that, and is extremely proud of it.

I asked her, "Would you have ever believed, five years ago, that you'd be dancing and singing with an American at ��������� in South Korea?" She later told me that she had never danced before but had always wanted to try. She went singing with me another night with some different friends. She had heard "No Diggity" that first night, so when I sang it, I gave her the microphone and had her sing the "no diggity" line in the song.

Everyone there--Americans, South Koreans, former NKs--could not stop laughing. It was the highlight of the night. One of the guys there, an American originally from Chile, said I should go to NK and become a rap singer. I agreed. If they don't shoot me then I would be a star there.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra: If I can make it there...

well, maybe not anywhere, but I could definitely make in a backwards country where they've only seen rappers in smuggled videos...

* * *

Finally, it was time to go. When I met them the first night I did the fist bump that I've been doing since about 1996 (long story, I stopped shaking hands with people, I may write about it one day). When it was time to go that second night, the NKs there were doing fist bumps--first with me, then with each other. Former North Korean refugees doing fist-bumps? Dancing to American rap music? They were definitely getting jiggy with it...


"If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution."

--Emma Goldman

From: CASEY <[address removed]>
To: [address removed]
Sent: Mon, August 23,[masked]:59:01 PM
Subject: [Korean-Waves] Anyone in South Korea? Visiting?

Greetings, all!

Some of you may remember me, I was somewhat active with the group during[masked] as one of the assistant organizers.

As Paul mentioned in his email, I am now in South Korea. I should be here for at least a few years. I have promised myself that I won't leave until I finish writing a book. Many books never get written or published so I could be here until I die...

If you are in South Korea then send me an email so we can establish contact. We'd like to eventually set up a meeting, perhaps have a video call or something else with the Seoul mother chapter. Of course, I am a caveman when it comes to technology so don't be shy if you've got skills.

This isn't just for people who are living here now. If you plan on visiting then please let me know in advance, we can try to schedule a meetup around your visit.


From: Paul <[address removed]>
To: [address removed]
Sent: Thu, August 19,[masked]:09:48 AM
Subject: [Korean-Waves] Korean Waves update: Concert (? ??), Nightlife (Fatback), Honey Pig ? ??, Zoo, and more

Hello, ????? (Annyong haseyo),
Welcome to the new members!  This update is for everyone....
What's Korean Waves?  Besides a new name for the group, it's based on the "Hallyu" (Korean Wave - ??) concept of Korean culture washing over the world like a wave.  Besides a name change, we have more events, an upcoming iPhone app (already developed), and more new stuff. 
We even have a Seoul "branch" office for Korean Waves, which Casey has volunteered to lead events!  If you are in Seoul, let Casey know.  We are planning a web-cast event so we can "visit" Seoul live, via webcam.
Due to a technical issue, the POW! (Party of the Week) event wasn't announced, so here it is:
  • Korean Waves Nighttime! Fatback Attacks Nightlife Event - we join the monthly Fatback party at Bohemian Caverns, which the Washingtonian has called "the highest energy dance party in DC." - This Saturday at 9pm - RSVP 

And we have some upcoming events to announce:
Learning Korean:
Korean Food:
 TaKorean, the newest Truck to Hit the Streets ( - home created Korean food sold via a truck and served in a taco!  They also pledge to donate some of their sales to charity.
Have a great week!

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