Lee Hae Yeon (an alias), a North Korean defector and graduate of North Korea’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University, says that 90 percent of the students at the university listen to music on MP3 players. Often, that music comes from South Korea and the West.
To protect her identity and the safety of her family still in North
Korea, Lee requested that no questions be asked about her personal
“I have loved music since I was a little kid. I’ve always been able
to sing in tune after listening to a song only once. And although no
one has ever taught me how to play the piano, I can touch the right
keys and get a rhythm going. Nevertheless, in order to reach a higher
social level in North Korea, I followed my father’s wish and pursued my
“Probably about 90 percent of Kim Il Sung University students own an
MP3 player. You can purchase them at a market inside North Korea.
There’s a very broad price range, from cheap to expensive. One may buy
a ‘Samsung,’ assuming that it’s a respectable brand, and then it would
break down because it’s a Chinese-made knock-off.”
“I had two MP3s. On one of them, I had popular North Korean songs.
And when I went out, I’d put in my earphones and listen to that. The
other one contained South Korean songs that I listened to at home,
especially right before going to sleep.”
“Depending on whether one gets caught listening to an
English-language song, a Chinese song, or a South Korean song, the
situation would be rather different. North and South Korea are enemy
states, so coming in contact with anything that has to do with South
Korea creates a big problem.
“The agents of the government monitoring agency may stop you on the
street and check out the song you’re listening to. If the song that’s
on at that particular moment stands out a bit too much, they’ll
confiscate the MP3 player, take you in for questioning, and listen to
all the songs on the MP3 player.
“If there are problematic songs on the MP3, then sanctions will
follow—and also a lot of questioning. They’d ask who you had downloaded
the music from, and then bring that person in and ask him where he had
purchased the song. They would continue with endless questioning … But
I haven’t heard of anyone being punished too harshly for just listening
“Music is my greatest love, but pursuing music is not so easy at
this stage in my life. Nevertheless, should I find success at a certain
point in my life and career, I hope that music will be at the center of
Reported by Songwu Park for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service
director: Insop Han. Translation by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited for the
Web by Richard Finney.