In Havana, K-pop makes a differenceI visited Cuba to cover the official opening on Aug. 13 of the U.S. Embassy there. It was sizzling in Havana, and I was extremely tired. So I went to a convenience store to buy a bottle of Red Bull for a caffeine rush. I don’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t understand when the cashier told me the price. As I opened my wallet, the young Cuban told me in Korean that three cans of Red Bull were 7.2 convertible pesos ($7.20). I felt a bit confused as I got the receipt and left the store.
The previous day, I had visited a DVD store in downtown Havana to collect stories about Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, in Cuba, making no prior arrangements with the store. A local Korean had recommended the store, but he didn’t have any connection to the store owner. As I entered the shop, I was a bit disappointed to see the shelves filled with Hollywood flicks. However, it turned out that Korean dramas and movies were conspicuously displayed at the front, and the Hollywood movies moved inside.
“Korean dramas sell more than Hollywood movies,” the owner said. “You can ask other shops, and they will tell you the same.”
In the afternoon, I went to what is known as a Korean Wave club, a small office next to the U.S. Embassy. The walls were covered with photos of Korean pop stars that even I don’t know. A young Cuban woman at the office told me the names of Korean entertainers popular in Cuba, and frankly, I wasn’t familiar with them.
Two days before leaving Havana, I went to the North Korean Embassy. It was desolate, and photos of Kim Il Sung signing the cease-fire agreement decades ago were displayed on the wall.
How is Cuba, which successfully restored relations with the United States, different from North Korea, which maintains a confrontational state? Tourism is an important asset for Cuba, but not North Korea. Nuclear possession also puts the two countries in different situations. But to us, the Korean Wave makes a big difference. Cubans enjoy Korean pop culture, but in North Korea, it can ruin a family. As long as North Korea considers Korean pop culture a threat to its system, inter-Korean relations will be risky. It may again threaten to blow up our loudspeakers at the border and declare a quasi-state of war. As I left Havana, I wondered when Pyongyang might change.
The author is the Washington correspondent
for the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 30
by CHAE BYUNG-GUN