Drawn to North Korea’s culture, Japanese internet star looks beyond the saber-rattling

Seeking to separate the regime from its people, some young women drawn to North's culture

by

Staff Writer

Japanese internet celebrity Chunhun starts her day by listening to a band whose songs few other 20-something women in the nation are likely to have on their playlists: North Korea’s all-female ensemble Moranbong Band.

“I listen to their songs for the same reason many Japanese women listen to K-pop or Taylor Swift,” said freelance illustrator Chunhun, who does not publicly reveal her real name.

When her mornings feel particularly depressing, she opts for more bellicose music from north of the 38th parallel.

“Even if I have a really tough day coming up, I can easily switch into a very aggressive mood when these songs encourage me to ‘annihilate enemies’ or assure me that I have the ‘Great Marshal’ on my side.”

Chunhun’s fascination with North Korea makes her stand out among most Japanese, who have developed an aversion to the reclusive regime due to long-standing bad blood over its abductions of Japanese citizens decades ago and its defiant efforts to become a nuclear power.

Today the Kanagawa native spearheads a little-known community of sengun joshi (military-first girls), a group of mostly young adult women who are fascinated by the peculiar culture of their Asian neighbor.

Although their name gives the impression that they adore North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, they claim their interest in the country is purely cultural, saying they despise the regime’s atrocities and military provocations as much as their fellow Japanese do.

What makes them different, however, is that they are aware of the simplest truth: There is more to North Korea than Kim’s saber-rattling.

“By introducing North Korea’s culture, like its fashion, music and arts, I want the Japanese public to realize there are good people living there and that they can’t be blamed for what the government does,” Chunhun said in an interview with The Japan Times.

In 2013, Chunhun, then a student intern for a news website specializing in coverage of North Korea, began marketing herself as a sengun joshi and has since attracted a following on social media.

She said she and her like-minded Pyongyang aficionados now periodically get together for a joshikai (women-only party), where they talk about their love lives or other topics over snacks — with the conversation inevitably veering toward North Korea from time to time.

Having majored in arts at a university, Chunhun said her infatuation with the regime originated from its propaganda posters — and their artistic beauty.

The posters, Chunhun said, are mostly created by skilled illustrators hired by North Korea’s state-run Mansudae Art Studio, one of the world’s largest centers of art production. Their expressiveness — most evident in the meticulous way they portray small details such as flowers and foliage — is especially noteworthy, she said.

But today, her interest in the country goes far beyond the arts.

She wears makeup using North Korean cosmetics she said she bought at souvenir shops in the Chinese city of Dandong, located on the border with the North. She goes online every day and peruses articles from the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea and North Korea’s main national daily.

But her pro-North Korea tweets and online images of her donning “chima jeogori,” the traditional Korean attire, have antagonized some people, leading to constant stress that is taking its toll.

A day hardly goes by, she said, without a slew of hate messages from online right-wingers telling her to “drop dead” or calling her a “cockroach.” Her internet persona has alarmed prospective employers in the past as well, even preventing her from getting a job, she said.

“I know what the regime does is unforgivable, but I think it’s wrong to become allergic to it ‘just because it’s North Korea,’ ” she said.

A 23-year-old housewife in Tokyo is another sengun joshi who follows Chunhun’s lead.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears of a backlash, said her perception of the North completely changed after she took a trip there last year.

Like most Japanese, she used to think of the North as a somewhat scary and unstable place, but when she stumbled upon an online ad promoting an affordable tour of the country, her curiosity was piqued.

Little did she know the four-day trip would turn out to be an eye-opening experience.

“I know we were only allowed to see what the regime wanted foreign tourists to see,” she said. “But still I was amazed to know that Pyongyang was much more prosperous and cleaner than I had thought.”

She added that the North Korean soldiers who accompanied the group on the trip were very kind.

“Having watched them on TV, I’d always thought they were kind of cold and emotionless,” she said. “But when one of them, as part of their security check, searched my smartphone to make sure I had no anti-Pyongyang images on it, he came across some lovey-dovey pictures of me and my husband. … And then he cracked a very cute grin. It was at that moment that I realized they were human, too.”

Like Chunhun, the woman says she is troubled by Pyongyang’s recent military provocations.

“North Korea is seriously wrong where it’s wrong and I really hope everything will come to a peaceful end,” she said. “My hope is that one day, Japan will become a society where you won’t be frowned upon or discriminated against by saying you like North Korea.”