Why South Korea is banning a song that recently went viral on TikTok

A North Korean propaganda song extolling Kim Jong Un as “a great leader and a friendly parent” has gone viral on TikTok, with mashups and dances racking up millions of views, leading to South Korea banning the tune due to “psychological warfare.”

Seoul’s media regulator on Monday announced it was blocking access to versions of “Friendly Father,” the cheery propaganda hit that became an unlikely social media sensation.

The song was unveiled in April during a nighttime concert to mark the completion of a housing project in the capital Pyongyang, according to North Korean state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Its lyrics praise Kim – the third-generation leader of one of the world’s most autocratic nations – as “a great leader and a friendly parent,” and the music video depicts North Koreans enthusiastically belting out the orchestral song proclaiming that Kim “takes care of us with affection.”

While North Korean propaganda is nothing new, the difference this time is that “Friendly Father” was posted on TikTok – whose owner is Chinese internet giant ByteDance. The song went viral after content creators around the world used it to make their own edits of the music video adding dances and unserious captions to their own short one-minute clips on the platform, garnering over 2 million views.

But it wasn’t necessarily a propaganda coup for Pyongyang.

“This isn’t Gen Z suddenly declaring allegiance for the regime,” said Alexandra Leonzini, a Cambridge University scholar conducting research on North Korean music.

“They’re laughing at the regime not with the regime.”

Nonetheless, South Korean security officials came down on the parodies. The Korea Communications Standards Commission decided to block 29 videos of the song, following a request from Seoul’s National Intelligence Service. But some versions of the song on YouTube were still accessible to users in South Korea as of Wednesday.

“The video is typical content linked to psychological warfare against South Korea, as it was posted on a channel operated to connect with the outside world and mainly focused on unilaterally idolizing and glorifying Kim,” the regulator said in a statement.

The ban was not a surprise, as the country’s National Security Act blocks access to North Korean government websites and media, restricting exposure to Kim’s autocratic regime and penalizing behaviors promoting its authoritarian and nuclear-armed neighbor.

More than 90% of the reclusive state’s propaganda songs are about idolizing its leader and “Friendly Father” is no different, said Ha Seung-hee, visiting professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University.

But it does show an improvement in production values, and could signal a new propaganda strategy for the country.

The music video of "Friendly Father" went viral on TikTok. - KCTV
The music video of "Friendly Father" went viral on TikTok. - KCTV

“North Korea’s music videos used to show nature and scenery, like something you’d see at a karaoke with subtitles… but now, it’s changed,” Ha said, adding that “Friendly Father” appears to have used better choreography and video editing.

“North Korea didn’t intend it, but whether it was the algorithm or something else, the video got attention and once Pyongyang learns that it is effective, it can make new content in this method,” Ha said.

North and South Korea have been cut off from each other since the Korean War in 1953 ended with an armistice. The two sides are still technically at war, but both governments have long sought the goal of one day reunifying, and still view each other as hostile.

Millions of North Koreans live in impoverished conditions under totalitarian dictatorship, which has continued for over seven decades spanning three generations of the Kim dynasty. The regime controls everything from food rations, access to education and assignment of jobs, and people are often put into grueling work camps.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com