Let Them Eat Concerts: Music, the Moranbong Band and Cultural Turns in Kim Jong Un’s Korea
Sometimes analysts fixate all of their energies on hard institutions, such as the central government, the military, or emergent non-governmental groups, as the primary drivers of society. Although government decrees, military drills and protests are important indicators, sometimes the less obvious — that which doesn’t involve rocket launches or social upheaval — tells an equal amount or at times more about what’s happening or what may happen in any given society. This ubiquitous but sometimes elusive force is culture. In a follow-up to his Foreign Policy essay with Isaac Stone Fish, SinoNK’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Cathcart highlights for readers some of the complexities of tracking cultural and musical changes in the North Korean context. – Steven Denney, Assistant Editor
Let Them Eat Concerts: Music, the Moranbong Band and Cultural Turns in Kim Jong Un’s Korea
by Adam Cathcart
North Korea continues its forward surge of propaganda promoting the “peerless genius” of Kim family leadership, now with new and sometimes surprising methods. Having reached its third generation, provocations from Pyongyang in the latest Kim era have tended to take the form of nuclear tests or threats to Seoul. But this past several weeks, unexpected provocations have emerged – in the area of culture.
Apart from recent staging of propaganda victories for returned defectors and departing and trussed ROK dissidents, North Korea has been busy painting a picture of Kim Jong Un’s leadership, bound up with new songs, new propaganda forms, and what – at first glance – appears to be a new cultural turn.
Musical Preoccupations | Music always represents fertile territory for national politics in North Korea, and nowhere has this been more true than in the case of Kim Jong Un. From a hereditary standpoint (see Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty), the man is unquestionably musical: his grandfather was an organist and could discourse intelligently on the meaning of modulation. His mother was a professional dancer. Like the fellow seeker of the Gesamtkunstwerk Richard Wagner, his father, Kim Jong Il, was highly inclined toward artistic women who happened to be married.
Kim Jong Il was far more than the mere musical dilettante of Western caricature: indeed, Kim Jong Il was a man who, through years of labor and under the clangorous pressure of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, produced extended North Korean operas that themselves merged rage against the colony along with Yanan sensibilities and folk-like instrumentation, and topped it all off with a harmonic mish-mash seemingly grabbed directly from the formal arsenal of French and Italian grand opera, and Tchaikovsky. In the service of “charismatic politics,” Kim Jong Il’s artistic eclecticism is much more than the Socialist kitsch it is assumed to be.
With their interest in music and performers, Kim Jong Un and his late father have direct counterparts in Europe and Asia. In China, the future Chairmain Xi Jinping is married to a diva, literally. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose slow plunge into the ignominy of defeat was mirrored almost precisely by Kim Jong Un’s gradual rise, was also married to an actively performing singer who managed to enchant the entire city of Shanghai. However, it is safe to say that in the Presidential mansions of Pyongyang, actual discussions of aria structure and selection of the national repertoire are a more common event than in the Champs Elyseé or in Zhongnanai, and far more linked to the regime’s legitimacy.
The North Korean juche philosophy and their history may be barnacled with a few million pages of bromides, lies, and fantasy (the fantasy of a nation that is without lies, guileless!) but when it comes to the musical arts, these North Korean men who are advised by tuneful lovers — if not formal wives — in Pyongyang are, we must admit, true throwbacks to the philosopher kings of yore. Musically speaking, and with apologies for the arbitrary imposition of an American perspective, the Kims are more J.F. Kennedy than L.B. Johnson. The cultivation of a national taste, and the desire to export that taste in what is today crassly called “soft power,” is a core preoccupation in the mansions, bunkers, and balconies of the DPRK leadership.
Curious Leitmotif | And thus it should be little surprise that the promotion of a new theme song associated with Kim Jong Un has reasserted the successor’s association with conventional, military-first themes. The official North Korean music video of the song includes exactly what we might expect from a leader whose debut speech mentioned the Army no fewer than 55 times: it has a Red Army-style chorus, very heavy military ostinato, along with torpedoes being shot into the water as an exact visual reprise of the ship-sinking motif associated with Kim Jong-un in his debut film in January 2012. Making it probably the last print newspaper on earth to include full songs in notation on its front page, Rodong Sinmun signaled that the whole North Korean people, foremost members of the Korean People’s Army, were required to learn the new tune and words straight away. Even if no one, including John Delury, could really define what the song’s “final victory” actually was, the standard socialist schlock about upward surges seemed to apply.
The fact that North Korea has dispatched whole legions of accordionists to educate the public and the Army about the song should not obscure one very important message of the song’s construction: rapid change is coming, and things may end very differently than where they began. This message is embedded in the harmonic progression: the song ends in a rather different key than it begins in.
Based on my own explorations of the North Korean song canon (soon to be released), it seems clear that this kind of unstable harmony is a rather rare formal occurrence in North Korean song literature.
What might it mean that the song does not end on the cadence in which it began? It may portend rather bracing and unexpected changes, or, perhaps stated more positively, the idea that the struggle is unfinished and that further revolution will be necessary. Leaping octaves are easy signals of glory for song composers, but the key change is an unanswered question in the decoding of Pyongyang’s messages about the successor whose image continues to molt even as it appears to stabilize.
A Dose of Cold Water | The visuals may have been a shock, and the electronic violins and cellos a surprise, but the debut concert of the Moranbong Band revealed that the basic idioms of North Korean “pop” music remain intact. Consider the fact that there is no Shostakovich or Prokoviev in Pyongyang; irony is still banned. Harsh triplets can only be used to denote the suffering of the colonial experience. Revolutionary opera and cantatas to the memory of Kim Jong Il still eat up much of the state’s substantial budgetary allocations for the musical arts. The “new music” represented by the all-female Moranbong Band is softly political without in the least being edgy. Who is Sonu Hyong Hui, described by KCNA as the head of the ensemble? Does North Korea have any intention of unleashing its legitimately avant-garde contemporary musical group, the Yun Isang Ensemble with a few bursts of bitonality, dissonance, or new digital axes?
Does not the appearance of the Moranbong Band represent a possible downsizing of the North Korean musical cultural project? Might it not render rather nervous the hundreds of orchestral players in Pyongyang, with their traditional training and repertoire? Might it not speed the demise of the conventional path to success toward which North Korean musicians devote whole decades of their lives?
There is still no heavy metal in Pyongyang. The sole example of a “North Korean hardcore” is almost certainly fake, drummed up by a devilishly creative girl with a tattoo in some dark quarter of Stockholm, Berlin, or Fukuoka. Do North Korean defectors ever climb into the mosh pit as precursors of Pyongyang punk?
Western scholars like E. Taylor Atkins have written more about jazz in colonial Korea than will ever exist about the “jazz scene” in North Korea. (Try a Google search sometime for “jazz in North Korea.”) Rason is not Shanghai, and the musicians aboard cruise ships catering to wealthy Chinese have but scanty knowledge of ragtime.
Think about the basic concept of hip-hop in North Korea. Or think about it for nineteen pages and explore a bunch of undisciplined footnotes, half of which are necessarily about Germany because there is no such thing as North Korean hip-hop. And until the Mass Games are turned toward fresh moves – the break-dancing breakdown of the eurhythmic, unison-breathing mass – coordination from above will remain the norm.
Apart from a handful of well-funded soloists who themselves are the modern equivalents of Lin Chenzhong (in that inflation of the personality cult is their job no. 1), North Korean music education continues to be based on notions of collective breath and motion. The ideology of unity, of the body serving the head of state, of the corporal Leviathan approach to statecraft, is evident in every collective breath. This could be justified as the embodiment of theories by the Swiss founder of the discipline of Eurythmics, but the fact remains that, so far as can be assessed, the suryeong has sucked all the oxygen out of the auditorium and the performers are simply recycling his brilliant thoughts and aspirations.
There is an immense road to travel before something basic is done to bridge these particular gaps. One concert, a few mini-skirts, and a small musical ensemble whose music is primarily intended to help the Big Guy relax does not a hundred flowers make. To mix metaphors, the emergence of the Moranbong Ensemble represents a significant but relatively minor shard on the tip of a huge iceberg that has shown no signs of fundamentally unmanageable weakness, much less a thaw.