Empty Beat: On the Relative Worth of North Korean Revolutionary Music Ensembles
by Adam Cathcart
Is North Korea’s official musical culture in a state of ferment, i.e., change? What is the meaning of the sudden primacy of the Moranbong Band in the musical lives of the DPRK leadership? Do the very public musical activities surrounding Kim Jong-un indicate anything tangible about the future direction of his regime?
Taking the ictus, or the orchestral conductor’s stroke, as metaphor, an endeavor is made to develop these questions.
Downbeat: The Conventional Wisdom | The now-famous debut appearance of the Moranbong Band on July 6, 2012, has been more or less completely misread as a cheap nod to the United States (the source, after all, of Walt Disney’s hermetic utopia) and a false indication to the outside world that cultural flows in North Korea may be inclining to a more Western orientation.
As many North Korea watchers are wont to argue, the efforts at a “charm offensive” out of Pyongyang represent nothing more than a show. By extension, the argument goes, related North Korean efforts at promoting its Juche-inflected “soft power” are not indicative of any larger official impetus toward change. To the skeptics, cultural diplomacy is to be regarded as the DPRK’s effort to completely dupe the outside; we should thus ignore the signals sent, disregard any relationships established, and, presumably, get back to our satellite photos.
Ignoring the action on stage in Pyongyang – and North Korean performances around the Northeast Asian region – would be a particular folly. The ongoing entwining of the North Korean leadership with the evolving appearances of the Moranbong Band deserves more analysis, not less.
How is the North Korean state mobilizing its cultural/musical resources to promote regime legitimacy?
How is the North Korean state using musical forms to present new narratives about North Korea’s past and future, including the legacy of Kim Jong-il?
How is the North Korean state using musical ensembles to promote engagement with allies and spark interest among adversaries?
At SinoNK, we have already interpreted the smashing debut of the Moranbong group and the group’s subsequent appearances as being primarily about messaging high living standards to women in the DPRK (“Songun Miniskirt“, August 9), setting up acts of diplomacy with China (“Korean War Revivalism,” August 5) and putting old wine into new bottles (Jimin Lee, “Soft Power on a Hardened Path,” August 2).
Today, the question of Moranbong’s ascent versus the traditional musical architecture in Pyongyang is the centerpiece of analysis.
Weak Beat: Neglecting Father’s Operatic Legacy? | Before there was the Moranbong Band, there was an opera company known as Sea of Blood. What has the Moranbong Band’s appearance meant for this core group?
The Sea of Blood Troupe is arguably the cultural group in Pyongyang most fully associated with Kim Jong-il. He created it from scratch in 1971, and his creative work with the ensemble forms a pillar of the hagiographies about him, along with the film studio work.
Of late, DPRK state media has been prattling on about how Kim Jong-il’s primary contribution to the revolution occurred in 1960 when he was 18 years old — a transparent and clumsy ploy to make Kim Jong-un look like a grizzled old man and backdate the roots of the Songun policy ever further.
In the daily laudatio for Kim Jong-il of late, his work in the 1990s and the 1960s has been emphasized, but his work on films and movies in the 1970s decidedly fallow. Are residents of the DPRK have forgotten somehow that the Sea of Blood was one of his primary artistic achievements? The troupe and its repertoire is unmistakably and irrevocably associated with him. What is the purpose of opera in the new cultural climate?
Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un’s acts of artistic guidance have been multiple – he has written critiques of new songs for Rodong Sinmun, directed the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League to go on a binge of poetry and story-telling, and, of course, generated the Moranbong Band. Like father like son: Kim Jong-un is a veritable Minerva of artistic guidance and musical interests.
Why, then, does he delegate opera – the preferred art form of his father, the frustrated Wagnerite – to his elderly subordinates? (See SinoNK, “Why Opera Matters,” January 13, 2012.)
Since his father’s death, Kim Jong-un has yet to attend a single Sea of Blood performance.
Strong Beat: Opera Over the Yalu | In the aftermath of Kim Jong-il’s death, the Sea of Blood Opera Troupe has been almost exclusively used as a vehicle for public diplomacy with the People’s Republic of China. As noted in our Dossier No. 3, the troupe spent months at a time in China in 2012, and plans further performance tours in the PRC which will focus on adaptations of the Chinese repertoire.
This activity is not to be scoffed at: unlike the Moranbong Band, who can more or less pack up and fit its personnel and instruments into a single semi-trailer or road bus, the Sea of Blood goes on the road with over 180 individuals, a full complement of orchestral instruments and their own sets and stage crew. As anyone who has had a relatively extensive opera and vocal performing career (something I can only recall having had for 3-4 years), it is a huge production to take an opera company on the road or to work in one’s home theater. Whether or not China is footing the bill (either the state or some well-heeled Chinese businessmen looking for preferential treatment in the North Korean economy) for these tours, they represent a serious investment of cultural capital and energy by the DPRK in keeping its relationship with the PRC on solid footing.
The Sea of Blood Troupe tarried in Beijing for several days (perhaps more than a week?) after their final performance on July 22, 2012. On August 14, they performed a homecoming concert in Pyongyang, pointedly attended by the regime’s head of propaganda efforts, Kim Ki-nam, and officials from the Chinese embassy, along with other DPRK heavyweights. As ever, the DPRK was using the timing of opera performances to remind the Chinese counterparts of the positive turn the relationship was taking, and doing so on the very eve (August 10, anyway) of Jang Song-taek’s meetings about economic issues in the Chinese capital.
It is no small measure of the North Korean need to placate anxieties in Beijing in the lead up to the Jang visit that, this massive Sea of Blood tour having just successfully concluded, the Moranbong Band both played a concert commemorating China’s involvement in the Korean War and then promptly traveled to China, perhaps for private performances for Chinese leaders or the delegation of DPRK business bigwigs gathering in Beijing in anticipation of the arrival of Jang Song-taek.
An upbeat, “On the Relative Decline of the Unhasu Orchestra,” is intended for a subsequent essay. To be continued.
Tags: conductors in North Korea, Kim Jong-un and music, Kim Jong-un and opera, Kim Jong-un musical taste, Kim Ki-nam, Kim Ki-nam and North Korean outreach, Kim Ki-nam and propaganda, Moranbong Band, Moranbong Band and cultural change in DPRK, North Korean cultural policy, North Korean musical diplomacy, North Korean musical tours to China, North Korean soft power, public diplomacy in East Asia, Ri Sol-ju, Sea of Blood, Sea of Blood on the road, Sea of Blood Opera Troupe, Sino-DPRK cultural diplomacy