The Korean Wave’s Northern Undertow: Cultural Hybridity and the Moranbong Band

By | June 25, 2013 | 4 Comments

Winnie the Pooh and Moranbong, too: "Cultural hybridity" in the DPRK | Image: KCNA

Winnie the Pooh and Moranbong, too: “Cultural hybridity” in the DPRK | Image: KCNA

Following a boom in the 2000s, the Korean pop cultural phenomenon, or Hallyu, has garnered attention from media critics, social commentators, and academics across a variety of disciplines. As culturally hybrid products, Eunmee Kim and Jiwon Ryoo claim that Hallyu products have distinct “odors” or “fragrance” that identify their origin. K-Pop artists’ hybridity is confusing to Western audiences, Kim and Ryoo claim, because in mass American markets the singer “was not ‘exotic’ or ‘Asian’ enough to the critics’ eyes and a mere copy of the US stars.” North Korea remains an exotic cultural commodity in the US, but has shied away from mimicry of American pop norms. 

Sherri L. Ter Molen examines the potential for the Moranbong Band (모란봉악단), a North Korean all-female musical performance group formed directly by Kim Jong-un in 2012, to appeal to foreign audiences in a way similar to Hallyu products. Using two 2012 examples of South Korean singing acts as points of comparison, Ter Molen posits that rather than leveraging any “odor,” the Moranbong’s fragrance may be diluted by the overpowering discourse on North Korea and the expectations for global pop. — Darcie Draudt, Assistant Editor

The Korean Wave’s Northern Undertow: Cultural Hybridity and the Moranbong Band

By Sherri L. Ter Molen

In May 2013, Psy became the first South Korean to win a US Billboard Music Award when he walked away with the trophy for the Top Streaming Song (Video) for “Gangnam Style.” Psy was not the first K-pop star to make inroads in the United States, but he certainly made the biggest splash so far in the American advance of the Korean Wave. The Korean Wave is the English translation of Hallyu, a term coined in China in the 1990s to describe the ever-growing popularity of South Korean pop culture across Asia.[1]

To date, there is not a comparable term, in Chinese, English, or Korean, for North Korean pop culture. And with YouTube music videos such as “North Korea Army Music: Death to US-Imperialism (미제가 덤벼들면 죽음을 주리),” it is not surprising that North Korean music has not garnered legions of US fans or that its artists have not claimed Billboard Music Awards. Times are changing, however. NK-pop may not be popular in the United States today, but no one predicted that South Korea’s “Gangnam Style,” a song recorded primarily in Korean but with high-energy Western dance beats, would peak at number two on the US-based Billboard Hot 100 music chart in September 2012 either.

Moranbong Takes the Stage: Cultural Flows into and out of the DPRK | If a candidate exists that might represent the edge of a possible NK-pop invasion, it is surely the Moranbong Band, which debuted at a concert for Kim Jong-un in July 2012—not incidentally, the same month in which Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was released. With its all-female band members dressed in sparkling mini-dresses and playing electric instruments with upbeat fervor, this North Korean group’s musical style veered tremendously from that of state propaganda and other popular music such as this rendition of “Rimjin River (림진강).”  The Moranbong’s divergence from key regime propaganda themes, however, did not so much capture the attention of the US press at this remarkable concert; instead, the foreign press focused almost exclusively on the event’s unauthorized use of Disney-copyrighted costumed characters, music, and film footage.

Despite its apparent foray into the realm of Western-centric globalized culture, Moranbong might still have seemed more foreign than familiar to the US press even when playing a medley of tunes pilfered from various Disney soundtracks. Cultural hybridity theory posits that local cultures reimagine and incorporate elements of foreign cultures into their own. This theory, however, does not account for the possibility that globalized culture can overshadow the local elements to the extent that hybrid products may actually be globalized culture simply repackaged for local audiences.[2] Unfortunately, there is not a precise recipe for the “correct” level of hybridity that will retain a local culture while at the same time also appeal to global audiences. The New York Times, chastised South Korean superstar, Rain, when he performed at Madison Square Garden in February 2006, accusing him or being a Korean rehash of Michael Jackson, Babyface, Justin Timberlake, George Michael, and Usher. In contrast, Moranbong’s performance of an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” was reminiscent of over-synthesized noraebang tunes or the soundtracks of old Asian films that aired on late night television in the United States decades ago. Therefore, it is possible that the local-to-global ratio might have been where the progressive turn of Moranbong was obscured in the eyes of the US media.

Power Goes Pop: Peninsular Pursuits of Soft Power | Pop culture is a building block of soft power, which “is just as important as hard command power… If [a state’s] culture and ideology are attractive, others will more willingly follow.”[3] For this reason, the South Korean government developed a campaign in the 1990s to promote the country as a worldwide brand with national image, identity, and pop culture as essential components.[4] This soft power success has been salient in the political arena. The father of video art, Paik Nam-june attended a state dinner at the White House in 1998 where he shook hands with US President Bill Clinton, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung invited Jang Gong-gun and Kim Nam-ju, two Korean drama actors who were extremely popular in Vietnam at the time, to a state dinner with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong in 2001. Even Park Geun-hye had to nod to “Gangnam Style” at her Presidential inauguration this past spring, associating herself with the man who had performed for the Obama family on the television broadcast of Christmas in Washington, appeared on popular daytime programs such as The Today Show and Ellen, and even starred in an advertisement for Wonderful Pistachios that aired during the Super Bowl.

North Korea has been framed in the media as an adversary of the United States, a human right violator, and a military threat,[5] and its pop culture such as the Arirang mass games have been ridiculed by the US press for exhibiting “strange conformity” among the North Korean people.[6] In addition, North Korean films have rarely been screened in the United States perhaps because, as Crossing the Line Director Daniel Gordon notes, the DPRK covets them as “national treasures”[7] but perhaps also because the United States imports few North Korean products overall due to trade sanctions. If North Korea would want to open up to the world—whatever “open up” may mean—developing its soft power could be a catalyst. To this end, the DPRK government, which has been so adept at managing its image within the country, may be trying to change its global image by leveraging its soft power with the introduction of Moranbong.

Gee! Hallyu Girls and Cultural Hybridity | Here on Sino-NK, Draudt and Lee compare Moranbong to the South Korean girl group Girls’ Generation, and there are some similarities including the all-female rosters, the slender body types, and even the groups’ dance moves. Yet, Girls’ Generation has received much more attention from the US media than its North Korean counterpart. Girls’ Generation reached “a new level of mainstream American exposure” in early 2012 when it performed an English version of its song, “The Boys,” on the American talk show, Late Night with David Letterman. With its three American-born members, its embrace of the English language, and its desire to emulate “nine Beyoncés,” Girls’ Generation clearly reflects a Western-centric global identity. This is not to say that the group is devoid of a South Korean identity altogether. One notable aspect of Hallyu, despite The New York Times review of Rain’s performance, may be that it retains aspects of Koreanness unlike Japanese pop culture, which has been called “odorless” because global audiences are not always able to identify its country of origin.[8] To the contrary, when Girls’ Generation performed on Letterman, the host introduced the group as follows:

Our next guests are a very popular group from South Korea who have just released their first album in America. It’s entitled “The Boys.” Please welcome, making their network television debut, Girls’ Generation.

Letterman noted the origin of the band and even thanked them in Korean after their performance, suggesting that the balance between the Beyoncé-aspirations and “kamsahamnida (감사합니다)”comprise a favorable hybrid identity.

It’s Been a Long Road, Baby: The Roots of Korean Pop’s Global Appeal | Notwithstanding, Girls’ Generation did not achieve this success on its own. Three years before “Gangnam Style” but without quite as much fanfare, “Nobody” by the Wonder Girls was the first South Korean song to wedge its way onto a US Billboard music chart when it appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 2009. And before Psy, Girls’ Generation, and the Wonder Girls each made their marks in the United States, there were earlier generations of South Korean musicians who did not penetrate the US mainstream market despite hybrid aspects. The Father of Korean Rock, Shin Joong-hyun, and the first Korean rap group, Seo Taiji and Boys,[9] were relatively unknown in the United States during the heights of their popularity in South Korea. Yet, these artists paved the way for future generations of K-pop stars domestically and abroad.

Although Moranbong may be the most hybridized band in DPRK history, trading their neck-to-floor hanbok for Western-style mini-dresses and playing the “Theme from Rockyinstead of “We Shall Hold Our Bayonets More Firmly,” it is unlikely that the band will charge onto the US music scene itself since its hybrid ratio still leans toward the North Korean rather than the Western-centric globalized end of the scale. Moranbang’s music may seem progressive to North Korean ears, but US audiences are unlikely to interpret it as such when compared to the sounds of current chart-topping pop starlets like Selena Gomez or Rihanna. Moreover, while Moranbong’s costumes may seem risqué to North Korean eyes, they are much more modest than what seems to be the norm for American female entertainers such as Lady Gaga or Christina Aguilera. Nevertheless, Moranbang, like the early hybrid cultural products of South Korea, may end up paving the way for future generations of NK-pop groups, which may eventually learn to decode the formula for appealing to the global audiences.

If Moranbong was created for international as well as domestic audiences as Draudt and Lee propose, the US media may not be able to ignore Moranbong or future NK-pop bands forever. North Korea may be testing the waters for a cultural tsunami of its own and may be ready to embark on a prolonged campaign to bolster its soft power. If so, the challenge will be to find hybrid identities for the DPRK’s cultural products that will resonate with global audiences while also maintaining North Korea’s unique cultural heritage. But with just the right hybrid blend and a single YouTube video hit like Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” North Korean soft power may one day reshape American perceptions of the country and its people, deflating decades of negative US news coverage, and an NK-pop star may then take home North Korea’s first US Billboard Music Award.

Further Readings

Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee, “Packaged and Controlled by the Masculine State: Moranbong Band and Gender in New Chosun-Style Performance,” Sino-NK, May 3, 2013.

Jimin Lee, “Soft Power on a Hardened Path: On DPRK Musical Performance,” Sino-NK, August 2, 2012.

Adam Cathcart, “Let Them Eat Concerts: Music, the Moranbong Band and Cultural Turns in Kim Jong-un’s Korea,” Sino-NK, July 12, 2012.


[1] Chua Beung Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi, “Introduction East Asian TV Dramas: Identifications, Sentiments and Effects,” in East Asian Pop Culture: Analysing the Korean Wave, ed. Chua Beung Huat and Koichi Iwabuchi (Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2008).

[2] Dal Yong Jin, “Critical Interpretation of Hybridization in Korean Cinema: Does the Local Film Industry Create a Third Space?” Javanost-The Public (2010): 58.

[3] Joseph S.Nye Jr., “Soft Power,” Foreign Policy 80 (1990): 167.

[4] Woongjae Ryoo, “The Political Economy of the Global Mediascape: The Case of the South Korean Film Industry,” Media, Culture, & Society 30, 6 (2008): 880-881.

[5] Jeongsub Lim and Seo, Hyunjin, “Frame Flow Between Government and the News Media and Its Effects on the Public: Framing of North Korea,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 21, no. 2 (2009): 204 -223.

[6] ABC Primetime North Korea: Inside the Shadows, DVD, Directed by Roger Goodman and Eric Siegel (New York, NY: ABC News, 2006).

[7] “An Interview with Director Daniel Gordon,” Crossing the Line. DVD. Directed by Daniel Gordon (New York, NY: Kino Lorber Home Video, 2006).

[8] Koichi Iwabuchi, Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism (Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2002,) 2. Cited by Sun Jung, Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption (Aberdeen: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 3.

[9] Mark James Russell, Pop Goes Korea (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2008), 140-147.

4 Comments

  1. Huh? Most Kpop fans will tell you (and I’ve been into Kpop since 2004) that they prefer Kpop to Jpop because it sounds more like American pop. Everything from the production of the music to the videos themselves. And Jpop has had a huge influence on Kpop…

  2. The Jimin Lee essay you cited raised this issue of possible foreign tours, which is rather intriguing.

    Could it also be argued that Moranbong Band is being used primarily in a kind of “cultural defensive” by Kim Jong-un? With this group, he gets to tell North Korean youth that DPRK culture is modernized and that they’re able to enjoy a bit of fun (along with a massive amount of traditional socialist culture, to be sure), but it’s a bit more like an inoculation than a cultural wave within the country, unless you see changes in clothing fashion, etc. to be part of an updating wave. The writing about the Children’s Union by Christopher Robinson would seem to indicate that things on the whole are remaining relatively stable/orthodox for North Korean kids in the cultural realm.

    The other aspect that Moranbong obviously handles is military morale and support for the Songun agenda. The debut concert was obviously the most “liberal” of all of their shows, and, had the repertoire and the visual backdrops stayed along those lines, then we might see it as more geared toward foreign audiences. But their concerts in October 2012, New Year’s 2013, and April appearances all seemed to prevaricate very much toward support of the country’s military and missile programs. That evolution is quite interesting, and I wonder if it reflects some internal debate about the limits of their repertoire, presentation, and the overall goals of the group. There is that slogan about “keeping feet firmly planted in Korea, looking out over the world” that they seem in many ways to embody: A selective absorption and reflection of external norms, rendered back in a very North Korean fashion.

    I haven’t yet seen footage of their recent performance in Kanggye, but would welcome anyone leaving a link. I would suspect that, given the arms-production going on in that city, that they were there to again spark production. In other words, the Moranbong is proving to be more Stakhanovite exhortation rather than cosmopolitan icons, or, perhaps they are both, which in a way is rather fitting for today’s DPRK.

  3. I very much like the idea of thinking of DPRK’s capacity for “soft power” — although they themselves have not picked up this lingo (to my knowledge, they haven’t, but their Chinese comrades very much have and debate it actively), the North Korean leadership and cultural apparatus certainly tries to project it. Steven Denney and I have a manuscript under review at present that deals with the “North Korean ‘soft power'” topic with regard to the Unhasu Orchestra visit to Paris in March 2012, etc. If Moranbong were able to get more of their original music beyond the boundaries of DPRK, that would certainly help, and I don’t believe sanctions apply to musical tours, as long as the musicians aren’t buying flat-screen computers and bringing them back home…

    See also: http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2010/06/11/2010061100432.html

    Cheers, and thanks for an interesting and valuable addition to the Moranbong Band literature.

  4. I regard the Moranbong Band in exactly the “inoculation” way hypothesized above. Creating an entity that the people of North Korea can be told “does things our way” while wisely “taking the best of Western culture and keeping out the worst,” just as a sage matriarchal ruler and ruling party should.

    Equally, it fits notions of creating a societal domain consensus through media, allowing the authorities to lay out the limits of what it will do for the people, and what it expects the people to do for it, thus in some senses replacing the role of a free press and press secretaries from ministries and departments.
    More of that in my essay for Sino-NK this weekend, or so they say…

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