The Pibada (Sea of Blood) Opera Troupe Goes to China

By | February 20, 2012 | No Comments

Few countries in the world take the performing arts as seriously as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  But what role do these arts play in North Korea’s diplomacy, particularly in exchanges with China, its main foreign patron?  To what extent does a model work of art in North Korea, even supposedly focused on creating conditions for a “harmonious Northeast Asia”, really just serve to mirror the regime’s own glorious ideological reflections? To answer these questions, you could begin by spending a bundle of Euros on a great new book edited by Rudiger Frank (the Table of Contents and Intro of which opens as a pdf.).  Or, after putting Dr. Frank’s new text on your reading list (and wondering while you’re at it how Aidan Foster-Carter manages to be so prolific), you could read further on here, because Jimin Lee, the Performing Arts Analyst, now provides some critical commentary and factual depth on these critical questions in her first essay for — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The Pibada (Sea of Blood) Opera Troupe Goes to China

by Jimin Lee

The Pibada Opera Troupe, image courtesy of

The Pibada (Sea of Blood) Opera Troupe of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) performed “Butterfly Lovers” in China from October 2011 through January 2012. The opera was staged some 30 times in twelve different cities in China, including Beijing, Daqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Qingdao. Not simply the itinerary, but the scale of the production was vast, featuring 180 members of the Pibada Opera Troupe, the invited guests of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism. At least according to KCNA, the opera was a rousing success, proving that performance groups, particularly those associated with Kim Jong Il, play important roles in Chinese-Korean diplomatic affairs.  As KCNA described:

The opera, created under the wise leadership of Kim Jong Il, is a precious cultural treasure demonstrating the developed Juche-oriented arts and contributing to strengthening the DPRK-China friendship in the new century…

Chinese people, enjoying the opera, said that it was an excellent work truthfully representing their feelings. They also praised the creative talents of Korean artistes.

They expressed deep reverence for leader Kim Jong Il, saying that they learnt about his greatness through the wonderful performance.

The Pibada Opera Troupe is North Korea’s most important and widely represented  artistic organization. The Troupe was allegedly created by the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in Manchuria in 1936, and was later rechristened as the Pibada Opera Trope following the first performance of the “Sea of Blood” in 1971. Pyongyang hails “Pibada” as the best of DPRK’s five official “operas of revolution.” The others include include “Flower Selling Girl,” “Pibada (Sea of Blood),” “Genuine Daughter of the Workers’ Party,” “Song of Mount Kumgang,” and “Tell Story, Forest.”

The Troupe’s trip to China was intended to strengthen cooperation between China and North Korea, and “Butterfly Lovers” was chosen specifically because it is considered a symbol of friendly ties between Beijing and Pyongyang. The opera, a Chinese classic based on Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai’s thousand-year love story, received praise from at least one ranking Chinese official. The Secretary of the Qingdao City Party Committee told KCNA that “the performances successfully given by Korean artistes till their last one made a great contribution to deepening the friendship between the two countries.”

Most recently, the performance of the troupe upon its return to Pyongyang in January 2012 served as the first public conduit between the Chinese Ambassador and the top crust of the Korean Workers’ Party since the death of Kim Jong Il (see photo).

Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai (3rd on the left) enjoys "Butterfly Lovers" in Pyongyang with a handful of top North Korean leaders. Image courtesy Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang, via NK Leadership Watch, whose excellent round-up of the event can be accessed by clicking on the image.

In the meantime, the performance has been used as a propaganda tool for DPRK conveying the cultural philosophy of “juche (self-reliance)” of Kim Il Sung. China, which considered films and theatre as the ultimate propagandistic tools during the Cultural Revolution, now emphasizes artistic and commercial value after its market opening led by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. For North Korea, marketization of the cultural sphere is presently unthinkable.

The periodical People’s Korea characterizes the Sino-North Korean exchange as follows:

The China visit of the DPRK delegation made a great contribution to further developing of the traditional relations of friendship and cooperation between the two parties, two countries and two peoples of the DPRK and China and had a great influence on the development of the situation northeast Asia including the Korean peninsula and the world as a whole.

It further emphasizes that the “traditional DPRK-China friendship is unbreakable.”

Not only operas but other art forms in DPRK stays at the level of framing aimed at justifying the rule of North Korean leaders. DPRK’s cultural and artistic forms are used for propaganda and to highlight the economic benefits of the system for elites. Moreover, the arts ensure that the Workers’ Party  is able to inform the people of policy directions and, then, utilize the medium to activate Party members and convey the message through visualization. The performing arts in DPRK, rather than placing significant value on history, are used as a means to achieve the goal of placing greater emphasis on the Juche ideology of the regime.

Despite national condolence over Kim Jung Il’s recent death the performance was continued. During the serious flood in 1997 DPRK’s Arirang Performance was continuously run. According to its critics, this aggressive and pushy performance diplomacy escalates severe economic recession, famine and violations in DPRK. In 2007, the Daily NK asserted that the performance violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The cost of such large-scale performances, including food and power consumption is clearly very high. Considering the country’s deprived economic situation, the DPRK’s push to perform in China, while it provides a window to the outside by the 180 members of the troupe, may only strengthen the will of other people who simply want to leave the country.

Additional Videos:

1. Video1 : Pibada Opera Troupe’ performance, via KBS 1TV News

2. Video 2: Pibada Opera Troupe’s performance report, via YTN

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