Upstaging Dystopia: Adam Johnson and Suk-Young Kim on North Korea’s Performance Culture

By | May 08, 2012 | No Comments

Along with some fine displays of military bravura and a notable speech by the new North Korean leader-commissar (before he retired to enjoy a smoke), April was a month during which foreigners shone their bright talents as entertainers for the Pyongyang elite.  Now those musicians and jugglers and PLA singers (no true jesters were allowed, sadly) all appear to have gone home, and the stage has been occupied again by the Unhasu Orchestra, the regime’s ensemble of choice.  More to the point, sources inside of North Korea indicate that a long summer of rehearsals is about to start for another round of Mass Games and Arirang.  Thus the time is good to forge forward with investigations of what lies at the root of this culture of performance, and therefore welcome SinoNK’s Performing Arts Analyst, Jimin Lee. – Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Upstaging Dystopia: Adam Johnson and Suk-Young Kim on North Korea’s Performance Culture

by Jimin Lee

Author Adam Johnson’s second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is a fictional account of a young man’s passage through North Korea – a country unknown, unseen and, at times, locked in futility before the death of its “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il. Johnson, who traveled to North Korea and spent years learning about the country, discusses his interpretation of the country and fascination with propaganda through his novel.

The question of music and performance, then, comes up repeatedly in Johnson’s work, and his work brings us closer to the question of how, if ever, the performance divide can be bridged with North Korea. What did he think, for instance, of the possibility of a North Korean musical ensemble visiting the US?

In an interview with, Adam Johnson expressed his opinion about the North Korean Symphony Orchestra’s possible visit:

Certainly their musicians play with great precision, but it must be remembered that such virtuosity is extolled by the government, and, as in the Arirang mass games, is used as proof of both the regime’s sense of its own greatness and its power to force the people to conform. What’s missing is real artistry, by which I mean a musician’s ability to create or interpret songs that speak of their own personal views on life under the Kim regime.

Johnson’s analysis, like his novel, calls to mind the question of manufactured realities and the potency of propaganda to change the everyday in North Korea.

The performance in North Korea creates theatrical realities and evokes dichotomous links to natural reality. If North Korea’s orchestral diplomacy is their political tactic, music as a form of representation can work to both dramatize and naturalize this performance. The orchestra break the absolute divide between politics and arts, but people do not see the real world of North Korea as it was represented in performance images.

Staging Utopia |  Does the function of a symphony orchestra bring a new way of seeing the North Koreans for individuals living outside of the DPRK? The book by Suk Yong Kim, Illusive Utopia, describes the country’s performing paradox as “Staging Utopia, Upstaging Dystopia.”

The book reveals why the tourists from both socialist states as well as traditionally hostile states such as Japan and the United States are completely mesmerized by the grand scale of the Arirang Festival.  She writes:

Although the Arirang Festival was deployed as a lavish ode to the supremacy of the North Korean leader, there had to be a body of spectators to witness and testify to the glorious display of state power. Consequently, publicity for the festival accentuated the presence of awe-inspired spectators, many of whom were identified as foreigners.

With its significance to the supremacy of the regime, the performances are praised by foreign visitors who marvel at the unbelievable scale and artistic excellence of the performance, at least according to a North Korean propaganda item excerpted by Suk-Young Kim:

A Canadian tourist, John Isaac, confessed he did not believe 100,000 people could really participate in the show. But when he saw the unbelievable scale of the performance, he had to take a deep breath. He regretted that he could not take this performance to his home country. A German tourist, Rudolf Hagen Juhler, sighed as the show ended, because he did not take a single photo, as he was completely captivated by the magnificent spectacle. A Japanese tourist Sakamoto Takashi’s remarks: “My heart is not that weak. But even my healthy heart cannot handle the excitement of the Arirang performance.”

Suk-Young Kim clearly views these remarks as an indication of the absence of freedom of speech in the official North Korean media. Their reflection reveal North Korea’s directorial intention of staging not only an amazing spectacle but also uniformly positive responses from the international audiences whom the state imagined as essentially compliant, or even reverent of the regime.

DPRK violinist Mun Kyong Jin performs French Romantic repertoire in Paris in March 2012; Rodong Sinmun likens his talent to nuclear weaponry | Click the image for performance video

In this way, the responses to Arirang mirrored those of French audience members quoted by the “Rodong Sinmun News Team in Paris” this past March, in awe of the Unhasu Orchestra’s prowess and emotive capabilities:

◇ Bouquet to the Great Men of Korea
Citizens, actors and actresses of Paris crowded the theater where the performance was going on. Among them were many participants in the April Spring Friendship Art Festival to commemorate the birthday of President Kim Il Sung. They told many things about the lofty traits of President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il who would be glad to see their performance.

Violinist Mun Kyong Jin played “Rondo Capriccio” by Saint-Saens, [and] the audience was enchanted by his excellent skill. As soon as his performance was over, wild cheers went up, together with a loud applause.

A French Politician said; “Korea astonished the world with nuclear weapon. It launched earth satellites, too. Above all, Korea’s miracle in art has come as a great surprise to me. Leader Kim Jong Il is indeed the great man who, firmly adhering to the independence despite the pressure and sanction of the West, brought the Korean music and art to such a high. The demise of Kim Jong Il, a great statesman, is a big loss not only to the world political circle but to the human culture.”

A French public figure said; “Korea is indeed a modern country. I welcome Korean artists blessed by the suns of Korea like Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. I can see the bright future of Korea in the look of the performers, so lively and so vivacious. We all want to offer our bouquet to the great men of Korea.”

Mass performance in North Korea is probably the form of political representation most frequently and complexly associated with the supremacy of the North Korean leaders. As a compelling symbol of their political weapon, mass games gave foreigners and visitors the ability to build images in falsely detail, allowing them to transcend their unstable faith in the country to access bias of their own beliefs. Mass games as a form of representation signifies and reproduces a truthful false that cannot be refuted.

Dystopian Performance |  The recent media explosion over the issue of North Korean defectors repatriated back from China is also an example which demonstrates “ Illusive Utopia.” According to the defectors’ testimonies, the process of preparing a performance is functionally much more significant than the result. In more theoretical mode, Kim Yong Suk explains:

“For North Korean people, transforming daily lives into rehearsals dictates the precise inscription of the correct modes of self-presentation onto their bodies.”

In its basic principle, the forced performance in order to get foreign exchange is not so different from human trafficking. The regime confirms that repatriated refugees are at risk of imprisonment, forced labor, torture and even execution. According to defectors, the regime’s brutality towards the citizens includes the performers, and the notion orchestra diplomacy would not improve the current situation even under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Additional Resources:

Video footage of 2011 Arirang Mass Games (Part 1-3):

Jimin Lee, “Hybridization of Performance Scale: Missile Launch,”, May 3, 2012.

Jimin Lee,”North Korea’s Cha-Cha Dance with the U.S.,”, April 3, 2012.

Jimin Lee, “The Sea of Blood (Pibida) Opera Troupe Goes to China,”, February 20, 2012.

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