Soft Power on a Hardened Path: On DPRK Musical Performance

By | August 02, 2012 | No Comments

The Moranbong Band’s Second Performance, Pyongyang | Rodong Sinmun, July 31, 2012

In the wake of the media excitement over what can only be described as Kim Jong Un’s surprising public relations offensive, a number of commentators have emerged with cool heads, urging that the twin appearance of the Disney-and-“Rocky”-loving Moranbong Band and Kim Jong Un’s wife be interpreted as:

a Disney Move: “An extremely simplistic and practically meaningless PR activity  (Chris Green)

– an “Entertainment Tonight makeover,” but still a dictatorship (Blaine Harden)

– no laughing matter (Hell, no,” Aidan Foster-Carter)

We at SinoNK are of the mind that these critiques by our colleagues are important and need to be read and respected (thus the links).  By the same token, we tend to agree with B.R. Myers that analyzing cultural artifacts (and their evolving and non-evolving elements) and their roles within North Korean official media/propaganda discourse remains an equally necessary and even urgent task.

 Why urgent, and why necessary?  Necessary because the DPRK may in fact survive, and this is the culture we are faced with. It may be that the Moranbong Band is the be-all and end-all of Kim Jong Un’s desire for change, that they will continue to celebrate the Korean People’s Army, take tours to China, set official musical and performance taste in the DPRK for the next fifteen years. Urgent because we have more questions than are being answered in other venues, and ways of grappling with the present data in ways that have not yet been done.

In the next two weeks, we anticipate publishing multiple essays about the meaning of apparent cultural shifts in North Korea and beyond. This task begins and continues with our Performing Arts Analyst, Jimin Lee. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief   

Soft Power on a Hardened Path: On DPRK Musical Performance  

by Jimin Lee

The July reports on the Moranbong Band concert in Pyongyang created a wave of speculations on the direction of the country: whither North Korea? If generating such speculation was in fact  what the North Korean regime had intended, we fell for their trick again: They want the attention and recognition. Therefore, the entire notion of this concert is not too different in its intent and effect from their latest missile launch in April, only that their use of the medium is the concert. While the missile was “Unhasu,” this time it is with an electronic violin, through “Moranbong”.

Kim Jong Un’s Role |  The Moranbong Band performance was staged on July 6th, and made its debut after being assembled by Kim himself. The concert included the traditional folk tune “Arirang” as well as a number of upbeat foreign songs – out of the ordinary, but with precedent. Kim Jong Un gave instructions and guidelines for this concert. Therefore, the question is whether these indicate imminent “change” or even if they presage anything at all.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor based in Seoul, South Korea, said the changes may be a sign Kim Jong Un seeks to carve out a different image from his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, by easing restrictions on Western culture. The Korea Herald also comments that including characters popular in the West — particularly from the United States, North Korea’s wartime enemy — is a notable change in direction for performance arts in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un himself says, “We should both create our original and traditionally wonderful things and accept good things from other countries boldly, and then make it as our own.” KCNA assures that Kim Jong Un has a “grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year.”

Stephan Haggard points out that Kim Jong Un has instituted a change in leadership style but that doesn’t necessarily translate into substance.  Haggard said of Kim that “He seems to have a very different ruling style — more engaged, more public — but I see nothing pointing toward any reformist inclinations.”

Nevertheless, Kim Jong Un appears to possess – or is at least advised to appear to possess — a coherent philosophy for the modernization of the form and the dissemination of North Korean propaganda without meaningfully changing its content. Choi Won Ki, a reporter from the Voice of America, commented that, “there wouldn’t be any changes that their oppositional state predicts…the North still puts their feet on their land; while looking out to the world. ”

These remarks from Kim Jong Un as well as the scholars who study his words and deeds remind us that the Moranbong concert was surely based above all on Pyongyang’s will to enhance the regime and displayed its willingness to take steps to change its tactics.

The Concert as Musical Diplomacy?  |  With the DPRK displaying changes on one hand, the US should remind the DPRK that the benefits Pyongyang could obtain through renewed talks – food and other assistance, and improvement in the lives of the North Korean people, an end to hostility, security guarantees, normalized diplomatic and economic ties, membership in international financial institutions, etc – are still on the table if the North is prepared to change its approach to relations with the United States and the international community. The United States for its part says it will judge intentions by actions, not words – and by extension, music.

To date, none of these benefits individually or as a comprehensive package  has been sufficient to convince Pyongyang to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. However, Pyongyang tries to stay in cultural connection with the outside world by showing the characteristics of western forms of the performance. If the North is indeed becoming more vulnerable, and if the US is prepared to press the North even harder than it has in the past, the DPRK may come to know the futility of the path it is on. If they claim that to be “their way” that won’t be the path leading to the change we hope to see. The article on LA Times sums up the dilemma well: “It’s still ‘My Way’ or the Highway under North Korea’s Kim

Looking Forward: Greater Changes, or Just Juche-ist Consolidation? |  If we view the concert as manifesting changes in the form of girls wearing short outfits and Disney characters in the background, we should also think about what other background dimensions or latent changes of North Korean social or political events are consistent with the concert as a symbol of change.

If that change is supported by Kim family’s Juche ideology, we should also anticipate other signs of reconciling the dialectical conflict posed by a communist state finding its role in a globalized world.  If that dialectic demands that the rest of the world pays more attention to North Korea then it is supported by a missile launch (Western technology), as well as a concert that installed the Disney characters as well as the modernized outfits, songs, or instruments (Western culture).  Taken together, these are two concrete ways to “… both create (North Korean) original and traditionally wonderful things and accept good things from other countries boldly, and then make it as (DPRK)s own.”

If this is the case, it is a clear sign that at least at the ideological basis, there is a return to a classical dialectic model and movement away from a strictly “juche” ideology. Such wider apparatuses of the communism infrastructure support the concert, but often it is misled only when there is an outstanding cultural event that we hastily register their possible change. The “Juche“ or “Communism” conflict is easily lost into view as a possibly removable notion in North Korea when we encounter a soft power in the hardened path.

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