Juche Pop: New Assessments of the Moranbong Band

By | September 28, 2012 | No Comments

Moranbong Band Performing for Kim Jong-un, et. al., in Pyongyang, August 25, 2012 | Photo via NK Leadership Watch


Juche Pop: New Assessments of the Moranbong Band

by Adam Cathcart

What does it mean when the North Korean state endeavors to update the revolution, artistically speaking?

The the DPRK resides within a historical space that remains very much in the mould of a Leninist unitary Party-State, at the same time overlaid and strengthened by ethnic unity which the Soviet Union and the founding fathers of the PRC would have envied.  Taken futher into account the strength of Korean court traditions, and one recognizes that the above question is still a hardly a simple one to answer.

When even Uriminzokkri, a foreign arm of DPRK state propaganda, is using “Gangnam Style” to parody South Korea’s lack of introspection about the harsh years of dictatorship in the early 1970s, you know that new models for revolutionaries are needed.

The DPRK has put out several rather interesting statements recently on the subject of “cultural infiltration” which are worth quoting in full, if only to emphasize that the state is highly sensitive to any kind of cultural exchange that could lead to contamination of the socialist purity that, at least nominally, domestically holds sway in the DPRK.

While scarcely a single Western news story goes by that does not remind us that the North engages in an actively defined program paranoia about, and suppression of, inside information, we also need to note that suppression is but one side of the coin: North Korea is also engaging in an active program of updated cultural production that is intended to absorb new idioms and transmute or turn them to the advantage of the revolution.

A new television station for university students, unveiled last month, seems intended to do just that.  New propaganda methods and updated KCTV sets sprung up over the summer.  And there is no better symbol of this notion of putting old revolutionary wine into new aesthetic forms than the Moranbong Band.

Intelligent analyses of the Moranbong Band are hard to find.  Although we at SinoNK have published a fair amoung of this kind of work, the band still lacks a simple Wikipedia page, and most journalistic outlets left their analysis at the Mickey Mouse level back in June, not returning to the theme, much less asking what role the ensemble was playing in North Korean society or what its connection to the leadership might be.

One never wants to be off in the wilderness of analysis, so it is good to find this analysis of the group from a reputable source in Paris.  While some readers might find the overall acceptace of the Moranbong’s mission objectionable, there is no doubt that the writer has a strong grasp, new ideas about the group’s meaning in the DPRK, and is worth reading.

AAFC, “Débuts du groupe Moranbong : symphonie pour une révolution inachevée [Symphony for an Unfinished Revolution: AAFC on the Moranbong Band]” AAFC, August 19, 2012.

Newly created at the initiative and under the direction of Kim Jong Un, the Moranbong Band made its major concert premiere onJuly 6, 2012, rebroadcast thereafter [on Korean Central Television].  The Moranbong Band gave a second concert, on July 28, marking the occasion of the end of the Korean War, in the presence of foreign diplomatic representatives.

Completely respecting the traditional forms of the Democractic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK/North Korea), the Moranbong Band – exclusively feminine, and directed by Sonu Hyang-hui — proceeds from the adaptation of traditional Korean songs and into the reprising of foreign songs through the musical arrangements of the innovative [Sonu Hyang-hui].

Accordingly, this creates a type of audacious marriage between classical music and more contemporary styles.  According to the North Korean agency KCNA, it is the will of leader Kim Jong-un to open “a spectacular turn in the domain of arts and literature” this year, at the opening of the second century of the Juche era.

If the AAFC [Association for French-Korean Friendship] does not share the conclusions and the orientations of Adam Cathcart – who, nevertheless, will occasionally refer to our articles – his analysis offers an interesting illumination of the DPRK.

In an article published on 12 July, he pertinently acknowledges the musical preoccupations of Kim Jong-un, the First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, who has realized the heritage of Leader Kim Jong Il and President Kim Il Song, [the latter of whom] was “an organist and who could speak with some finesse about the sense of modulation.”

In this context, the premiere performance of the Moranbong Band, created at the initiative of leader Kim Jong-un, given on July 6, offers an illustration of the artistic evolution presently underway in the DPR of Korea…. [article continues]

Commentary |  The AAFC called it a “major concert premiere,” which is precisely right: such a designation opens the possibility and the certainty of smaller private concerts prior to the big debut, which almost certainly accurately “reperiodizes” the history of the group and gives one a clearer immediate sense of the timeline of their development. This leads us to new questions which are consequential: “Was Moranbong Band sprung fully formed from the head of Kim Jong Un only after his father died?,” or, “Was the Moranbong Band developed far earlier, as seems likely?”

If the DPRK was already moving in a more globalized direction when Kim Jong il was in charge, the calculus of boldness (Kim Jong-un’s bold direction in culture: new or continuity?) becomes significantly changed.

Immeidately, in the second paragraph, again the AAFC gets the important facts straight.  The main purpose of the band’s second concert – which the mainstream media mangled – was diplomatic.

Finally, to conclude with some writing of Jimin Lee, the Performing Arts Analyst for SinoNK:

The work of Park Jung Lan, researcher at the Research Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, answers some of these questions. Summarizing his remarks to Monthly magazine ‘North Korea’, Park states (in paraphrase): The Moranbong Band’s appearance in public is to meet the desire of the people in the era of information.  As the result of their performance, the North Korean leadership with Kim Jong Un was getting recognized and the people began praising about their new approach with a hope for the betterment in their lives.

Park added: “But one thing should not be overlooked despite Moranbong band performing format changes.” In the content of socialist society, Park sees song lyrics from the previous concerts containing a strong commitment adhering to the regime.  Park said, “Therefore, the regime would reflect on the tastes of the public while sticking with socialism at the same time.” However, he warns that their dual strategy, publicized allowance and reclusive control, will ultimately bring “fatigue and prolonged un-satisfaction and cause more speculation.”

If Park’s assumption comes true, North Korean society, accumulated and amplified by conflicts and subtle sentiment of anger, ultimately would destroy the silence which has been accumlulating in the country. At this time when the increasing amount of external information is flowing into North Korea, the people’s awareness of the outside of the country is getting thicker accordingly. North Korean authorities cannot simply overlook these phenomena that would ultimately become unavoidable pressure.  The Moranbong Band is but one visible element in a necessary response to that looming time.

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  1. Slightly off-topic, but do you have an opinion on the theory that Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju is the same person as a singer of the same name? DailyNK has a story claiming that they are the same and the authorities are recalling CDs with her songs “over fears that information about Ri’s past could hinder efforts to forge her current image”.

  2. Gag, that’s a great question.

    Answering in full would require a more in-depth analysis of the March 8 Unhasu Orchestra concert, which is connected to the group’s trip to Paris (itself awash in Disney-flavored handbags for the high-income set). I’m working on the March 8 thing, but it’s going to be a while before I have anything resembling a definitive answer. There may have been a May Day concert which also bears looking into.

    The Daily NK story was quite fascinating; I’m waiting for confirmation from any other source on that as if true it’s obviously of significance. Is Ri supposed to be interpreted as just a simple Party girl from Chongjin? It might make her look “more Korean” but having study abroad experience (as she allegedly did in China, if she is indeed the singer), not to mention being strongly skilled in the performing arts, is ostensibly seen more positively in Kim Jong un’s Korea than ever before in the DPRK. So it has a bearing on the depth of the officially-sanctioned “internationalism” which is currently holding sway.

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