Packaged and Controlled by the Masculine State: Moranbong Band and Gender in New Chosun-Style Performance
After an absence of nearly four months, the Moranbong Band recently returned to the national stage, doing so in a way that assured North Korean conservatives that the girls could have a salutary effect on military morale. Their attendance at an April 2013 martial arts demonstration gave the band’s members their first opportunity to themselves be entertained—by a bunch of commandos smashing rocks with their heads, no less. But soon enough, the women were safely back on stage, dancing along the edges of permissible harmonies and stage behavior. Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee explore how the Moranbong’s performing as a collective for the state, on behalf of the head of state, raises questions of the performing nation under the male gaze.—Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief
Packaged and Controlled by the Masculine State: Moranbong Band and Gender in New Chosun-Style Performance
by Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee
According to KCNA on July 7, 2012, Kim Jong-un organized the Moranbong Band as a calling of the new century, “prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins.” By analyzing the performances of the Morangbong Band, what can we discern about the role this music group plays for the North Korean state? Specifically, how can we read the Moranbong Band, as an all-female group performing at official state functions for party cadres and military officials?
Rather than being liberated, as an apparatus of the state, it may perhaps be more appropriate to explore how these women, as performers, are being utilized by the state to uphold two goals: first, by reifying the gender divide in Pyongyang official culture for the domestic audience; and second, as female performers of a New Chosun style of electronic music to attract international attention. Indeed, a close reading of their performances complicates the role of this band in the construction of gender in contemporary North Korea.
A New Chosun Girl Group | Compared to other North Korean high-level performance outfits, which feature both male and female musicians, the Moranbong Band is comprised exclusively of female members. The Bochunbo Electronic Music Band may perhaps be deemed the precursor to the Moranbong in revolutionizing electronic music for the DPRK. Though it featured female vocalists, Bochunbo was accompanied by only male musicians: the electronic keyboards, electronic guitars, and drums were all male musicians. However, all musicians of Moranbong Band are females. The band roster is listed as follows:
First Electric Violin and Band Leader: Seon-u Hyang-hui (선우향희)
Second Electric Violin: Hong Su-kyeong (홍수경)
Electric Viola: Cha Young-mi (차영미)
Electric Cello: Yoo Eun-jeong (유은정)
Synthesizer: Kim Hyang-soon, Ri Hui-kyeong (김향순, 리희경)
Saxophone: Choi Jeong-im (최정임)
Piano: Kim Young-mi (김영미)
Electric Drum: Ri Yoon-hui (리윤희)
Electric Guitar: Kang Ryeong-hui (강령희)
Electric Bass: Ri Seol-lan (리설란)
Vocals: Kim Yoo-kyeong (김유경), Kim Seol-mi (김설미), Ryu Jin-a (류진아), Pak Mi-kyeong (박미경), Jung Su-hyang (정수향), Pak Seon-hyeong (박선향), Ri Myeong-hui (리명희)
The lead musician, Seon-u Hyang-hui, was previously a violinist in the Samjiyeon Band in the Mansudae Art Troupe. Having starred on many state stages, with the North Korean equivalent to the South Korean pop queens “Girls’ Generation” Seon-u appears as the chair of the band brandishing an electronic violin this time. The KCNA notes that Kim Jong-un praised Seon-u for helping realize his vision, according to a July 7 KCNA report of 2012:
“All of the musicians and singers of the band are promising, he noted, praising Seon-u Hyang-hui, leader of the band, for her splendid directing. He underscored the need to steadily develop the traditional music and popular music in a balanced manner to suit the thoughts and feelings of Koreans and their aesthetic taste while meeting the need of the times and the people’s desire.”
Thus the women of Moranbong are praised in official press by Supreme Leader Kim not only for their accomplishments as musicians, but also for their ability to evolve (“steadily develop”) music in North Korea recognizing that 2012 requires an aesthetic break from the past (“while meeting the need of the times”).
Revolutionized Women for the New Century of Songun Korea | As constructed in official media, such elite North Korean women until recently were presented in the role of the “revolutionized mother,” the archetype of which remains to be Kang Ban-sok, leader of the Democratic Women’s Union and mother of Kim Il-sung. Such an official image has certainly been maintained in the Kim Jong-un era, first with the canonization of his mother Ko Young-hui in a hagiographic film released last summer, titled “The Beloved Mother of the Great Songun Korea” (위대한 선군 조선의 어머님 [伟大的先军朝鲜母亲]); and secondly, with numerous appearances of his wife Ri Sol-ju at official functions.
But with both of these women, their merit was founded upon their relation to Kim Jong-un, the male leader of the nation. Despite both being accomplished performers—Ko was a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe in Pyongyang, and Ri was formerly a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra—the two women have been presented in state media as generation-specific “Ideal Women,” largely dependent on the historically based on the concept of “good wife and wise mother” (현모양처).
With the female performers of the Moranbong Band, we see a very different type of official, public image of the young woman of the “New Century of Songun Korea.” The vocalists dance restrained choreography that is more evocative of 1960s girl groups than any K-Pop act today—see the clip above, “배우자 (Let’s Learn)”—which harks back to an era of refined modernism that seems a bit anachronistic in the international context of 2012. Such an blending of the musical eras may be fitting for an all-girl group, as national time, according to Anne McClintock, is in a sense gendered, “veering between nostalgia for the past and the impatient, progressive sloughing off of the past” (1995:92). Showcasing their artistic talents, their physical beauty, and a very glitzy, non-traditional style of dress, Band Leader Seon-u and her band mates may fulfill a very different function for the state, a function that carries weight domestically and abroad as well.
The DPRK Male Gaze | We must take care, however, not to see these talented performers dressed in flashy costume as new archetypes for the New Modern Woman in the DPRK. According to Nicola Dibben’s theorizing of the female representation in popular music, “It would be hopelessly naive to declare that such tactics are exclusively empowering in their influence.” Rather, the gender division of the performance as a whole—from the stage through the audience space—should be examined for context.
The live performances of the Moranbong Band can only be attended by high-level party members in Pyongyang (and occasionally foreign diplomats), and it is apparent from reports and photographs of the events that the audience is largely male (though some women were in the audience as well). The KCNA report also identifies key members of the audience, which included Choi Ryong-hae, Jang Song-thaek, Kim Ki-nam, Hyon Chol-hae, Kim Yang-gon, Kim Yong-il, Kim Byeong-hae, Choe Pu-il, Kim Myong-guk, Kim Yong-chol, and Jo Kyong-chol, in addition to other “officials, creators, artists, writers, and journalists of literature and art, media and art educational institutions.” With such a configuration, we might conclude that compared to other ensembles, this particular musical group places female performers as objects of the male gaze in Pyongyang.
Women and Foreign Music Performance | In many nationalisms, women are perched on the boundary between the domestic and the foreign, and perhaps their gender gave the Moranbong Band the freedom to play a wide variety of foreign pieces. At their debut “demonstration” concert alone, the band performed “Czardas,” a traditional Hungarian folk dance; “Zigeurnerweisen (Gypsy Airs),” a musical composition for violin and orchestra written in 1878 by the Spanish composer and virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate; and four French pieces, including “La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba),” “Menuet,” “Penelope,” and “Serenade de l’Étoile (Serenade of the Star).” The band even covered American pop songs, including the theme from the film Rocky as well as an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
The stage design also evoked a global pop style, with a Chosun twist. The video stage background featured nine different screens, across which images of Korean nature scenes, patriotic graphics, and even clips from Hollywood movies and Disney animations were projected to form a pastiche — very curious for the DPRK context, and not necessarily read only as a means of manipulating foreign public opinion.
In a stage design unprecedented in the history of North Korean performance, the Moranbong Band concerts appear to be closer in line with a K-Pop concert rather than continuing the legacy of the previous prim North Korean performances: lasers occasionally flashed across the stage and fireworks even shot from the floor. These features are not simply entertaining; they are perfectly in line with the broader propagandistic re-imaging of the North Korean economy as driven by high-tech development. North Korea thus joins the digital age without linking up specifically to the globe. In the age when musical emotions are expressed through electronic music, the Moranbong Band’s Chosun-style electronic music initiated by Kim Jong-il introduces a more contemporary and globally relevant Chosun-style electronic music while widening the scope of the Great Leader’s musical politics.
Performing Nation | In postcolonial societies in particular, women’s emergence on stage as performers might be “regarded as a cultural showcase as well as a pedagogical institution for the modern nation-state” (Croissant et al. 2008:10). Such a description is applicable to contemporary North Korea, where no official media falls outside an explicit promotion of nationality and national goals. In the case of the Moranbong Band, what sort of nation are these women performing? It may be that the performances of the Moranbong are charged with significant questions about the time of the North Korean nation: Wither the current DPRK, wither North Korean culture, and wither its future in the international system?
McClintock also points out that “for male nationalists, women serve as the visible markers of national homogeneity, they become subjected to especially vigilant and violent discipline” (1998:97). Do the members of Moranbong Band, as a band formed by the Supreme Leader himself (emphasis on the masculine agent involved) in the inaugural year of his tenure as Supreme Leader, threaten that national homogeneity, or function further to construct it? After all, this is not the everyday lived experience of women in the North Korean countryside or even the capital city, but rather the display of femininity on official stage, packaged and controlled by the masculine state. As a recent example of packaging women in the service of songun, Pyongyang’s celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8 focused on the women’s pride and value in serving the Leader.
While it may be true that women in Korea now enjoy relaxed restrictions on superficial matters—trousers and high heels are now permitted by law, though other aesthetic treatments are still regulated—by and large women still face many structural barriers, both social and legal, the only function of which seems to be to uphold a patriarchal order. In many accounts, we see that women lack empowerment in practical realms, mainly the economy and government (Haggard and Noland’s 2012 survey provides some insight, as does Andrei Lankov’s new book), and the ban on market trade (largely dominated by women) continues to hold real implications for women whose ability to work is secondary to their primary duties in the role of wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Such a New Chosun Style heralded by Kim Jong-un may merely be an aesthetic move to garner positive public relations in the sphere of cultural production. Such spin on the female spectacle may be intended not only for domestic audiences, but for international audiences as well.
Croissant, Doris, Catherine Vance Yeh, and Joshua S. Mostow, eds. Performing “Nation”: Gender Politics in Literature, Theater, and the Visual Arts of China and Japan, 1880-1940. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008.
Dibben, Nicola. “Representations of Femininity in Popular Music.” In Popular Music. 18, no. 3 (1999): 331-355.
McClintock, Anne. “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race, and Nationalism,” in Dangerous Liasons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Anne McClintock, Aamir R. Mufti, and Ella Shohat, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, (1995): 89-112.
Jimin Lee, “Moranbong Band: Joseon Style Electronic Music on a New Level,” SinoNK, April 8, 2013.
Jimin Lee, “Soft Power on a Hardened Path: On DPRK Musical Performance,” SinoNK, August 2, 2012.
Adam Cathcart, “Let Them Eat Concerts: Music, the Moranbong Band and Cultural Turns in Kim Jong-un’s Korea,” SinoNK, July 12, 2012.