Purges, Baekdu, and the Moranbong Band: Data Points around General Hyon

By | May 16, 2015 | No Comments

Kim Jong-un voices off during military exercises in spring 2014. Image via Chosun Central Television

Kim Jong-un voices off during military exercises in spring 2014. | Image: Chosun Central Television

Given the pleasant security and relatively “civilized” nature of power transition in democratic politics, it is little wonder that journalists and academics get so readily intoxicated by the “bloodthirsty” purges and palace intrigues of autocracy. The foggy North Korean variety of governance is a case in point. The sheer scale of the coverage that accompanied the bruising removal of Jang Song-taek in the fourth quarter of 2013 was symbolic of a contemporary analytical urge.

However, a barrage of anti-aircraft fire and angry dog stories completely fails to address a key point: all purges are not created equal. Take the removal of MPAF Minister Hyon Yong-chol, apparently in late April. His was the low-key and not uncommon elimination of an unwanted official; a world away from the kind of public demolition that befell Jang. It offers a salient lesson for the military ranks, but has not been discussed in the (DPRK) public sphere.

In this new essay, Editor-in-Chief Adam Cathcart looks at various aspects of the Hyon purge. Armed with a handful of esoteric new data points, he endeavors to take the field of debate beyond the realm of satellite images and NIS scuttlebutt, and on into the ultra-politicized realm of concert halls and power stations.

A significantly shortened version of this essay was published yesterday (May 15) by The Guardian under the title ”Kim Jong-un’s vulnerability on display as North Korean rumours abound.” – Christopher Green, Co-Editor

Purges, Baekdu, and the Moranbong Band: Data Points around General Hyon

by Adam Cathcart

The headline from the intelligence assessment in Seoul was indeed shocking: North Korea’s nominal head of defense, Hyon Yong-chol, was reportedly executed in a gory fashion for, among other things, falling asleep in a meeting with Kim Jong-un. The viral nature of the report can be attributed to the method of execution–anti-aircraft guns–an assertion which the agency now appears to be walking back and which Sino-NK looked at on May 4.

Why would falling asleep in a meeting, this slight sign of disrespect for the leader, lead to the ouster of a North Korean general near the center of national power and his possible execution? More importantly, are there other data points which no one has been considering in the effort to decipher what is actually going on within the North Korean state?

Kim Jong-un watches General Hyon lead tank exercises prior to the purge. Image via Chosun Central Television

Kim Jong-un watches General Hyon lead tank exercises prior to the latter man’s fall. | Image: Chosun Central Television

Charismatic Requirements: Respecting the Leader | Perhaps General Hyon’s ouster means that some elites in North Korea have been all too quick to forget the volatility of the young Kim Jong-un, dismissive of the sharp edges of the institutions that sustain him, and disrespectful of his need to be the ultimate focal point of all adulation. After two years of prefatory propaganda and three years of rule by the young Kim Jong-un, it is remarkable that, as one Pyongyangologist put it: “Internally, there does not seem to be any respect for Kim Jong-un within the core and middle levels of the North Korean leadership.”

Why should it be necessary for Kim Jong-un to send such a piercing signal out to potential malcontents within, eviscerating a man who had been not just on the expanded Politburo, but the all-powerful National Defense Commission? Surely the events of December 2013, when Kim Jong-un approved the purge and execution of his own uncle, should still be fresh in minds of North Korean elites. At that time, the strictest maintenance of the Kim personality cult cited by North Korean state media as justification for Jang Song-taek’s execution; the would-be regent was accused of applauding Kim Jong-un with inadequate gusto at a meeting and putting an inscription in praise of Kim in the shade rather than in sunlight.

In such a system, it is nearly impossible for figures other than Kim Jong-un to aggregate public charisma or prestige. For all of his strange disappearances, evident health problems, and unlikely friendships with Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un has been celebrated in state media as every bit the “peerlessly great man” his predecessors were. Lacking in any actual administrative expertise (for example, at the county level), Kim has traded fully upon his bloodline as his primary credential.

Kim Jong-un being uncharacteristically subdued at an early on-site inspection (probably 2009) with his father, left. Image via Chosun Central Television.

Kim Jong-un is subdued, reticent, and respectful at an early on-site inspection (probably 2009) with his father. | Image: Chosun Central Television

The young leader’s celebrated “climb” to the summit of Mt. Baekdu this past month is a case in point: This was an occurrence which not just the entire nation, but the whole of the armed forces were expected to celebrate. General Hyon and his counterparts were hardly immune from this directive, and it formed a central element in a concert they attended in Pyongyang on April 28. It was Hyon’s last public appearance.

Post-Purge Readings: Musical Performance | A reading of the video of the Moranbong Band concert at which Hyon supposedly appeared reveals no sign of the man. But quite apart from it being just another boring repetition, the concert itself offers up a number of points possibly related to Hyon’s fall. Primary among them is the striking absence, obvious to any casual observer of North Korea’s performance culture, of Sonu Hyang-hui (선우향희), the ensemble leader of the Moranbong Band.

Moranbong Band Leader, with violin, plays a stretto to the "Rocky" guitar solo | Image via Korean Central Television; full performance at click

Moranbong Band leader, the violinist Sonu Hyang-hui, plays a stretto to the “Rocky” guitar solo at the band’s debut in June 2012 | Image via Chosun Central Television

Sonu, a highly accomplished violinist, had previously been lauded as the closest thing North Korea had to an instrumental pop star. Her disappearance indicates yet more churn. Oddly, while intelligence sources in Seoul have made it a habit (frequently inaccurately) to state that North Korean “orchestral musicians” have faced execution squads, no one has so far asserted that Ms. Sonu, a regime favourite and public symbol, has faced the same fate. Only Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times seems to have picked upon on the importance of the band to the politics of the DPRK in the most recent instance, accurately noting that its members were “hand-picked by Kim Jong-un.” Indeed, Kim Jong-un has personally endorsed Ms. Sonu’s work on a number of occasions.

If we chose to look at Pyongyang’s insular cultural scene in a way that assumes the possibility of alliances between powerful men and the musicians who entertain them, it seems strange that more has not been made of Sonu Hyang-hui’s absence. After all, Kim Jong-un is married to a musician who previously performed in the Unhasu Orchestra; the entire Unhasu Orchestra ceased performing in the months prior to the Jang Song-taek purge, and Jang was publicly accused of womanizing as well.

There is also something of a military-cultural complex in Pyongyang which cuts both ways: Orchestras strengthen the state and solidify social bonds among security-minded elites, but (like the generals who attend their concerts) they are also susceptible to foreign influence and corruptible when they go abroad. In other words, when performing ensembles or performers start to fall, powerful men might not be far behind.

A little bilateral discord, fixed over Moranbong chords | image via PRC Embassy in the DPRK

Jang Song-taek and Kim Jong-un spend New Year’s Eve 2012 with Chinese diplomats and the Moranbong Band | image via PRC Embassy in the DPRK

It is thus in absence rather than thunderous proclamation that the state often makes its power known: Artists can disappear and the show will continue without so much as a remark, but the audience surely notices the change.

From a style perspective, a few other rather strange things occurred at this concert. The first number, which began as an a capella ode to Mt. Baekdu, dispensed altogether with the DPRK national anthem. High tempi then kicked in, in keeping with the idea of Kim Jong-un being upbeat and forward-moving. The green lasers which denoted the Band’s heavy propaganda wattage began their blinding twirl, leading to three forced modulations (all of them moving upwards, leading to vocal strain), and the conclusion of the piece. For a return to the stage after nearly nine months of not performing, and after Kim Ki-nam’s ostensible retirement, this was not an auspicious reappearance.

The second number highlighted the absence of Sonu Hyang-hui from the stage. A virtuoso instrumental piece, it also pushed the boundaries of acceptable musical expression in North Korea. From saxophone cadenzas to guitar finger-tapping to slap-bass solos, the piece featured technical accomplishments but danced on the edges of acceptability and taste.  Not just the lighting, but the total absence of political imagery in the all-important backdrop made this number rather uncomfortably approximate to the nightclub experience. If the idea was to use the Moranbong Band show as a means of preparing North Korean soldiers for the psychological warfare of the world beyond, it might be said to be mildly successful; exposure to jazzy riffs and disco beats used anew as a kind of inoculation against imperialist culture.

Baekdu Blitz | If the Moranbong Band show was really General Hyon’s last event as an official in good standing with the Army and the Party, then what messages would it have given him specifically? After all, given what we know about how Kim Jong-un operates and how he wishes to be perceived, it is more than possible that Hyon’s basic lack of interest in the personality cult is what motivated his ouster.

Perhaps at this point the reader might be questioning the credibility of the the idea that a song would have serious political utility in North Korea, much less serve to herald a new post-purge political line. In that case, recall only that it was a song (rather than a film, a pamphlet, or a series of lectures) that first heralded the Kim Jong-un succession in the first place, and that a song was central to determining society’s response to the Jang Song-taek execution: That purge was followed immediately by an ominous tune indicative of the new orthodoxy, entitled “We will only follow you” [우리는 당신밖에 모른다]; men and women in factories and schools were expected to sing it heartily, occasionally in front of cameras.

While Hyon was in Moscow, a new song entitled “We Will Go to Baekdusan” [가리라 백두산으로] appeared in the pages of Rodong Sinmun. This song, accompanied by images of Kim Jong-un’s trip to the sacred peak, was the centerpiece of the April 28 concert by the Moranbong Band. The song evokes the Supreme Leader’s trip to the top of the holy mountain of his family’s myth. The lyrics, written by Lee Ji-seong, read as follows:

I will go to Mount Paekdu 《가리라 백두산으로》 , via Rodong Sinmun and Pekka Korhonen

We will go to Mount Baekdu [가리라 백두산으로] | Image: Rodong Sinmun. Translation by Steven Denney.

We will go to Mt. Baekdu


In the spring, we will go,

in the winter, we will go.

Baekdusan – Baekdusan,

home of my heart.

In the storm it gives us the will to go on,

the revolutionary battleground that sharpens our faith.


We will go – We will go,

we will go to Baekdusan.

It calls to us, Baekdusan,

we will go – we will go – to Baekdusan…



In the midst of a dream, we will go,

Anytime, we will go.

Baekdusan – Baekdusan,

home of my heart.

The place which summons miracles and good fortune to this land,

showing heroic Chosun the road to victory.



Through life we will go, down the generations we will go,

Baekdusan – Baekdusan,

home of my heart.

Following the party all the way on the path to glory.

The sacred mountain of the Sun that gives us the spirit of victory.


The renewed emphasis of the propaganda focusing on Mt. Baekdu serves as a simultaneous reminder that only the man with the pure bloodline can rule the roost. Those with ties to the Kim family dating back to the 1930s, like Choe Ryong-hae, are less threatened by this notion, leaning as they do upon father’s Manchurian guerrilla credentials. But other men in intimate proximity to Kim, like Hwang Pyong-so, need to be particularly careful and move gingerly in the bloodline-based court politics. Not everyone can survive “the storms of Mt. Baekdu” referenced incessantly in recent song and propaganda; and indeed, those very storms seem to have carried General Hyon away.

Receiving lessons on Party-people cooperation at the Paektusan Songun Youth Power Station; image via Rodong Sinmun, May 8, 2015.

Receiving lessons on Party-people cooperation at the Baekdusan Songun Youth Power Station | Image: Rodong Sinmun

Youth Leagues: The Struggle to Demonstrate Loyalty | In the meantime, other men and women will rise in the ranks and curry favor with the Supreme Leader. Jon Yong-nam has shown an ability to lock down the slightest signs of dissent among North Korea’s sizable population of urban youth, sending them up into the frozen northern frontier to work on dam projects as corvee labor and to touch the bronzed face of the Kim family legend. Marching through the streets of Pyongyang with red flags and armbands, these students look rather like Mao’s Red Guards, but are absent any whiff of rebellion, local initiative, or disorderly speech.

Positing hard evidence of inter-bureaucratic struggles in North Korea is not particularly easy–until the regime does it for you, as in the Jang purge–but the high regard given to Choe Ryong-hae and Jon Yong-nam in a recent story might be worth noting. A Rodong Sinmun report from May 8 had the two men giving speeches up near the Chinese frontier, opening the new Baekdu-Songun Youth Power Station. This activity, along with the following excerpt from a May 13 anniversary article, would appear to indicate that the KPA had potentially been sidelined or at the very least downgraded when it came to a prestige construction project:

Kim Jong Un regarded not only the Korean People’s Army but also the shock brigade as major forces for ushering in a great heyday of construction and indicated the orientation and way of building up the brigade better and led it to fully demonstrate its might in major construction projects with loving care.

Loyalty is demonstrated through projects, currency accumulation, gifts, and self-sacrifice. Here again the song lyrics above offers clues: Even amid the abstractions, Mt. Baekdu is “the battleground of revolution” [혁명의 전구] and the “sacred mountain of the Sun that gives [the people] the spirit of victory” [필승의 넋을 주는 태양의 성산], an allusion to the dam project which serves the leadership and powers the nation.

With or without the efforts of General Hyon, the people of North Korea will continue to follow Kim Jong-un forward into whatever future he is able to muddle towards. The regime is big on promises and relatively short in achievements, but its propaganda continues undinted, even if some of its top talents have now disappeared. If Kim Jong-un is able to look away from the proverbial mirror, Lake Chonji, for but a few moments and away from his own shining visage, he might see something more than potentially ungrateful and dangerous foes.

Correction: An earlier version translated “혁명의 전구” as “light of revolution.” The accurate translation is “battleground of revolution.”

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