North Korea’s modern musicians are a talented lot — and they're essential to Kim Jong Un's regime.
Well before the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in PyeongChang on Friday, North Korea hit the headlines when it announced plans to send a 140-member orchestra south for two rare performances. When North Korean pop singer Hyon Song Wol followed up with an inspection tour of concert venues, South Korean media went into a frenzy.
The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield wrote that the visiting Samjiyon Orchestra — which was created in 2009 on the orders of the late leader Kim Jong Il — is made up of younger musicians known for their flashy attire and striking stage presence. It is one of the few modern music groups formed in the North in recent years.
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“This is an attempt by North Korea to really have an image makeover and to say: 'Hey, we’re a modern country. We’re a normal country,' " said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. More than 150,000 South Koreans applied for the 1,060 free tickets to the Samjiyon Orchestra’s performances in Gangneung and Seoul.
“[North Korea’s soft power] is really limited in comparison to South Korea, a truly titanic soft power. But it's there,” said Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at the University of Leeds in Britain who follows North Korea’s music scene closely.
In addition to their rare performances abroad, North Korea's modern musicians play an essential role at home as propagandists for the government. Songs are usually aimed at building the Kim personality cult and legitimizing the Kims' leadership role by invoking Mount Paektu, the sacred symbol of the family. Titles include “Our Comrade Kim Jong Un” and “We Know Only You.”
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Although Kim Jong Il was better known as a movie devotee, he created several musical groups, including the prestigious Mansudae Art Troupe. In 2012, his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, formed the Moranbong Band, which features women in short skirts performing with foreign instruments — a decided break from tradition. On the day it debuted, the Moranbong played a rendition of the “Rocky” theme song. Neither the Moranbong's look nor its Western song choices are a sign the country is opening up, according to Cathcart. Still, he said, studying music trends in the North can yield crucial insights into the opaque country.
“Our khaki lenses go on when we see North Korea, and we are always trying to figure out: What kind of power does the army have? Are there going to be purges? What’s Kim Jong Un’s relations to the generals? Sure, these are all important questions,” Cathcart said.
But when it comes to culture, [it's about] how North Koreans live their daily lives, what kind of cultural choices they have. I think it’s an important question in terms of understanding what’s going on in an average musically oriented North Korean’s mind and in their life.”