North Korea’s Musical Environment

Unsurprisingly, music and the censorship thereof have a huge effect on the daily life of North Koreans from the moment they wake up. Due to the advancement of a cable radio network expanding to all villages as well as workplaces in North Korea and into nearly every home, each citizen of the DPRK is awoken at 5 in the morning to the sound of the national anthem playing from their living room. The devices found in homes outfitted with only one broadcasting station and a single knob for volume control; meaning they cannot be turned off, only turned down. These wired receivers are also connected to loudspeakers in town squares, factories, and offices. “Third Radio,” as the broadcast is known, is a constant stream of propaganda in the form of music, news broadcasts, radio dramas, and stories of the Kim family’s heroic feats. One author associates his time living in North Korea in the 1980’s with the ever-present sound of military marches playing in the background of seemingly every corner of the nation.1 From the public to the private sphere it is impossible to escape cable radio’s constant efforts to exaggerate national pride through music and other media.

Similarly, nationalist education through music in North Korea begins as early as pre-school and kindergarten. Beginning when they are 2 and a half years old, kids in North Korea are put into a 2 year long program in the state-run nursery system where they live and learn about their great leader throughout the week and visit their families only on weekends. There they are immersed in lessons about math, gymnastics, music, history, and poetry, but it is not your average early education curriculum. Rather than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the students of kindergartens like the Kim Jong Suk school memorize lyrics and choreography to songs with titles like “Long Life and Good Health to the Leader.” In gym class the favorite game amongst the students is called “Beat the American Bastard” in which the sole aim is to destroy a cardboard cutout of an American soldier by taking turns hitting it with sticks. When the school receives visitors the students give musical performances singing verses with lyrics such as:

“Who gave us the happiness of today?

It was given us by the party and the Leader

Along the way pointed out by the Great Leader Marshall Kim Il-Sung,

We will march not sparing our lives!”2

Every aspect of their education is tailored towards fostering deep adoration for their leader and a large part of how this is done is through the songs they are taught in early education and grow up singing into their adulthood.2 Their machine-like performances and exaggerated facial expressions have made videos like this one of North Korean kindergarten guitarists explode into popularity on Youtube.

Musicians in North Korea lead a rather revered lifestyle due to the respect for cultural contributions to society, but the numerous government restrictions that apply to music and performance can leave artists walking a fine line between being esteemed and castigated. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “ All North Korean writers, artists, dancers, and musicians are assigned to government institutions such as the National Theatre for the Arts and the State Symphony Orchestra in P’yŏngyang and provincial organizations of music, ballet, and drama.”3 Children who demonstrate talent in the fields of art, music, and athletics are swiftly brought to live, train, and perform for visitors in the national Children’s Palace before they receive their assignment to individual orchestras or music organizations.4 This means that from the moment North Koreans begin practicing to enter the music field their artistic choices in terms of the pieces they choose, the performances they give, and their behavior in practices are all under the close watch of government officials. Members of the general public also face the hazards of being prosecuted for singing or listening to contraband music (such as the case study of Ji Hae Nam in the previous section,) but the constant surveillance in addition to the pressure of their role of cultural representative puts musicians in a position of significant risk of danger. Pianist and North Korean defector Kim Cheol Woong is one example of the perils of musicians in the DPRK’s spotlight. In 2001 Kim Cheol Woong, who was then lead pianist for Pyongyang’s State Symphony Orchestra, was practicing alone in his room when he remembered a song he heard while he studied as an exchange student in Moscow called “A Comme Amour” or “L for Love.” He recalls that he only practiced the song because he planned to use it to impress a girl. 5

He was unaware that at that very moment an informant officer on patrol in his building happened to pass by his room and overhear the music who upon observing the piece’s western quality reported Kim Cheol Woong to secret police for playing “capitalist“ music. Due to his family’s elite status his only sentence was to repeatedly write a 10-page letter of apology explaining where he had heard the distasteful song and criticizing his actions and intentions. Still, he became aware of the weight of official scrutiny hanging over his work as a musician and vowed to escape for a place where he was free to play the music of his choosing, escaping through China before beginning a reputable career in South Korea and performing all over the world.5 Many others are not so lucky. In 2013 a South Korean news outlet speculated that Kim Jong-Un ordered the public execution of 12 musicians and performers including his own ex-girlfriend from a popular group known as the Unhasu Orchestra for their alleged involvement in a pornography scandal.6 Though Kim’s ex-flame was later shown on television unharmed and praising the nation’s leadership in an appearance at an artist convention, the orchestra has failed to make an appearance since the rumors appeared leaving questions as to whether the other musicians in the group were as lucky to escape their alleged fate.7

Musicians and performers in the DPRK take their training and their entertainment very seriously, and in a place where every resource other than population is in short supply, there is a lot North Korea hopes to prove and plenty of people to employ to do it. In an unprecedented move the DPRK opened its doors to foreigners from August to October to hold witness to a performance of incredible scale weaponizing 100,000 of its children, musicians, and performers for bragging rights. The Arirang festival, which was held nearly annually from 2002-2013 features aerial ballet, song and dance performances, martial arts displays, and 3000 children working in unison as human pixels to create astounding background images, all requiring months of intense practice. For most of the performers these shows and the preparation they entail constituted as their full-time occupation for the years that the games were held, leaving many without jobs following its cancellation in 2014. It was hoped that the promise of music and dance would invite foreigners to fill the 150,000-seat stadium and earn them a profit, improve their national image and compete with the entertainment powerhouses that are America and North Korea. The musical experience that is the Arirang Games is a testament to North Korea’s regimentation, their dedication, and their love of spectacle. 8 9 10

1 Lankov, A. N. North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea. (North Carolina: McFarland &, 2007), Part 3.

2 Goodspeed, Peter. “Inside North Korea: Peter Goodspeed Recalls the Grey, Empty Streets of the Hermit Kingdom.” National Post. December 19, 2011. Accessed April 30, 2015.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “North Korea”, accessed April 30, 2015.

4 “Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.” Lonely Planet. Accessed April 28, 2015.

5 Choe, Sang-Hun. “North Korean Defector’s Flight to Musical Freedom.” The New York Times. December 7, 2008. Accessed April 25, 2015.

6 Newman, Jason. “Kim Jong-un Reportedly Has 12 North Korean Musicians Executed.” Fuse. August 29, 2013. Accessed April 25, 2015.

7 O’Carroll, Chad. “North Korean Singer.” North Korea News. May 16, 2014. Accessed April 26, 2015.

8 Watts, Johnathan. “Welcome to the Strangest Show on Earth.” The Guardian. September 30, 2005. Accessed April 26, 2015.

9 “North Korea Halts Showcase Mass Games Due to Flood.” Reuters UK. August 27, 2007. Accessed April 20, 2015.

10 Whitehead, Kate. “North Korean Mass Games: Why This Year They’re Different –” CNN. August 9, 2013. Accessed April 20, 2015.