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‘National Singing Contest’ in Pyongyang in 2003


ⓒ KBS News

Many Koreans here are familiar with this opening theme song of KBS TV’s singing program, “National Singing Contest,” Korea’s longest-running music program. Energetic on-air personality Song Hae hosts the show. Since 1980, the program showcases talent of everyday people in all corners of the country. Indeed, the charismatic host and participants’ unaffected demeanors have contributed to making the show one of the most beloved TV programs in South Korea. But did you know the popular show was also shot in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 2003?

On August 11, 2003, the “National Singing Contest” was recorded at an outdoor stage at Moranbong Park in Pyongyang. KBS 1TV planned it as a special program in commemoration of the 58th anniversary of Korea’s Liberation Day. The project had actually been promoted by the KBS Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Group since 2002. When discussions to bring the program across the DMZ first started, the staff members of the program were both concerned and excited. 

I was very surprised, of course. It just didn’t feel real that I would go to Pyongyang. On the one hand, I found myself eager to do a great job there. On the other, I was worried about presenting the show in a completely unknown society. I couldn’t sleep for days. At first, I was told to write cue sheets and a script, although I knew nothing about North Korean contestants or pop culture whatsoever. So I “created” cue sheets and a script, imagining would-be participants with different jobs. My script was like, “Oh, our next contender brought Pyongyang naengmyeon,” and “Look, this participant brought pine mushrooms from Mt. Myohyang.” I had to do extensive background research to write the script, and even listened to North Korean songs.

You just heard from Chung Han-wook, who has written scripts for “National Singing Content’ since 1992. The program staff put so much work into the Pyongyang singing contest show, which would mark a milestone in inter-Korean exchanges. The KBS Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Group held many rounds of negotiations with North Korea for a successful show. However, the two sides showed widely differing views on who would stand on stage, what kind of songs they would sing and how the MC would host the show. Let’s hear again from Mr. Chung. 

Typically, participants of the show sing songs, showcase talents, share local cuisine or specialties, and/or have a brief conversation with Mr. Song, the host of the show. But North Korea didn’t like this format. They said conversation or interviews wouldn’t be necessary at all. They said that the contestants would simply sing in order and the host should only make introductory and closing comments. Usually, when the chimes sound—ding, dong, dang, that means the singer has passed. But only one chime—ding—means the singer’s performance is not good enough and his or her chance is over. This is one of the most interesting parts of the show. But North Korean officials said that there would be no pass or fail at the show since all people are equal. So, there was no awards ceremony and no dingdong. 

At the singing audition program, the success or failure of the contestants is determined by xylophone sounds. But this method was not used at the Pyongyang show, as South Korea agreed to the North’s insistence that all participants are equal. Also, at the suggestion of North Korea, only those who had won a prize at singing competitions before were selected as participants. But South Korea did not yield an inch on one matter. That was the host, Mr. Song Hae. 

The KBS Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Group had to negotiate with North Korea for nearly two years because North Korea didn’t like me. No wonder. I defected from the North when I was young, since I hated the communist regime. I entered the South Korean army and even fired at North Korean soldiers during the war. From their point of view, I was a traitor. 

The South and the North clashed over the host. Mr. Song’s hometown is Jaeryong, Hwanghae Province in North Korea. He came to South Korea during the Korean War, leaving his family behind. For this reason, North Korea was opposed to the idea of him hosting of the show. But KBS strongly argued that the Pyongyang show without Song, the symbol of the program, would be a failure. In the end, the two sides agreed that Song Hae from the South and Jeon Song-hee from the North would jointly host the show. After some ups and downs, the South Korean broadcasting team, including Mr. Song, flew to Beijing on August 4 before connecting to Pyongyang, and set foot on North Korean soil the following day. After days of preparation, they finally recorded the program on August 11. 

The singing competition started with a cheerful atmosphere, with some 20 North Korean people, including an 11-year-old boy and a 77-year-old man, showing off their singing talents. The best part of the show was a relatively long conversation between Song and a female participant, who sang a song about cold noodles – nangmyeon – which Pyongyang is particularly renowned for. Although North Korea restricted the dialogue to just one line, Song friendly and casually talked to the participants as best he could, just as he does in the South. In fact, the audiences were clapping their hands as a mere formality, with a stiff expression on their faces. But hearing the pleasant conversation, they burst into laughter. The place was soon caught up in genuine happiness. 

A North Korean official told me to introduce the participants jointly with the North Korean host and wait backstage while they were singing. Only after they finished singing, I was told to come forward and say, “Did you enjoy the show? Let’s meet again.” That’s all I was allowed to do on the stage. But I came out to the stage when a participant was still up there. Another participant sang her cold noodle song, and I jumped on the stage again and told her that South Koreans were also fond of Pyongyang naengmyeon. When I went backstage, the North Korean official said to me, “I told you to stay here, but why did you go out to the stage again?” I told him that everybody enjoyed that. After I came back from my third appearance on the stage, I guessed that the official would be angry with me. But he said, “It’s quite fun to see you show up on the stage over and over again.” So I said, “It is fun, isn’t it? That’s what this show is about.” 

Moranbong Park was filled with some 3,000 Pyongyang residents, who fully enjoyed the singing contest show. The show went on for two-hours. Writer Chung gave a sigh of relief. In fact, he was nervous until the last moment. He changed or corrected the script seven times in Pyongyang alone, with the last correction occurring just an hour before the recording. Here again is Mr. Chung. 

A thousand emotions crossed my mind. I was immensely happy at the thought of doing a great job. But after everything was done, I felt tired and empty, recalling the whole grueling process of writing the script for hours and hours every day, holding long meetings and negotiations. In the end, I was relieved, of course, and everyone was happy. We and North Korean officials got together in the evening, and we got emotional when we had to go. We held each other’s hands and promised to meet again. 

KBS 1TV aired the Pyongyang show in South Korea on August 15. On the same day, Korean Central TV in North Korea also broadcast the program. The show enjoyed high ratings in South Korea, while the show was aired in North Korea as many as four times. Writer Chung hopes that the “National Singing Contest” will be held in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula once again. 

I hope to travel to every corner of North Korea to see local people with a unique accent and experience regional specialties. It is difficult to improve inter-Korean relations politically. But culture and art can bring people closer together and help them open up their minds. South Koreans can sing North Korean songs and vice versa. I wish the two sides will get closer to each other quickly in the culture and art area at least. 

The singing contest in Pyongyang played a significant role in enhancing mutual understanding between the two Koreas and creating a sense of unity through music. We’re looking forward to seeing people in various parts of the entire Korean Peninsula singing and dancing together to become one, just as writer Chung wishes. 

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