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Why N. Korea Exploits Music in Politics

2021-07-29

ⓒ KBS

This year, North Korean media outlets have often reported leader Kim Jong-un’s attendance at music concerts. Recently, on June 20, a report said that the leader watched a performance of the Band of the State Affairs Commission. The Korean Central TV aired the performance, in which new songs were introduced. The country’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried the lyrics and the music of the songs, which have been played on economic sites such as factories, mines and farming areas. 


Why does North Korea focus on music at this particular moment in time? Let’s hear from political commentator Choi Young-il. 


One of the new songs titled Our Mother expresses gratitude and love for one’s mother. In fact, the Workers’ Party is referred to as “mother” in the North. Another song, Follow His Heart, praises Kim Jong-un, and its lyrics contain the phrase “our Marshal.” North Korea urges the people to learn these two new songs to imprint the lyrics in their minds. 


One of the singers who sang the songs is Kim Ok-ju(김옥주). She recently won the title of “People’s Artist.” It is rare for a young, 30-something artist like Kim to be given the prestigious title. By promoting the young singer as the country’s own star and distributing new songs that inspire loyalty, North Korea seeks to tighten ideological control over the people and strengthen internal unity. 


In North Korea, music plays a very important and special role. The country contains political messages in songs and distributes them to the people. Music is used as a means of promoting social values and the regime. It also serves as an important tool for ideological refinement. 


In the North, music itself is a political tool, and music is therefore synonymous with “music politics.” In the country, everything related to culture and art is used as an instrument of propaganda and agitation. Songs, in particular, have the purpose of delivering political messages to the people in a friendly and emotional way. Lyrics and music styles all reflect the party’s approved messages and communist ideology. Music is also used to encourage workers at farms and factories to increase production. For local residents, ideological education is carried out not only through lectures but through songs and dances. That is, music is used to educate the public in a natural but more destructive way. 


In North Korea, the phrase “music politics” was mentioned in 2000 under the rule of former leader Kim Jong-il. During a debate at the time, high-ranking military officials said that the country was displaying its own, unique music politics. Kim Jong-il stressed the importance of music politics, saying that music had sometimes replaced tens of thousands of guns and tens of millions of tons of food. 


Kim Jong-il was deeply interested in culture and art, and he reportedly made great efforts to popularize them in a North Korean way. In his era, songs containing lyrics were used more widely than other performances to promote his “military-first” politics. During the years of his rule, a number of music bands were created, including the Pochonbo(보천보) Electronic Ensemble and the Wangjaesan(왕재산) Light Music Band. Some say the so-called “band politics” began in the Kim Jong-il era. The two bands adopted interesting parts of Western pop songs and rock music, while blocking Western music from entering the country. The new music forms became popular with local citizens, especially young people, and generated the effect of ideological education as well. 


Current leader Kim Jong-un has also actively used music for political purposes since he came to power. Compared to his father, he pursued a lot more unconventional music, in terms of both form and content. The Moranbong Band is a good example. While former leader Kim Jong-il put lyrics above rhythms and advocated traditional clothing for performers, the current leader seems to have attempted to depart from conservative music and bring bold innovation instead through the new band. 


The Moranbong Band was organized by Kim Jong-un himself in 2012, right after he took power. The band played modern instruments such as a keyboard, electronic guitars and violins. Consisting of 10 instrumentalists and seven singers, it was described as North Korea’s own “girl group.” The band debuted at the Mansudae Art Theater on July 6, 2012. The performance was quite unconventional. On stage, the female performers appeared in mini dresses, not the traditional attire of hanbok, surrounded by strobe lighting. Interestingly, the performance featured famous Western songs that are familiar even to South Koreans, including Theme from Rocky and My Way. North Korea reinterpreted the Western musical trend and played various videos containing its intended messages in the background of the stage to reinforce its own political ideology. 


Afterwards, the Moranbong Band performed at important events, with its members sometimes dressed in military uniforms. It played a role in promoting the Kim Jong-un regime’s achievements and political messages in a modern way. In this sense, the band was basically an extension of “music politics” or “band politics.”


The famous Moranbong Band has not appeared on stage for over a year. Rather, we hear stories about successful performances of the Band of the State Affairs Commission instead. In fact, most of the performances attended by leader Kim Jong-un this year were given by this band. 


The Band of the State Affairs Commission has appeared at North Korea’s major political events since its name was introduced at the show celebrating the Lunar New Year’s holiday on January 25, 2020. It is a mixed orchestra and chorus band consisting of the nation’s top performers, conductor and singers. It is assumed that the last performance of the Moranbong Band was the New Year’s concert in January 2020, so the Band of the State Affairs Commission began to perform after the Moranbong Band’s last concert. 


At the time, North Korea pledged to tackle international sanctions through self-reliance and stressed internal solidarity. I guess the relatively small Moranbong Band was replaced by the large-scale orchestra, which can present a more spectacular stage. North Korea may have also decided to eradicate non-socialist cultural elements and stop accepting Western culture. The appearance of the new band can be understood in this context. 


North Korea has exploited music in politics whenever it faced hardships and crises. But now, it might be difficult for the country to overcome the ongoing economic crisis only through “music politics” that stress loyalty and faith in the form of songs. It seems North Korean citizens need more pragmatic and realistic measures to get over the difficulties. 

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