Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Korean Peninsula A to Z

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

Inter-Korean Exchanges in Music


This song titled “Nice to Meet You” was performed by North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra during its concert in South Korea in 2018, when it visited the South on the occasion of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. The catchy North Korean song familiar even to South Koreans has often appeared during inter-Korean events. 

South and North Korea frequently held music events together when they tried to improve their relations. Unfortunately, inter-Korean music exchanges have been suspended since 2018. 

Today, we’ll look back on inter-Korean exchanges in the area of music with Ha Seung-hee, visiting professor of the Institute of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University. 

When it comes to inter-Korean exchanges in music, a repertoire of songs is highly important. 

A repertoire could be used as a major message a concert aims to deliver. An old Korean song titled “Teary Tumen River” was often included in the repertoires of previous music performances between South and North Korea. The song lists would contain “Nice to Meet You” as an introductory piece. Meanwhile, songs like “Baekdu and Halla are My Home,” “Among Our Own People,” “Our Wish is Unification” and “Let’s Meet Again” were sung as the last songs almost regularly during inter-Korean music events. The orchestral version of “Arirang” frequently appeared at inter-Korean joint concerts featuring classical music. The songs might be rather boring, as they have been performed over and over again. But I imagine many Koreans, while listening to the songs, would be in tears before they know it. That’s the power of music. 

When did South and North Korea start to conduct bilateral music exchanges? In May 1985, the two sides agreed on the reunions of separated families and art performances on both sides of the border. In September that year, the historic family reunions took place for the first time. 

Coinciding with the emotional family reunions, an art troupe from Pyongyang performed at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul, while performers from Seoul staged shows at the Pyongyang Grand Theater. The performances represented the first-ever inter-Korean cultural exchanges since national division. 

At the time, a group of 151 people from each side, including 50 separated family members, 50 artists, 30 reporters and 20 officials, crossed the border to take part in the reunion program. The repertoires of the art performances mostly consisted of Korean traditional music, one of the cultural areas shared by the two Koreas. Contrary to the purpose of cross-border music exchanges, however, some analysts said the shows only revealed deep differences in musical traditions of the two sides. 

From the mid-1980s, South and North Korea reestablished their relations. They held their first high-level talks in 1990. In October that year, the Seoul Traditional Music Orchestra participated in the “Pan-national Reunification Concert” in North Korea. In December the same year, a North Korean art troupe performed at the “Year-end Unification Traditional Music Concert” at the Seoul Arts Center and the National Theater of Korea in South Korea to showcase new singing styles and modified musical instruments. 

South Korea actively pushed for a policy of engaging North Korea in the late 1990s, contributing to better inter-Korean ties and brisk cultural exchanges. Following the adoption of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration in 2000, in particular, cross-border cooperation and exchange programs significantly increased in social and cultural areas. In August that year, right after the first inter-Korean summit, South Korea’s KBS Symphony Orchestra staged joint concerts with North Korea’s State Symphony Orchestra in Seoul. 

Two years later, in 2002, the South Korean orchestra visited Pyongyang for another joint concert to celebrate the Korean Thanksgiving of Chuseok. 

The Korean folk song of “Arirang” jointly performed by the orchestras of the two Koreas moved the audience deeply. The performance was seen as a symbolic inter-Korean exchange signaling a shift from an era of conflict to an era of harmony. 

Expectations for inter-Korean reconciliation were running high, following the historic 2000 inter-Korean summit. Meeting the expectations, philharmonic orchestras representing South and North Korea played the same music on the same stage for the first time. The symbolic performances explored new potentials in cross-border cooperation in music. Also, the concerts were broadcast live in South and North Korea simultaneously. 

Afterwards, inter-Korean music exchanges were mostly carried out by South Korean broadcasting companies, with many pop singers attending. 

In 2002, when South Korea and Japan jointly hosted the World Cup, South Korean broadcaster MBC held a special concert in Pyongyang. The concert was joined by a number of South Korean singers such as Lee Mi-ja and Choi Jin-hee, rock singer Yoon Do-hyun, tenor Lim Woong-gyun, as well as North Korean performers who were given the honorary title of “people’s artist” or “meritorious artist.” 

Afterwards, more South Korean singers including Cho Young-nam and Lee Sun-hee and even idol groups such as Baby Vox and Shinhwa participated in concerts in North Korea, expanding the scope of genres and generations shown in the performances. South Korean veteran singer Cho Yong-pil, nicknamed the “King of Pop,” held a solo concert in Pyongyang in 2005 in front of seven-thousand audience members. 

We can’t talk about inter-Korean music exchanges without mentioning the “Pyongyang Singing Contest” that was held at Moranbong Park in Pyongyang in 2003 in commemoration of the 58th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. 

KBS TV’s “National Singing Contest” is a singing program, where ordinary citizens nationwide show off their singing skills. In 2003, the singing competition program was held in Pyongyang under the title of “Pyongyang Singing Contest.” Mr. Song Hae, a veteran entertainer, from the South and a female broadcaster from the North jointly hosted the show. 

The show was broadcast both in South and North Korea. 

For the Pyongyang singing event, South and North Korea worked on everything together, from planning to production. It marked the first time since national division that a South Korean music talent show was held in the North. The event showed many North Korean songs, including folk music, children’s songs and pop music. It provided an opportunity to develop a potential repertoire shared by the two sides. It is also notable that general citizens in North Korea could participate in the singing contest program. 

Relations between South and North Korea came to a standstill after 2005, with their music exchanges losing steam as well. A breakthrough was made in 2018, when North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra visited South Korea to celebrate the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The North Korean performance troupe staged a concert at the Gangneung Arts Center in eastern Gangwon Province and another one at the Haeoreum Hall of the National Theater of Korea in Seoul. 

For its concerts in South Korea, the North Korean orchestra appeared to have invited top-notch musicians. 

The North Korea artists performed a wide repertoire, from South Korean songs to orchestral music. For instance, South Korean singer Lee Sun-hee’s hit song “To J” was rearranged as orchestral music to be sung in harmony. 

Previously, South and North Korea used to hold music performances to commemorate their joint events. But the Samjiyon Orchestra held concerts in the South against the background of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which is not an inter-Korean event but a global festival that promotes peace through sport. It seems North Korea hoped to use the international event to turn the situation around and mend ties with the outside world, including South Korea. It is easy to guess that the concert titled “We Are One” was focused on restoring the two Koreas’ identity as one nation. The concert moved beyond the realm of inter-Korean cultural exchanges and expanded into a show that was held on the sidelines of a global event. 

When the show was over, North Korean singers expressed their hope to meet again in front of the South Korean audience, although their words were lost in the applause. Their wish actually came true, as the South and the North agreed on the South Korean art group’s performance in the North. 

In April 2018, a South Korean art troupe staged a performance twice in Pyongyang under the title of “Spring Comes.” 

The concert opened its curtains with a wonderful hologram video and a dance performance. 

South Korean female singers Jungin and Ali sang an old Korean song “Face” in harmony with North Korean singers. 

Unlike in the past, performers used symbolism reflected in song titles or lyrics. They selected songs that would go well with the theme of peaceful unification. Some South Korean singers who had visited the North before recalled their past experience by singing the same songs they had performed in the North. In a reciprocal move, some sang South Korean songs that were performed by North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra during its concerts in the South. Through the performances, the two sides made efforts to reinterpret inter-Korean relations. I think this is greatly significant. 

When singers from both sides of the border sang the last songs “Our Wish is Unification” and “Let’s Meet Again,” the audience members sang along to the songs, promising to meet again next time. 

After the “Spring Comes” concert in Pyongyang, an art troupe in Pyongyang had planned to perform in Seoul under the title of “Autumn has Come.” The Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 stipulates that the concert is scheduled in October. 

Since then, several autumns have come and gone. But still, the “Autumn has Come” concert exists only on paper. 

Latest News