NK Cultural Politics in Reverse Gear

The recent military mobilization in North Korea has been significant for reasons other than mere power consolidation or the country’s foreign relations: It has also camouflaged an unmistakable retreat in Pyongyang from cultural engagement, which is now being degraded alongside the deteriorating security discussion.

One of Kim Jong Eun’s assets as a leader is the mystery surrounding his own tastes, and the suspicion, widely held, that he might guide North Korea into the 21st century with more than Red Army-style entertainment and cult-driven literature, film, and arts. Whether it is his own preference for i-Mac computers, his prominent meetings with American pop culture figures, the (brief, for some) opening of internet access or the rumors that he is in fact a multilingual Europhile, Kim has kept Western observers engaged in an entertaining cat-and-mouse game with respect to his cultural intentions; this is no small achievement for a state locked into a stereotype by his own reclusive father.

Within culture, Kim has shown particular attention to the field of music, one of the most sensitive and important realms of ideological contestation and assertion by the state, a medium taken very seriously by all of the Kims who have ruled North Korea. Kim Jong Eun has associated himself clearly with the Moranbong Band, a group of attractive women fluent in Western pop styles spanning not just American, but also French and Italiante. The group was the focus of stadium rock-style concerts in 2012 that gave young North Koreans a little taste of what their counterparts had easier access to in the South. It seemed momentarily that the regime was forgetting its own lessons from the collapse of East Germany (Springsteen in Berlin!) and had decided that the kids would not melt if they saw a woman in a mini-skirt shredding some pop music on an electric violin.

Yet the Moranbong Band, sadly, has not been seen in public since the New Years’ Concert, when they fetishized a nuclear missile striking the USA and greeted the Chinese Ambassador after the show. (Dennis Rodman may have been given a private showing of the group, but his memory seems soaked and unable to say whether this was indeed the case.) More depressing — and perhaps predictable — is the fact that the band has become fully an instrument of Songun policy, using their music to accompany the same old visual track of military exercises that glorify the Chosun People’s Army and the North Korean leadership. No less than a concert organized by the head of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League, the Moranbong concerts represent a type of musical sycophancy which Louis XIV would recognize. The relative “progressivism” of the Moranbong style, instrumentation, and harmonies thus now function as simply a new bottle for the army’s old wine, as could have been presaged from the group’s second big performance, a paean to the “victorious” Korean War.

The young, who not so long ago might have dreamed of reveling in a new era of economic reform set to Moranbong’s tunes, are instead being mobilized to declare their undying hatred for America and desire to serve as “five million living bombs” in the protection of Kim Jong-un. This of course avoids an obvious question: If the state has its own nuclear weapons, then why are high school and university students still expected to become bombs? The North Korean state media has been at pains to emphasize how invigorated the recent travails have made the youth; long marches to Samjiyeon continue apace.

Yet thankfully, the North Korean state still has, if nothing else, the ability to both threaten and seduce at the same time. For those observers hoping for a cultural turn, the spring was indeed cold, but not entirely barren. Several things did happen in the first months of 2013 that would indicate that the highest levels of the DPRK are at least still discussing, if not implementing, an open approach to culture. Multiple cultural missions were the vehicles: visitors from Google and the NBA were the most visible.

However, the evident problem with the Google and Globetrotter visits was that they were one-offs. Schmidt, in particular, seems unlikely to return, given the fact that Rodong Sinmun chased him away “like a venereal disease patient prattling on about human rights.” Neither visit seems likely to engender ongoing exchanges.

Instead, it was those that require follow up from North Korea that should give limited hope to the optimists. One was by conductor Alexander Lieblich, who has been traveling there since 2005 to work with musicians. His visit with the Munich Chamber Orchestra was a limited event, but an important one. The conductor later described a concert piece by the Polish modernist Lutoslowski as being “anti-totalitarian,” and conservatory students played in small ensembles with German musicians.

Michiyoshi Inoue, who had worked with North Korean musicians in Japan, also came by to do Beethoven’s Ninth with the Pyongyang State Symphony orchestra. The concert was broadcast on state television in early March, and offered a message of universal brotherhood. Alas, though, while South Korean conductors had proposed the Beethoven as an opportunity for North Korean musicians to come to Seoul to join a pan-Korean orchestra, it was not meant to be, and the “victories” were, in the bigger picture, decidedly temporary.

* The viewpoints expressed in Guest Columns are not necessarily those of Daily NK.

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