The New York Philharmonic, led by composer Lorin Maazel, held a historic concert in isolated North Korea on the 26th of February. Some people said that the New York Philharmonic brought a new beginning of music diplomacy (sing-song diplomacy) to North Korea.
The Philharmonic began with the sublime melody of North Korea’s national anthem, “Aegukga (Patriotic Song)” at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater with the performance simultaneously broadcast on national television. For this, it became widely known that the North Korean national anthem shares the same title as the South Korean one.
The New York Philharmonic, one of the three most-renowned symphony orchestras in the world, played North Korea’s national anthem on a stage displaying the flags of both the United States and North Korea. After performing North Korea’s national song, the Philharmonic followed with the U.S. anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The audience stood during both anthems and held their applause until both had been performed.
One distinctive point of the performance, however, was that North Korean citizens did not bow or put their hands on their chest in a sign of respect when the New York Phil performed the national anthem of North Korea on the stage displaying the North Korean flag.
Lee Il Sun, a North Korean defector and a former political manager of the People’s Army made a comment about this unexpected symptom. “People don’t sing the national anthem in North Korea, They teach ‘Aegukga’ to the second year students of a primary school but do not give a special meaning to it” Lee said.
“For North Korean citizens” Lee said, the “Patriotic Song” is not held in particularly high esteem. “Actually, there are only a few people who know the lyrics of the ‘Aegukga’ among North Korean defectors”
It has been reported that North Korea had abandoned ‘Aegukga’ in October 1980, when Kim Jong Il was selected as the official successor of Kim Il Sung at the Sixth Convention of the Workers’ Party. Kim Jong Il replaced “Aegukga” with the “Song of General Kim Il Sung” at all national ceremonies.
After the death of Kim Il Sung in 1997, the “Song to General Kim Jong Il” was also meant to be sung at official ceremonies as well. People in North Korea also sing “Without You (Kim Jong Il), There Will Be No Us” at the end of each ceremony.
“For the North Korean people, it doesn’t matter not to know the lyrics of ‘Aegukga,’” Lee said. “But it will become a big problem if they do not clearly know the lyrics of the ‘Song to General Kim Il Sung’ or the ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il’” he said.
“When I was in North Korea, in April 1997,” Lee said, “there was a sudden inspection from the brigade when the ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il’ was just propagated into the country. Some of the military companies that couldn’t remember the complete lyrics of the song were severely blamed for and the commanders were demoted for their collective responsibility”
“At this performance, the North Korean audience did not show their respects to the flag during the performance of the North Korean national song.” explained Kim Young Sae, former officer of the Party. “A couple of years ago when a North Korean cheering group paid a visit to South Korea they also did not bow to their flag and national anthem. That concept just isn’t on their mind” he said.
The “Aegukga” that North Korea adopted was a newly-written piece in 1947. The words were written by the poet, Pak Se Young, who crossed over into North Korea in the summer of 1946, and the music was composed by Kim Won Gyun who is also the composer of the ‘Song to General Kim Il Sung’ in 1947. Aegugka is also clearly stated in article 170 of the North Korean Constitution as the national anthem of North Korea.
North Korea, however, only performs “Aegukga” at the beginning of radio and TV broadcasting. Apart from those rare occasions, “Aegukga” is only played when chiefs of state or the presidents of foreign countries pay a formal visit to North Korea.
The latest time that the national anthem was played in North Korea was when Vladimir Putin, the former president of Russia, visited Pyongyang on the 19th of July, 2000. According to protocol, the national anthem of North Korea was performed along with that of Russia.
North Korea steadfastly remains against playing the South Korea anthem, ”Aegukga” and hosting the South’s flag, the Taegeukgi, even though the 2010 World Cup preliminary match is supposed to be held in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Related to this issue, Kim Chul Hyoung, a North Korean defector, said, “If there is a match in Pyongyang, North Korea would not accept the Taegeukgi, ‘Aegukga and cheering squad from South Korea as well.”
He explained the reason is that “North Korea propagated that South Korea is the colony of the imperialistic U.S. and the people in South Korea are only waiting for the day that they can live worshiping Kim Jong Il, the sun of the nation,”.
North Korea rejects the playing of the South Korean ”Aegukga” and the hosting of the Taegeukgi at the 2010 World Cup preliminary match in Pyongyang because “North Koreans would be tremendously shocked, if they watch the people in colonized South Korea singing Aegukga and shouting out ‘Dae Han Min Guk (the Republic of Korea).’” said Kim.