Adam Cathcart on North Korean Music Diplomacy

Adam Cathcart, PhD, is founder of Sino-NK and a lecturer at Leeds University in the UK. Dr. Cathcart’s research and publication program falls into three broad categories: China-North Korea relations, Sino-Japanese relations, and East-West cultural relations. He has been interviewed by BBC, NPR, and Huffington Post Live, and quoted in the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. His writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, and the Daily NK. He is the co-author of a book manuscript concerning North Korean-Chinese relations and borderlands from 1945-1950. Adam Cathcart was interviewed by Tiana Pugh on March 3rd, 2018.

The day before the Winter Olympics opened in PyeongChang, North Korea’s 140 member Samjiyeon Orchestra performed a medley of songs for a crowd of over 800 people in Gangneung. Why did North Korea choose to send the Samjiyeon Orchestra? What was the significance of this performance in light of the military parade that North Korea held on the day of the performance?

Different ensembles have different meanings and functions. For example, the Unhasu Orchestra is the orchestra that went to Paris right after Kim Jong-Il died; its performance was the first major cultural diplomacy under the Kim Jung-Un regime. It was there to emphasize North Korea’s military prowess and military launches. In other words, the orchestra is the velvet glove, inside of which is the fist of nuclear power. They wanted to call attention to the country’s military strength. The timing of the visit did that, and the rhetoric from North Korea’s state media advertised that. The Moranbong band is similar in that respect. This key ensemble is associated with Kim Jong-Un, the nuclear programs, advancement and technology.  Sending the Samjiyeon Orchestra to the South Korean Olympic Games was more of a traditional move in the 1970s or 1980s vein. It was a conservative move by the North Korean regime to say, “We’re not sending the Unhasu Orchestra. We’re not sending the Moranbong Band. We’re not sending the Sea of Blood Opera, which is associated with revolutionary culture and Kim Jong-Un. We’re sending this more retrograde orchestra that is soft and fuzzy in terms of thematic strength and is newly composed members of a number of different ensembles.” In terms of how they present themselves, the orchestra is more like the Mansudae Arts Troupe, which primarily consists of a string orchestra and women wearing conservative dresses. The Moranbong Band would have been a natural choice for a touring ensemble, but it is fairly small and has just the women involved. The armament aspect of that group also would have been a problem, and the experience of having been invited, rehearsed, and then cancelled in China in 2015 indicated as much.  Kim Jong-Un and his sister clearly wanted this to be as seamless as possible. The purpose of the concert was to get face time with the South Korean president and not to anger the South Koreans in any overt way in the process.  They can always hold the Moranbong Band in reserve as a more advanced, avant-garde ensemble for other trips or diplomatic missions.

In terms of the military parade, there is always a dual track of North Korean propaganda and its information strategies. You can also call it a soft power strategy, if you want a term that would be used for a more normal country. There is the message to the elites and the media-consuming people of North Korea and then there is the message to the rest of the world. I would not put too much stock in the military parade’s occurrence on February 8, just before the Samjiyeon orchestra played, in part because it is a normal anniversary for North Korea. They’ve done a nuclear test in February before, so in terms of a provocation this was pretty low level stuff.

One of the concert’s major themes was North Korea’s desire for reunification. The orchestra performed several songs related to reunification, including “Our Wish Is Unification.” Why was this message included in the concert?

This is not a big surprise. If you go to North Korean restaurants around the world and you listen to the repertoire of small ensembles at these restaurants, they know they are going to have South Korean customers, so they play a number of old standards. There is nothing specific about it. It is meant to elicit an emotional response. The funny thing about North Korean arts in general is that they are bifurcated. It is either a hard-edged, clear, almost like a physical punch in terms of a political message, or a fuzzy message that life is good, reunification is around the corner, and the socialist method is working. You are not meant to be critical in those areas or get aggressive or agitated emotionally. It mirrors the overall North Korean approach to the arts. 

As president, Kim Jong-Il created several music groups, including the prestigious Mansudae Art Troupe. Could you briefly explain the history of North Korea’s music groups under Kim Jong-Il and the role they played in North Korean diplomacy?

According to North Korean official histories, all of this goes back to the anti-Japanese guerilla period of the 1930s, but I think the real roots of these ensembles date back to the period of Soviet occupation from 1945-1948. You can read in a number of North Korean and CIA documents how they were composed of Koreans from Russia, Koreans with a Chinese background, and Koreans from South and North Korea. These were large, state-led ensembles, modeled on the pattern of Soviet opera and ensembles. They still use this model and they are meant to connect to the productive process of the economy and society. It is very typical for a work site to be visited at some point during the day by an ensemble from a local art troupe. They are there to rouse the workers with the latest music and the old favorites. The ensembles themselves were around in the 50’s and 60’s, but Kim Jong-Il injected a new impetus into these ensembles with his own personal take on the arts. His own interests were both cinematic and musical. He started putting his stamp on the ensembles in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

The ensembles used to be employed for more standard socialist cultural exchanges, which have been pretty regular over the years. If you go back to the Korean War, ensembles were one of the things the North Koreans could offer to the Socialist Bloc. They could not offer minerals, or money, or well-trained individuals, but they could send ensembles, choirs, and orchestras to raise money for the Korean War effort. They toured around the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union and received training from Soviet ensembles. The North Korean Kim Won Gyun music conservatory was founded by an individual who had training in the Soviet Union. They were vessels for standard party-to-party relationships. Since the relationship with China cooled with the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Eastern bloc, North Korea has tried to find a new diplomatic purpose for the ensembles. Domestically, they have the same purpose as always: to provide good jobs for musicians, musical training, and a path upwards. The members have a fairly high standard of living and they occupy a relatively prestigious place in Pyongyang. In terms of touring though, they have had to adapt to the new situation. Kim Jong-Un is in line with his grandfather and father in terms of trying to find creative ways to use these groups to the national benefit.

Following Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011, Kim Jong-Un created the Moranbong Band, an all-female group known for its performers’ modern dress and polished performances. What does the group’s style and musical repertoire reveal about Kim Jung-Un’s approach to music and diplomacy? Is it similar to or different from his father’s approach?

It is somewhat different. In terms of foreign music, Kim Jong-Un’s father seemed to like Richard Clayderman’s easy-listening piano music. Instead, in the Moranbong’s music, there is a sort of medley. The Moranbong’s New Year’s concert this year, for example, had three parts. The first part was serious, with the message that “you better concentrate, build up a personality cult, and stay focused on socialism.” The performers were basically reading poems from the Rodong Sinmun or Worker’s Daily. Then they broke out of that into a section focused on production, industriousness, and speed. The band had a song that became very popular in North Korean called “Without a Break” or “Tansume.” It is a perfect example of this idea of being upbeat and speedy. The foreign music comes in the third part of the concert in the form of easy-listening music. This is music that was popular in the West in the mid-70’s as pop versions of classical music. The music in this section of the concert can be seen more as a reward and rest from the ideology. It is part of the idea that as a North Korean under Kim Jong-Un, you can experience a lot of things about the world in a very safe way, as long as you do not have access to the global web or you are not downloading the music. It does not mean that they all want to go abroad or that such music is functionally connected in their minds to Mozart and Vienna or Germany or Andrew Lloyd Webber and London. We do not want to get too excited over these small, rather fleeting foreign medleys that are played by the Moranbong Band because they fall outside of the dominant narrative.

The band is also trying to create the image of the Byunjin line: nukes in parallel with economic development. One feeds the other. The Moranbong Band, especially in its earliest permutations in 2012 and 2013, before the execution of Kim’s uncle, represented a more liberal line in terms of consumer culture and normalizing the question of the modern North Korean woman. The band also changed Kim Jong-Un’s narrative. Kim has done a good job of taking his disadvantage, which is his youth and total inexperience, and turning that into an advantage. The Moranbong Band was an important part of that change early in Kim’s rule.

The North Korean government often posts concert videos on sites such as YouTube and Youku. What is the government trying to achieve by posting these videos?  

The ensembles have a lot of functions. There are scholars who spend their lives looking at pictures of North Korean missiles to determine where the O-ring is, whether it has Ukrainian design, etc. The specialists are going to search for that data from wherever they can get it. Sometimes, the data is from a Moranbong Band show, where there is a slideshow behind the band that focuses on missile development. Kim Jong-Un and the people around him know who is looking at these performances and why. The band becomes a vessel for disclosure of the nuclear program. It is not the whole picture, but it sometimes plays an important role.

There is a Finnish political scientist, Pekka Korhonen, who has a website called Morandisco and he argues that the North Korean government basically wants to create fans. They think people will like the music and that there is an audience. It is a cheap and easy way to get their message out. There is a specific studio, the Mokran Video Company, that produces high-quality DVDs of the performances for domestic consumption, so you may as well upload it online. It is one thing the government can do in terms of international propaganda at a low cost.

Can the arts serve as a bridge to better relations with North Korea? Does the hosting of North Korean music groups present a real opportunity for meaningful engagement?

Yes, because cultural exchange is one of the areas where there is a fairly developed infrastructure. The North Koreans feel confident here. With an orchestra, everybody is playing at a fairly high level; you can bring the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang, for example, which happened in 2008, and you can put the ensembles together. The same thing occurred with the Unhasu Orchestra when it went to Paris. One player sitting at the stand is an American, the other is a Frenchman and the other is a North Korean, but they do not have to talk. It is music and there is a lot of structure to it, so it is more easily controlled. There have been ongoing orchestral exchanges for a long time and that has never stopped. But, for whatever reason, the North Koreans have been reluctant to send ensembles to the South. The recent orchestra performance is a good beginning. It would be great if they could have more combined ensembles and more connections on the classical musical front. There is one small ensemble no one talks about, the Isang Yun. Yun is an avant-garde, atonal classical musical composer who ended up in North Korea, but he “spoke” both North Korean and South Korean. His music is avant-garde, true contemporary music. Here is where North and South Korea could do an exchange because it is Korean contemporary music. It is not exclusively North Korean or South Korean. There is research they could be doing together, but the North Koreans are the ones who tend to slow this process down. They are the ones who control the pace, and the pace has been excruciatingly slow for the last 20 years.

Tiana Pugh CMC '19Student Journalist
Image description: North Korea’s musical ensemble Samjiyon Orchestra had its second performance in Seoul, South Korea on February 11, 2018. On this night, K-pop girl group Girl’s Generation member Seohyun presented audiences a pleasant surprise by making an appearance on the stage.
Attribution: Kim Jinseok (Official photographer of the Blue House, Republic of Korea), Blue House (the executive office of the Republic of Korea head of state, the President of the Republic of Korea) [KOGL (], via Wikimedia Commons
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