New York Philharmonic Visit Shows Unexpected Effect — North Korean Media Calls for Vigiliance Against Jazz

Rodong Sinmun, the main mouthpiece in North Korea, carries an editorial calling for greater vigiliance in the musical realm, with ample reference to how exposure to rock and jazz music helped to speed the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe:

Those who were corrupted first by the wind of renovation and reform in the former socialist countries were the young. They led the way to socialism’s collapse.

These youths were on the cutting edge, spreading the ideology and culture of the imperialists. They enjoyed western books and movies, which are full of decadence, and hung around listening to jazz and rock.

[In] former socialist countries, [leaders] did not value youth education highly, so the ideology and spirit of the young went astray, and thus they were not able to bring about socialist achievements or stick to the socialist way.

Those who harbored the illusion of capitalism defected to western countries, betraying their fatherlands. Thereafter, their economies went bankrupt and riots broke out.

It looks like Gershwin’s jazz-inflected “American in Paris” was indeed a subversive repertoire choice for the New York Philharmonic’s February 2008 concert in Pyongyang.

Fortunately I have a rather immense academic article on this topic, including many documents from East German archives which I poached from Berlin, which should be out in December in Acta Koreana.

Here, since it is relevant and original (and thus meets my new standard for blog entries), is a little excerpt from my article:

The Workers’ Party in Pyongyang doubtless apprehended the deleterious significance of the cultural momentum which popular music helped to create in East Germany, the Soviet Union, and China in the late 1980s.  In particular, the close ties in this period between the [North Korean] Youth Democratic League and the East German Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend) had given certain North Koreans close view into the budding rock-and-roll culture in East Germany.  The North Koreans were not far from the mark when they noted that increased influence of pop music among youth could be very corrosive to the cultural monopolies of the Party itself.

[Excerpt from Adam Cathcart, “North Korean Hip Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy with the DPRK,” unpublished paper presently under review with Acta Koreana — please do not quote or cite without previous permission from the author.]

The Worker’s Party is losing control over the musical choices of youth, particularly in urban areas.  On the one hand, they can’t stop the kids from singing the now-banned song “Footsteps” about now-apparently-discredited and would be successor Kim Jong Un, and now we have a growing demand for portable music devices.  Even though North Korean kids can’t swap files online (because there is, for the most part, no internet in North Korea), they do use home computers to share files privately with friends.

A September 9 report from Pyongyang by two Canadian reporters was criticized for not bringing forward anything of significance, but in fact their report quite helpfully discusses the musical tastes of Pyongyang MP3 listeners, relaying their anecdotes that rap music remains unpopular in the DPRK but that certain recent Western rock and R & B hits were known to Pyongyang youth.  Photographs from the foray indicate that private, portable listening devices are now commonplace among North Koreans.


“Rockmusikveranstatungen in der DDR (Rock Music Activities in the German Democratic Republic)” especially files “Durchfuerung eines international Friendenskonzerte anlaesslich des Weltfriendesntages am 29.8.1987 in Berlin (Development of an International Peace Concert on the Occasion of World Peace Day on August 29, 1987),” and “Solidaritaetskonzert mit Bruce Sprinsteen [sic] und der E Street Band am 19.7.1988 (Solidarity Concert with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on July 19, 1988)” in State and Party Mass Organization (SAPMO) Archive, Berlin, Germany, DY 24 FDJ/Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth).

Undated conversation between Ri Jong Su [Chairman of Central Committee of DPRK Democratic Youth League] and Eberhard Aurich [First Secretary of Free German Youth], State and Party Mass Organization (SAPMO) Archive, Berlin, Germany, DY 24 FDJ/14482, p. 3.

Paul French, “Korea: Unification by Stealth,” <>, accessed on November 13, 2007.

Tacheles performing in Zion Lutheran Church, East Gerlin, 1987.  Photo from public exhibition/ausstellung at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, July 2009, taken by Adam Cathcart.
Tacheles performing in Zion Lutheran Church, East Gerlin, 1987. Photo from public exhibition/ausstellung at Alexanderplatz, Berlin, July 2009, taken by Adam Cathcart.

Coda: Finally, doing a word search on 音乐 on the Chinese version of the Daily NK, I can across this curious image from an untranslated article about two reactionary musical groups.   I have added it to the translation queue!  I will make an effort to at least summarize the relevant article ASAP, given the sudden explosion in music-related news from Pyongyang.

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