String Crossings: Tracking the Evolution of North Korea’s Moranbong Band

One of the advantages of staying at the top North Korean hotel in Shenyang, the Chilbosan, is that the nightly broadcasts from Pyongyang are available in real time.

Earlier this month, I made a visit to the hotel and was rewarded with a news broadcast from Pyongyang which featured highly the return of the Moranbong Band. The first violin/concertmaster Sonu Hyang-hui finally reappeared with the Band, in one of their concerts in Ryanggang province. That’s interesting because she had been absent from the band’s previous return concerts in March, and had not been seen on the stage since October 2013.

So she obviously hasn’t been purged or otherwise ostracized, although there had been some speculation about her connection to Jang Song-taek, given the band’s travel to China during his visit there in August 2012.

I don’t think that she (or even Ri Sol-ju, for that matter) is in any danger of eclipsing Kim Jong-un in terms of popularity, given the weight and inherent momentum of the cult of personality around the Kim leadership (since the late 1960s, really). North Korean artists and musicians know their place within that system and know that to succeed within it, one does not attempt to go beyond established boundaries.

Here are my questions about the Moranbong Band:

-Why do the Moranbong Band shows dwell so heavily on old movies in terms of graphics used? Is this a clear case of “old wine in new bottles” or is something genuinely new happening on stage that needs to be counterbalanced by older, more traditional propaganda tropes?

– What percentage of their repertoire are rearrangements of old songs vs. completely new songs? (The song “Without a Break” is a perfect example of the latter; it is fully associated with Kim Jong-un.)

– What role does the Moranbong Band play in North Korea’s information strategy, particularly as it concerns what might be called “soft power” or cultural diplomacy?

– Why has the Workers’ Party chosen now as the time to unleash them again, and in particular to indicate that they “belong to the people” and are not simply pleasure brigades for Kim Jong-un? (The appearance of Choe Tae-bok at their concert —unobtrusive but unmistakeable-– at their last Pyongyang show was a good example of this — they are not mistresses of the top elite.)

– Has the Moranbong Band ever initiated a “diplomatic signal” to, say, the United States, via one of their concerts — as opposed to merely reflecting state propaganda themes?

– Big question: Why has the Unhasu Orchestra *completely disappeared*, and what has happened to the Sea of Blood Opera company, which Kim Jong-un has shown zero interest in and which has previously toured China on multiple occasions? In other words, is the splash of the Moranbang Band actually masking a larger turmoil/inactivity/bureaucratic rearrangement and reassessment of North Korea’s classical music culture and musical culture generally?

For more information (and for more of my commentary) on this matter, see the AP piece:

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/24/pyongyangs_pop_queens_stage_comeback/ 

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