Kim Jong Eun commands attention for obvious reasons. His charismatic heft, however, also manages to obscure a number of the other personalities at the apex of North Korean politics who arguably do more to make the whole system run. Within this group there are a small handful of individuals who deserve a great deal more critical attention, and none more so than Kim Ki Nam. He is in his mid-80s, runs the Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, and was one of the pallbearers for Kim Jong Il at that funeral way back in December 2011 (not to mention travelling to Seoul for Kim Dae Jung’s funeral in 2009). He has managed to avoid the fate of many of his colleagues; nobody outside of North Korea has so much as questioned the stability of Kim Ki Nam’s place in the power structure. He is never the subject of rumors.
In a regime where the execution of top officials can be publicly justified on the grounds that the official in question had not applauded with sufficient enthusiasm or paid only scant attention to the placement of a carved inscription to the glory of the Mount Baekdu lineage, to be in charge of propaganda is no laughing matter. And indeed, Kim Ki Nam has been receiving regular jolts of recognition of his bureaucratic and ideological power. Of late, he has been addressing huge and full auditoriums, and acting in all ways as an authority in the matter of Kim Jong Il’s legacy and its interpretation. At the strangely orchestrated airshow for Kim Jong Eun in May, it was he standing at the top of the steps in a privileged role, just behind the “first couple.”
To all appearances and as would befit his bureaucratic role, Kim Ki Nam has also been a key part in allowing a reshaping of propaganda and repackaging of traditional messages in an ostensibly new, and female, skin.
In other words, behind the ostensibly “sexy” content of the Moranbong Band there is a deeply conservative agenda at work. The content of their performances and the visuals in particular behind the players indicate a deep connection to what can only be called “Kim Jong Il revivalism,” an effort to create a contemporary tie to the early 1970s in North Korea (not coincidentally, a period of moderate prosperity).
It is significant that the direction taken in the band’s activities was solidified and endorsed at the recent Party congress on arts. Never underestimate the power of such a meeting in a socialist country to solidify the direction being taken in the performing arts. For while this is indeed pro forma “propaganda,” it is also more than that: The performing arts have seen small but tangible changes toward internationalization in the Kim Jong Eun era, possibly more than any other field.
The Kim Jong Il slogan about “keeping your feet on the land while looking out at the world” is not entirely theoretical for the classical music performing elite. Before he disappeared from public view, the concertmaster of the Unhasu Orchestra played under conductor Loren Maazel when the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang in 2008. A Japanese conductor performed Beethoven’s Ninth in 2012 and the Munich Chamber Orchestra brought Mozart and some avant-garde Polish music to North Korea. To state that such visits leave no imprint at all among music students in North Korean conservatories would be insulting.
In terms of the ability and interaction with foreigners of its performing arts, North Korea today is not China in 1966; it is much more like China in 1973. There are ample individual signs of change and openness in the classical music sphere. These changes are far from pervasive, but, as ever, with firmer patronage from above or a partial relaxation on international exchanges, it could be opened up and moved even faster. In other words, music is an area where North Korea feels proud of its achievements, understandably so, and can feel confident about pushing ahead with exchanges on a more or less equal level.
The North Korean musicians I have met are all extremely talented, and also extremely loyal to the state. The fact that I have rehearsed with some of them by playing a bit of “Czardas” on an ersatz cello may have no bearing whatsoever on their political outlook, and why should it? Certainly studying and playing their music has not turned me into a devoted follower of Kim Il Sung. Until we are blaring the Overture to “Egmont” over the DMZ, effectively weaponizing Beethoven, there will be room for musical exchange.
Perhaps we need to ask a different set of questions. If North Korea is anything like the former Soviet Union, there are intelligent musicians within the system who are not entirely pleased with their present lot. And short of the defection or internal exile that a small number may suffer, those questions are pragmatic. What does Kim Jong Eun really mean when he says, “Study the working style of the Moranbong Band”? How much latitude for self-expression can be found on the margins of the propaganda state? How much contact is allowed with foreign specialists? Is it possible for one’s ensemble, including the Moranbong Band, to take a tour abroad? Why have some members of the Unhasu Orchestra been reassigned to other orchestras, while others seemed to disappear? How do we use the highest-possible endorsement of the Moranbong Band as a wedge to accelerate the acquisition of foreign culture within North Korea, without incurring the wrath promised in Rodong Sinmun to those who bow to cultural imperialism and long to connect with the global internet?
Kim Ki Nam seems primed to bang on about the greatness of Kim Jong Il until he retires, which would be extraordinary, since few people go out on top. The significant question for those of us outside of the physical (but within auditory reach of) the country, is how to interpret and encourage the kind of limited cosmopolitanism going on at present.
This essay was originally published by Daily NK, the Seoul-based online newspaper run by North Korean defectors, on 30 May 2014. Romanization of names and places thus cleaves to the Style Guide of that organization.