Notes on Kim Ki-nam, and on North Korean Cultural Production

The Chosun Ilbo carries the news that Kim Ki-nam, head of North Korea’s Ministry of Propaganda and one of the few remaining members of the famous funeral cortege of December 2011, has finally stepped down from his post.  I previously analyzed the possibility of Kim Ki-nam’s retirement, and his place in the North Korean system, in this June 2014 article on musical propaganda. Earlier in spring 2013, I described Kim Ki-nam’s unique role in the North Korean system and his ability to “be both been seen and heard,” unlike his soon-to-be-purged colleague.

If Kim Yo-jong (the younger sister of the present Supreme Leader) is indeed to update North Korea’s propaganda apparatus, she might consider bringing back the Moranbong Band from a rather long hiatus, getting over whatever stomach bug seems to be knocking her out in the middle of on-site inspections, and having more overt displays of historical analogies comparing her to the armed and bureaucratically formidable “mother of the nation” Kim Jong-suk.

On the Melodic Aspect of Political Purges | A key musical element to the Jang Song-taek purge was the song “We Only Know You.” However, from the North Korean state perspective, there were several songs that could have been used which were already in existence, such as “Let’s defend General Kim Jong-un with our lives!” This song certainly would have suited with its heaviness and more importantly its evocation of the “Paekdu bloodline” which Jang Song-taek was so manifestly lacking. (Note the guerilla images in the first stanza.) But this song, which I believe was composed in January 2012, was lacking in any connection to the more “future-oriented” Moranbong Band, and it had female voices, which presumably would not give sufficient weight to the post-purge messaging of heavy destruction for the enemies of state. Thus the song “We Only Know You” has Moranbong instrumental accompaniment, but no female voices. Perhaps it was necessary to have a new song, then, to demonstrate that a real clean break had been made, or was necessary.

The fundamental message of songs like “We will safeguard the leadership of the revolution with desperate courage,” another State Merited Chorus classic, would have suited, but the names shouted out would have had to been changed from “Kim Jong-il” to “Kim Jong-un.” While this method of pure transposition or cipher substitution is in a way at the heart of the whole enterprise of the management of the personality cult, it can’t be done overly obviously; the fiction (which then becomes reality) is that Kim Jong-un himself is undertaking acts which themselves guarantee the undying loyalties of the masses, who happen also to respect his Paektu lineage, an aspect explored further by Tania Branigan with regard to “Footsteps” (see “North Korea’s Kim Jong-un gets new official theme song,The Guardian, 6 July 2012).

Reading “Realism” in North Korean Art | A recent panel led by Koen de Custer in Chicago on the subject of cultural production on North Korea  engaged with many productive ideas, as did the Leiden University scholar’s paper. (See Koen de Ceuster, “Truer than Life: Reality in North Korean Socialist Realist Paintings,” paper presented at “View from Within and Without: Art, Architecture, and Archaeology of North Korea” panel, Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Chicago, 28 March 2015.)

De Custer’s work is rather useful in that he describes some of the philosophical aspects of being a North Korean artist, and how one can engage in what he calls “truthfulness” in the North Korean sense even while (and in fact, through) making up aspects of the Kim’s lives, or in beautifying aspects of life in North Korea.

His former student Min-Kyung Yoon delves into this at somewhat greater length in her dissertation, leaning on Evgeny Dobrenko’s book Political Economy of Socialist Realism (translated by Jesse M. Savage [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007]). Yoon writes:

“The original reality undergoes a facelift, passing through socialist realism, creating a brand new socialist reality. By displacing the destructiveness, violenc,e and poverty of state socialism, leaving the system unrepresented, unarticulated, and ultimately de-realized, socialist realism created a a new, substitute reality by aestheticizing it.” (Min-Kyung Yoon, “Aestheticized Politics: The Workings of North Korean Art,” PhD dissertation, Leiden University, 2014, p. 58.)

Cultural Unification: Tangible Goal or Phantasiebild? Hyesun Shin writes about North Korean defector performance groups in South Korea. In her paper, entitled “Impact of the Arts on Identity (Re)Construction: North Korean Defectors’ Performances on the South Korean Stage,” the question of transferability of North Korean art forms into a post-unification society arises via a fine array of interview data and performance statistics.

Is North Korea’s Moranbong Band being put out there as a sop to South Korea? I think not, but this question of cultural proximity is particularly interesting — as there are very few such moments or possibility, such as the Unhasu Orchestra tour to Paris in 2012.

We seem to be daily alerted by journalists and academics of indicators that the cultural threat to the DPRK’s state monopoly from information leaking in over the “porous” northern border with China is in some ways greater than ever. Yet the South “Korean Wave” has been penetrating in over the northern frontier since the time of the the Great Famine of the 1990s. Perhaps there should probably be a statue of limitations on people calling this a new thing, or, to use an Americanism, a “game changer”? Plowing through some of my paper archives in Seattle, I recently ran into a big piece on this theme by Barbara Demick in the LA Times in 2003 which argued that the information blockade of the regime is no longer effective. (See also Elisabeth Rosenthal, “The East is Blue and Orange as Hip-Hop Invades,” New York Times, March 8, 2001.)


  1. It seems preposterous to me (I speak in ignorance) that the Moranbong Band could ever be an effective instrument of the state. And yet when I close my eyes and listen to their performances I could easily see them filling that heavy void in the living-rooms of the ordinary. Perhaps not quite an opium for the people, but not far off.

    In terms of their performances, I’d say they’re closer to “trot” than “pop”.. I’m quite surprised they include a drummer though. Drumming is very physical — certainly not something becoming a lady. But perhaps that is the intention.

    BTW. my Korean wife told be to put my headphones on because the music “was getting to her”.

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