On the disbandment of the DPRK’s Unhasu Orchestra and the reported death of several of its members

With respect to the matter of the Unhasu Orchestra “executions” which has been bubbling about since late August 2013, augmented by  JoongAng Ilbo reports of “stadium executions” in Wonsan in November 2013, and raised again with reports of grizzly executions of yet more musicians in spring 2015: Obviously, none of us is in possession of anything resembling a conclusive data point which would prove or deny the Unhasu assertions. What I have instead, besides my recent essay about the disappearance of violinist Sonu Hyang-hui, are four points of attention on this.

1. Cultural Crackdown? The Case of the Moranbong Band

One of the reasons we like these rumours has to do with the definitiveness they bring: Clear lines of action demand a reaction. But “crackdown” in North Korea is a relative concept, isn’t it? And when it comes to musical ensembles in Pyongyang we would like to analyse things for which data actually exists, such as concert line-ups, frequency of performance, repertoire choices, and the presence of leaders along with honored foreign guests and selected North Koreans at such concerts.

North Korea’s public musical culture was shaken up by the appearance of the Moranbong Band in July 2012. Even if that particular group has become just another extension of “Songun culture” and the people who control it have been very conscious for Moranbong Band to be seen as merely mobilization props for the Korean People’s Army & the Workers’ Party, there has nevertheless been more than a faint whiff of glasnost about it.

What is noteworthy to me is how, in the aftermath of these rumours, the group was suddenly combined in performance with the Army and State Merited Choruses (I will others to a better translation of this unwieldy group name). It was not only strange – having these new idioms combined with the old Red Army Chorus-style bellowing they were ostensibly a clear improvement upon – but this was a first. Moranbong Band is not playing concerti with traditional orchestras; their presence is intended to represent an evolution. 

One thing that was unclear to me with that particular Moranbong Band show was the lineup of the female soprano and alto soloists. If one or more of the Moranbong singers has gone missing (on account of a purge, political misbehavior), and this might explain the need to fill the ranks of the performers with a new ream of female soloists, such as those attached to the State Merited Chorus. I would argue that the combining of Moranbong with the old-school State Merited Choruses indicates a sop to cultural conservatism; in a certain sense, Kim Jong-un is trying to put the genie back in the bottle.

2. The possibility that the Unhasu Orchestra has been phased out altogether

Simply because the Unhasu Orchestra has stopped appearing in public does not necessarily mean that it is altogether dead, or that all of its members have been relegated to absolute political oblivion. State orchestras in single-Party dictatorships like China reorganize all the time; you have the same constellation of players playing under different ensemble names. It appeared, for instance, that some of the violin section players in the Unhasu Orchestra were in fact playing in the string section of the Mangyongdae Arts Troupe ensemble for the Mongolian President during his visit to DPRK in 2013. One can’t rule out the possibility that the Unhasu Orchestra has simply been reorganized, and we can say categorically that some of its members are very much alive, and have been reassigned already.

3. On the Unhasu Orchestra’s political function in North Korea

This group was Kim Jong-il’s creation and is closely associated with the commemoration and memory of the Dear Leader. They would occasionally play private concerts for the dictator, and the group’s March 2012 trip to Paris was in part a eulogy to the man and a testament of his support for the ensemble. If Kim Jong-un is moving to indicate that he is operating on an updated basis that can leave his father’s legacy behind, selectively, than it perhaps makes sense to mothball this institution. However, it does seem strange to have built a new performing arts hall tailored to the orchestra and then disband it (the hall is, in fact, the heart of the new residential developments in the city).

4. The Unhasu Orchestra’s function in DPRK diplomacy

As my 2013 article in North Korean Review argues, the Unhasu was very explicitly posed as the ideal partner for orchestras in Seoul for a possible inter-Korean orchestra concert, and their March 2012 Paris concert was intended not just to heighten attention spans prior to a missile test, but to pique interest among various South Korean forces for engagement. Perhaps Kim Jong-un is happy to have another orchestra serve this function, but it is also possible the group is under wraps until it needs to be used for a new charm offensive or initiative toward Seoul, however unlikely that may seem at present.

Image: Unhasu Orchestra concertmaster Mun Kyong-jin preparing for a concerto performance in Paris, March 2013. 

One thought on “On the disbandment of the DPRK’s Unhasu Orchestra and the reported death of several of its members

  1. Well here’s my wild speculations…

    I wonder whether a disbandment might form part of a strategy. Let’s call it “what’s old is new again”. So, if you will tolerate the allusion, the dated fashions of earlier years are put away for a new wardrobe, one satisfying the needs of the present. After a time, the former will be brought out and not just dusted-off but presented as progressive, vibrant, and entirely desirable.

    As to “why”, well perhaps there’s a realisation within the party that a state-manufactured pop-culture lacks the authenticity necessary to hold public opinion. But a credible orchestra does and will hold an element of national pride, “It will be a treasure for the people…”

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