Notes on the Music Scene in Pyongyang

I was in North Korea for several days in the middle of March 2016. While my main purpose was to visit the Sinchon Massacre Museum for a Korean War research project in which I am engaged, I was also quite interested in the performing arts and arts scenes, since those are areas which are relatively more permeable to foreign researchers and ones in which the North Korean officials feel confident that they excel.

Naturally having gathered up some new materials, the real work now begins. I am reminded that still have a great deal to learn about the Moranbong Band in particular, and hope to continue to learn from my colleague and sometime co-author in Finland, Professor Pekka Korhonen, whose website on the Band is the most comprehensive resource on that subject in English. (A recent post of his about the rather flimsy connection that is often drawn between personnel churn in music ensembles and internal exile to labour camps is a case in point: Korhonen is sensible, thorough, and well-informed.) At a later date I will be blogging about our forthcoming peer-reviewed output, but for the time being, here are a few of my unrefined reflections on method and music-related materials available in Pyongyang earlier this month:

Moranbong Band DVDs are now available in several shops in Pyongyang which are open to foreigners. They are all published by Mokran, a company whose HQ is quite prestigious, literally across the street and at the foot of the long incline up to both the biggest Kim statues on Mansudae and the other smaller hill up to Moranbong Theater. I was not able to visit the company site (other than to tag it visually), but there was no problem at all in purchasing and exporting the DVDs. The shops which sold the DVDs included a tourist shop which may or may not be open to normal North Koreans near the Arch of Triumph, and other shops. The shop near the Workers’ Party Monument was also magnificent, and had by far the most knowledgeable staff along with the probably the best selection of books about music. But the very best place to purchase DVDs was in the airport, 5 Euro per, and I purchased 6 on the way in and one more I may have missed on the way out (the shop, conveniently named “CD” in Susan Airport departures, is the very best place, as it had all the DVDs I had seen throughout my trip, but also a large number of DPRK movies, cartoons, as well as “classical” North Korean music in the form of CDs from about 1997 forward). In other words, if anyone wanted to write an in-depth study of the classical music output of North Korean composers in the era of Songun, this shop would be the primary target. CDs were cheaper than DVDs, 3 for 100 RMB. I think many of the CDs stay on the shelf in this particular shop, but they had enough of everything. Needless to say this was a nice surprise.

In terms of environment, the band was everywhere — almost. The DVDs were playing in our hotel lobby, in many of the restaurants (for foreigners of course); as dance music for children at Pyongsong, on Air Koryo both in and out. I find this to be interesting in the sense of that it is the face presented to the outside. There were not outdoor scrreeens playing their works — the three times I saw big public TV screens in public spaces, they were playing movies each time (the big LCD screen in Kim Il Sung square has been taken down, mainly I think because no one is allowed to congregate there, except for children on rollerblades on the days when tourists are visiting).

Yet, I think foremost domestically, the Moranbong is clearly meant to represent the new consumerist society and rising upper class. They do enough succession propaganda, missile glorification, etc., to keep them relevant in other areas, but seeing a late-middle-aged woman looking at a ream of a dozen blaring TVs at the Gwangbok Department Store for me sealed the deal. I did not discuss the band with my guides really, although I probably should have, as I got nowhere with my queries abut Ri Sol-ju’s role or non-role as a “fashion icon” in the country.

In terms of publications I was unable to obtain updated or outdated copies of Umak Yongu, or Music Research, a journal which I think we or someone really needs to explore for data on the subject of the extent to which the Moranbong Band represents a mainline change in North Korean music circles or is quite exceptional, and will remain as such. Going through some arts yearbooks, I got the sense that the cultural bureaucracy is fundamentally extremely conservative and that there are heavy incentives for not going too fast in terms of changing structures the way things are in China. This is to be seen not necessarily in mothballing some ensembles, which I have already covered in a forthcoming publication dealing with Unhasu, but in terms, for instance, of encouraging and pushing a kind of Moranbong model in a country without the infrastructure or gaining to support it — rescued by their virtuosity, as it were.

There were no Changbong Band DVDs for sale, although I did see them once on a DVD being played at a restaurant (again one whose main clientele was foreigners, but which had some North Koreans going in and out and spending foreign currency). Every question about DVDs or CDs of the Unhasu Orchestra was met with a polite ‘no’, and not pursued by me — that ensemble has thus disappeared in more ways than one. So the 16 February 2012 commemoration of Kim Jong-il’s death has now been taken up by the State Symphony Orchestra, which I have a recording of.

My desire to go to Pyongyang Fine Arts University was ultimately turned down for unknown reasons, but instead I was able to have arranged a visit to the Masudae Arts Studio, where I had a good but somewhat short discussion about the studio’s overseas project with one mid-level person there, as well as a solo visit (i.e., myself with one guide) to the National Gallery on Kim Il-sung Square, encounters which I anticipate discussing another time.

Image: A whimsical offering from the Mansudae Arts Studio, Pyongyang, 16 March 2016. Photo by Adam Cathcart. 

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