Resources on North Korean Music Diplomacy


One strand of my ongoing academic work as a historian of Northeast Asia concerns music and cultural diplomacy in and by North Korea. My published online work on this topic generally does a few things. It:

– tries to understand what the music scene means for broader cultural changes in Kim Jong-un’s Korea;

– documents which ensembles seem to be in the favour of the leadership and deliver core political/diplomatic messages;

– tends to entwine study of the music with more traditional ‘North Korean leadership studies’ (aka Kremlinology);

– follows the very limited extent to which North Korean ensembles are allowed to interact with foreign musicians;

– occasionally translates or analyses efforts by foreigners (generally Europeans like Morten Traavik) trying to set up cultural or musical diplomacy with North Korea (like these German and Japanese orchestra visits in spring 2013), to varying degrees of ideological discomfort and success.

My peer-reviewed printed work on the subject has benefitted a great deal from a collaboration with the political scientist Pekka Korhonen. As a run through his extensive website will attest, Korhonen has done more work than anyone else writing in English to document the Moranbong Band, and thereby to bring some fresh thinking about the role of music for the North Korean regime and Kim Jong-un personally. His translation of a number of Korean and Japanese documents was particularly helpful for the two articles we co-authored for publication in 2017:

(2017). “Tradition and Legitimation in North Korea: The Role of the Moranbong Band,” Review of Korean Studies, co-authored with Pekka Korhonen, Vol. 20, No. 2 (December), 7-32.

(2017). “Death and Transfiguration: The Late Kim Jong-Il Aesthetic in North Korean Cultural Production,” Popular Music and Society, with Pekka Kohornen, Vol. XX, No. 1, pp 1-16.

A couple of political science-oriented projects with my longtime collaborators Steven Denney and Christopher Green also deal with music. These two articles describe how the Kim Jong-un regime has used music on the global stage in order to enhance domestic loyalty to himself and the North Korean state:

(2014). “How Authoritarian Regimes Maintain Domain Consensus: North Korean Information Strategies in the Kim Jong-un Era,” Review of Korean Studies, with Christopher Green and Steven Denney, Vol. 17, No. 2 (December) 145–178.

(2013).“North Korea’s Cultural Diplomacy in the Early Kim Jong-un Era,” with Steven Denney, North Korean Review, Vol, 9, No. 2 (Autumn) 29-42.

The US Department of State occasionally takes interest in this kind of work, and invited me for two presentations on US musical diplomacy with China during the Cultural Revolution (once in Foggy Bottom at a conference organized by the Office of the Historian, and another much smaller event at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu), which I finally managed to knock into article form:

(2012). “Musical Diplomacy in the Nixon-Kissinger China Visits, 1971–1973,” Yonsei Journal of International Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring/Summer) 31–38.

In 2006, Hiram College in Ohio asked me to team-teach a module on Music and War. That module, along with a trip to the Captured Documents collection in the US National Archives with Charles Kraus, was helpful in getting the following two articles completed:

(2008).  “Song of Youth North Korean Music from Liberation to War,” North Korean Review, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Fall), 93-104.

(2008). “Internationalist Culture in North Korea, 1945-1950,” with Charles Kraus, Review of Korean Studies Vol. 11, No. 3 (September), 123-148.

North Korea seems to both suffer from poorly-considered comparative studies, and yet still to hold out potential more (i.e., better, or different) work in a comparative frame. B.R. Myers very reasonably suggests that South Korea ought to be the primary frame of comparison; yet, from the expanding bulwark of his personal blog, advice to read Viktor Klemper’s wartime diaries from Berlin coexists with wonderfully categorical statements like “South Korea has no more in common with West Germany than Kim Jong Un has in common with Erich Honecker.” (So what does Kim Jong-un have in common with Erich Honecker, you might ask? Besides having paired himself with an presumably very ambitious wife, that is?) Anyway, I spent week one of a twenty-two week module on the Korean War with my students discussing an article by Bomi Kim that undertakes a comparison of North Korea with that of Israel, an approach which is both alarming and stimulating.

So, having laden down this post with various caveats and the appearance of looming feelings of inadequacy (as with Wagner’s similar expressions in his correspondence with Franz Liszt, I assure you they are all fake), I recall some of my earlier materials that are ostensibly related with the subjects of music and totalitarianism, as seen in Nazi Germany and in 20th-century China, respectively. None of the articles are explicitly comparative, but there are parallels which might certainly be drawn at a later time, with perhaps the help of a recent dissertation from Stanford, and whilst trying to ignore the Soviet elephant in the room:

(2013).“Cleft Identity: Jewish Musicians in Berlin, 1933-41,” H-German review essay, (March), 5 pp.

(2010). “Japanese Devils and American Wolves: Chinese Communist Songs from the War of Liberation and the Korean War ,” Popular Music and Society, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May): 203-218.

(2006) “Music and Politics in Hitler’s Germany,” Madison Historical Review, Vol III, No. 1 (September), 1–17.

In 2012, after meeting a group of North Korean musicians on tour in China, I arranged a number of North Korean songs for cello and piano, performed them at universities in Sichuan, and made a CD of a selection of them with the Berlin pianist Andreas Boelcke:

Here again (besides the intrusion of queered pitches and a need to practice the instrument such that a viable performance of a Shostakovich Cello Sonata or Concerto was actually possible, much less these songs), there are problems with this mode of “practitioner-lite.” Like writing book reviews, playing music or doing something resembling musical diplomacy ought to consist of more than semi-interested dabbling. But going full-on with this activity with the goal of performing at, say, the April Friendship Arts Festival, would probably raise a few valid questions about the objectivity of whatever scholar/musician/person who carried them to plan. (Edward Hunter, the author of the 1951 barn-burning Brainwashing: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds, would likely be no less horrified than my head of school, who is expecting a few publications about war crimes and Sino-North Korean relations — unless of course there were some brave funding body who wanted to splash a few hundred thousand pounds at the problem.) Nevertheless, at appropriate times (such as the present) I am trying to put to use my experiences from my performances as a soloist in Japan in 1987, my years at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and my few more recent experiences of rehearsing with North Korean musicians, performing for North Korean diplomats at formal occasions, and working through some North Korean music and performing it for Chinese university students alongside repertoire by Schumann, Bach, and Brahms. I have no particular idea where it is going to lead, but given the current focus on cultural diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, it would seem that the work is not entirely without a purpose.

Image: North Korean virtuoso Mun Kyong-jin, violin soloist at the Unhasu Orchestra’s March 2012 concert in Paris, via France24.


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