Notes on North Korean Musical Exchanges and Internal Narratives

A lot of people seem to be interested in North Korean cultural diplomacy these days, so the (often peer-reviewed/probably badly flawed/usually enormously fun) work which I have been doing on this issue for the last decade has allowed me to say a few not completely ignorant things about it for a wider public.

[Updated 6 April 2018:] This morning I spoke about it with Canada’s national radio.



Jonathan Cheng of the Wall Street Journal also was kind enough to pick up on my points about how the South Korean musical acts were not likely to upend seventy years or so of assiduous work of the youth league in North Korea, among other elements of continuity.

[Original post follows:] This NPR segment with Elise Hu brought in my background about the North Korean outlook and precedents for musical diplomacy, in light of an upcoming concert in Pyongyang.


That particular interview ran about ten minutes, and covered the gamut from history to loudspeakers, the 2012 tour of the Unhasu Orchestra to Paris, and the Moranbong Band.  Had we had more time, I would have liked to discuss E. Taylor Atkins’ work on popular music on the peninsula in the 1930s and early 40s, as well as portrayals by North Korea in its comic books, plays and literature of colonial-era or South Korean musicians seen by the DPRK as being in thrall (well, slavery, really) to foreign culture. Somewhere in my notebooks is a couple of pages of a Rodong Sinmun editorial from the early 1960s attacking the American-infected jazz which was emerging in South Korea, and that small data point did get a shout out.

I did have occasion to mention to NPR how Korean musicians were pulled apart in the mid-1940s, with many choosing to go North — this is a process which I have learned about primarily second-hand, via research articles on the Cultural Cold War in Korea as well as galvanising passages of Suk-young Kim’s latest book DMZ Crossing (Columbia University Press, 2014) [NB: Dr. Kim has now moved to UCLA].

However, in addition to one preliminary article published in North Korean Review in 2008, (“Song of Youth: North Korean Music from Liberation to War“) I do have one original research project in rather slow development using North Korean music journals from the 1950s to chart the growth of the classical music profession in the DPRK’s early years.

Naturally none of that made it into the piece, I think, but that’s part of the “overflow effect” of doing media interviews — you’re giving background to the journalist which may come in handy later (not unlike the function of the Presidential Daily Briefing for the chief executive). Moreover for the researcher, such interviews are small rewards and reminders that your activity is not all being done for posterity, CV padding, granting agencies, or a circle of at best a dozen researchers around the world who may end up reading or citing your academic work.

The primary point from the historical background discussed with NPR might be that as distant as the two cultures have become, at the end of the day there are some common roots and a  “reunification” of Korean cultures would require a rather deep dive back to the original years of the split.





Back in early February I spoke with a Washington Post reporter, Joyce Lee, for nearly an hour about another topic where there are people more fluent than myself (for starters, Keith Howard, Pekka Korhonen, and Lisa Marie Burnett) but where I have done enough research to feel like I had something tangible to contribute to the conversation.

I haven’t listened to the recorded excerpts, but a few snippets of that conversation ended up in the article, including the following quote:

Neither the Moranbong’s look nor its Western song choices are a sign the country is opening up, according to Cathcart. Still, he said, studying music trends in the North can yield crucial insights into the opaque country.

“Our khaki lenses go on when we see North Korea, and we are always trying to figure out: What kind of power does the army have? Are there going to be purges? What’s Kim Jong Un’s relations to the generals? Sure, these are all important questions,” Cathcart said.

But when it comes to culture, [it’s about] how North Koreans live their daily lives, what kind of cultural choices they have. I think it’s an important question in terms of understanding what’s going on in an average musically oriented North Korean’s mind and in their life.”

This interview also included extended discussion of the New York Philharmonic visit to Pyongyang in February 2008, the ‘Moranbong Incident’ in Beijing in December 2015, the function of songs in DPRK political culture (a topic about which Keith Howard is due to speak at Harvard next month) and more detailed discussion of ‘popular music’ repertoire in North Korea.

Finally, there is a piece I wrote for The Diplomat print magazine which I believe will be coming out on 1 April.




Here is the opening of that article (as submitted; revisions may have been made), and its concluding paragraph:

If Donald Trump manages to stride into North Korea and meet Kim Jong Un, for once, his tweets and non sequiturs at rallies in Rust Belt states will not precede him — at least for the North Korean public. In a country with minuscule rates of international internet access and some of the tightest censorship controls in the contemporary world, what the North Korean people see and read is different in the extreme from our dominant narratives.

How have North Koreans been encouraged by their state to perceive the developments of the last ten weeks? The country’s media is keeping silent on the prospect of a Kim-Trump summit, a tactic that is not all that surprising given the sheer amount of sensitive work there is to do behind the scenes. An examination of North Korean public media since the beginning of 2018 still has its benefits, as it reveals a few aspects of what Kim Jong-un is ultimately looking for with the overall charm offensive that has been ongoing since the beginning of 2018, and how North Korea looks to manage its information strategies relative to diplomacy and internal control in the coming months.

This is therefore not a story about rumours, or foreign media penetration of North Korea by the multitude of projects and outlets whose goal it is to “break the information cordon” exercised by the Workers’ Party of Korea. The regime has done extremely detailed work to to tilt the field of technology in its favour, using mobile phones as another implement of surveillance and putting forward new information strategies to both mimic and control outside influences.  

For purposes of this small study, we assume an audience of primarily urban North Koreans who may have one foot in the markets but another in the Party or state structures within North Korea. [NB: For more grounded research on this assumption or connection, see Hazel Smith’s Markets and Military Rule, a five-part review of which is available at] In other words, the consumers of North Korean state media internally might be workers in state institutions or students who are members of socialist organisations. […]

If North Koreans are going to levy threats at Donald Trump, they will do it via groups [and] a matrix of organisations locally. In the few days after Kim Jong Un claimed a complete nuclear deterrent in his New Year’s Speech, many North Koreans were not celebrating in their offices or apartments, but out shovelling manure in the fields around the country’s cities. The agit-prop machine will continue to do its work, and somewhere through the filters, the people will become aware of if their quasi-divine leadership ever meets with Donald Trump at all.

Image: From the collection of the author, although the English volumes on Sino-Korean musicology and music are on long-term loan from Kevin Cawley (University College Cork), via James Grayson  (University of Sheffield).


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