North Korean music, peace, propaganda
The approaching XXIII Olympic Winter Games shine a spotlight on the Korean Peninsula, and the very tentative steps toward cooperation between the two Koreas in the current highly-charged political climate. Music is playing a role in that arena.
Recent articles in the New York Times underscore the power of music as a unifying force. Choe Sang-Hun, Korea Correspondent for the Times, reports that the Samijiyon Band, one of North Korea’s top orchestras, was named as a part of the arts troupe being sent to the South, along with the pop singer Hyŏn Song-wŏl. Ms. Hyŏn, well known for one of her most famous songs, “The girl on the steed” (or if you prefer, the more common and somewhat awkward translation, "Excellent horse-like lady”), led a seven-member delegation to Seoul, and then onward to the Olympic venue at Gangneung. Also referred to as “North Korea’s Spice Girl,” Hyŏn was once linked romantically with Kim Jong-un. In 2013 Hyŏn was widely reported to have been executed along with a dozen other artists accused of making pornographic videos, salacious news that was later proved to be false.
Sample CD covers
North Korean music, much like music of the former Soviet Union, has been carefully propagated to serve the Party. Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, founded in 1972, is North Korea’s only school of music, and continues to foster a strict adherence to the juche political ideology, promoting self-reliance and absolute commitment to the Party. All artistic production belongs to the masses; music glorifies sacrifice to the Party and its “Dear Leader” or celebrates good communal fortune such as a bountiful harvest.
Sample CD covers
The simple harmonies and diatonic melodies retain a mere hint of the flavor of Korean folk music traditions. Contemporary recordings evidence liberal use of synthesizers and other electronics, and Western instruments such as electric guitars and drum kits. The lack of any singular creative voice is apparent in the blandness of the musical product, and a certain Lawrence-Welk wholesomeness permeates.
Stanford Music Library has 425 CDs of North Korean music in its circulating collection, including 32 featuring Hyŏn Song-wŏl. Ensembles include the Korean People’s Army Song and Dance Ensemble, the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, and many others.
Choe Sang-Hun, "North Korean Pop Singer Leads Pre-Olympic Delegation to South," New York Times, January 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/21/world/asia/north-korea-pop-singer-olympics.html
Choe Sang-Hun, North Korean Orchestra Plans to Perform in South Korea During Winter Olympics, New York Times, January 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/world/asia/north-korea-orchestra-south-korea-olympics.html
Choe Sang-Hun and Rick Gladstone, "Cheating Death, and the Rumor Mill, in North Korea," New York Times, May 19, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/20/world/asia/north-korean-performer-reported-executed-appears-on-television.html
Adam Cathcart & Pekka Korhonen, "Death and Transfiguration: The Late Kim Jong-il Aesthetic in North Korean Cultural Production," Popular Music and Society, 40:4, 390-405.