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Music of North Korea

By Anonymous

Read this in Korean

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One way to better understand a country is through learning about its culture. While North and South Korea are separated by only the border of the 38th parallel, a majority of South Koreans do not know much about the North Korean culture. As the Kpop and the Hallyu wave makes their way around the globe, one cannot help but wonder if the people of North Korea have had the their share of exposure to South Korean music. Would there be such things as mainstream music, major entertainment industries and other related markets? To answer such questions, this article will examine the different genre of music in North Korea, its status for youth and music education, the industry and its growth process, as well as the changes with popular music.

Like those of South Korea, North Korean textbooks also contain a variety of songs. In the field of mainstream music, there are songs such as: the Spring of Home, Aprock River’s Song, Let’s Climb the Baekdoo Mountain, Whistling, and more; folk music includes well-known traditional songs such as: Ganggang Suwolrae, Arirang, the Chestnut Ballads – all of which are included in South Korean educational textbooks as well.

While North Korea’s music first developed using folk music as its basis, the industry slowly changed with  Kim Il Sung’s order to the fine arts professionals in July 11th, 1964. In this directive, Kim Il Sung demanded that:

  • Pansori (traditional Korean genre of musical storytelling) should be prohibited as stirs excitement among the people which can lead to an uprising
  • While North Koreans have smooth voices, they have a tendency of projecting hoarse sounds – eliminate such sound from instruments and vocalizations
  • North Korean music must be studied prior to education of western music
  • Inability to play North Korean music with western instruments will lead to the desertion by the people

The focus of North Korean music is not built upon psychological or artistic perspectives, but rather analyzed on a political spectrum – further, such music is designed to encourage the growth of students as socialist warriors. With the 1996 overall shift towards a Kim Jung-Il-centered educational curriculum, musical reform also steered its attention towards songs praising Kim Jung Il. Close examination of this pattern shows that 50 per cent of educational music are those designed to idolize the Kim regime and the country, while 20 per cent is dedicated towards the country’s socialist revolution. Music without any reference to politics only consist of 30 per cent of those available in student textbooks. According to an interview given by Mr. Hong-Il Lim, a North Korean defector, until the 1970s, traditional folk music such as Arirang and Bellflower (Do-Ra-Gi) were at the core of mainstream music – the popularity of wartime music during the period of the Korean War, was followed by praises of the leadership with North Korea’s change in governance to totalitarianism.

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Meanwhile, educational textbook reforms have introduced a more variety of genre for songs that require vocalizations. Prior to the reform, songs about the nature did not exist in grade 1 textbooks; if there were an estimated number of two to three songs for grade 2 to 4 textbooks, reformed textbooks carried three to five songs. Evidently, this is a contrast to South Korea’s educational music textbooks that address a variety of themes, such as nature and human emotions. North Korea’s music is shaped to maintain and cultivate the indigenous sentiment of the regime, and such foundation puts Kim Il Sung’s teachings at its core. Thus, North Korean music attempts to materialize the population’s allegiance to its nationality and mass appeal, while formulating the very structure of an individual’s thinking. In turn, music has been an instrument of inciting political apathy and rejection of Western music’s bourgeoisie tendencies.
After the reform, Kim Il Sung ordered manufacturing of instruments, and demanded for the creation of music that could deeply embed the Juche Ideology among the population. Those who did not abide by these orders, were either exiled to the countryside: it was said that people who created music in accordance to the standards established by the regime survived.

For example, as Pansori is considered ‘bourgeoisie music’ in North Korea – due to regime’s conclusion that this genre’s melody is not smooth and thus, unsuited for the North Korean demographic – it has not been traditionally transcended as it has done in South Korea. The regime selects folk songs that are easy to understand for the general population – of these, the regime eliminates music enjoyed by the upper class and the monarchy, and re-stylizes the lyrics to reflect socialist messages.

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However, despite the regime’s striking political trait, its music is not very different from those of other nations. Rather, North Korea’s music has its share of positive traits: for example, the reform could be seen as a positive push to progress the nation’s music, as stated by Kim Il Sung in 1968: “We need to incorporate western instruments to improve the nation’s music. North Korea should not become subservient to western instruments, but rather, the latter should obey North Korean instruments.”

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According to North Korean defector Lim, if folk music praising the leadership or labour was widely circulated in the past, today’s North Korean music has turned its attention towards songs such as Whistling, a mixture of Trot and folk. Likewise, Korean Trot has become a popular genre of music with the dissemination of USB’s sent from South Korea.  I conclude this article with a hope that unification of the peninsula is in the very near future.