Pyongyang Rock City

Meet the hitmakers of the Hermit Kingdom.


PYONGYANG, North Korea — On the sculpted entrance to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, a woman, graceful as a mermaid, played the flute as she floated through a sea of stars. Out in the parking lot, locals played tennis in the September sun on a court painted onto the concrete, making do with a ball long since stripped of its green fuzz. "This is a special theater of the president!" a loudspeaker boomed.

I was here to see Samjiyon, North Korea’s "newly formed popular band." This being North Korea, "popular band" has somewhat different connotations than the usual guitar-bass-drums four-piece singing about girls: Samjiyon is a collective of dozens of performers who jam on violins, pianos, and accordions in praise of the ruling Kim dynasty and the exploits of the North Korean people. It’s a church band for North Korea’s state religion of nationalism.

Samjiyon would be playing for the benefit of the tour group I had joined, a group of almost two dozen people from the developed world who came to see the sites of Pyongyang. Officially, North Korea welcomes American tourists. My minder on a 2008 trip warned me that when someone referred to Americans as "U.S. bastards or U.S. imperialists, I will just translate that. I hope that’s OK," he said, adding apologetically, "I’m just doing my job."

Each year hundreds of Americans complete the simple application process and visit Pyongyang on package tours, which include a visit to the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung, the USS Pueblo — moored in Pyongyang since 1968 and the only U.S. Navy ship held captive abroad — and the hysterical Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which details the iniquities of the Americans during the Korean War. Tourism seems to be expanding: It is now easier for Americans to visit the country for longer than the customary four-day trip, and a government-overseen investment group recently started offering cruises.

North Korea, like Annie Oakley with tunnel vision, feels the need to prove that anything you can do it can do better. (Like Paris, Pyongyang boasts an Arch of Triumph — only Pyongyang’s, with its 25,500 blocks of white granite, stands 33 feet higher.) Nowhere, save for the country’s outsized military, is this more apparent than in North Korea’s cultural endeavors. The Mass Games, a staple for tourists, has the Guinness world record for largest gymnast display, with 100,090 performers. Keith Howard, an expert on North Korean music at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, recalls seeing an Italian conductor play in Pyongyang; afterward a local conductor repeated the performance, to rave reviews on local television. 

North Korea also turns out less overtly competitive cultural products. The country’s publishers sell fairy tales about imperialist landlords. Its film industry — famously favored by the country’s mercurial ruler, Kim Jong Il — turns out movies about pure Koreans suffering under the Japanese. Its largest art studio employs thousands of workers who paint pictures of steel foundries and various Kims gazing over cliffs. There is even an artist rumored to have long hair.

But it is music that truly permeates North Korean life, at least the parts of it that have been approved for foreign consumption. Karaoke machines and attractive singing waitresses feature in practically all North Korean restaurants open to foreign tourists. On a recent trip plaintive music wafted out of the escalator to the Pyongyang metro, so deep underground that people sat down for the ride. North Koreans whom my group approached in parks or at tourist attractions would occasionally spontaneously break out in song.

The Kim dynasty has long fostered this kind of musical enthusiasm. Kim Il Sung played the organ at his church as a child. In his essay "On the Direction Which Musical Creation Should Take: A Talk to Creators," Kim Jong Il writes of two versions of the song "General Kim Il Sung Is Our Sun": one in E major and one in D major. Although the younger Kim prefers D, the elder Kim said, "When the song was sung in a higher key, it was better for expressing emotions richly." Kim Jong Il listens carefully and concludes that "the song expresses the writer’s emotion more vividly" in a higher key.

Songs communicate political messages, sometimes specifically and sometimes generally, as a reminder of the superiority of the Koreans and their society. "You can chart the production of songs and lyrics against state editorials," says Howard. Some North Korea watchers viewed the song "Footsteps," which children in North Korea were reported to be singing last year and which praises a "Captain Kim," as a message to the people that Kim Jong Il is grooming his son Kim Jong Un — referred to in some official propaganda as a "youth captain" — for power. "No memo goes out about the succession, but people should know through the music," says Adam Cathcart, an expert on Asian musical diplomacy at Pacific Lutheran University.

North Korea lacks pop stars in the traditional sense. Among the country’s best-known singers is Hong Yong Hee, who appears in the revolutionary opera Flower Girl — about an impoverished rural sweetheart tormented by her landlord — and whose face graced an older version of the North Korean one-won bank note. The band Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble has a Myspace page offering free downloads, but hits like "No Motherland Without You" and "Reunification Rainbow" would seem to have little international crossover potential. Many North Korean bands feature an accordion, borrowed from the Soviet model of culture. "The accordion is very portable," Howard says. "If you’re running dance classes or singing in the countryside, you can’t take a piano."

The Samjiyon band is overseen by the Mansudae Art Troupe, named for the hill where Kim Il Sung made a historic speech after gaining control of the country after World War II. Like most organizations in North Korea, Samjiyon’s name comes from a story in the Kim pantheon: It was a site of awesome revolutionary fervor in the battle against the Japanese. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Samjiyon has "been appreciated by many tourists," some of whom were "deeply impressed by its instrumentalists’ and singers’ refined artistic talent, unaffected acting on the stage, and soft rhythmic movement." The band’s New Year concert, the agency reports, boasted a "full house everyday." This being North Korea, there’s no way to confirm these or many other facts about the band, much less interview its members. My North Korean guide, however, was unimpressed and didn’t come to the show. "I prefer the symphony orchestra," the guide told me.

But I, for one, was excited as I sat in the theater — the same one in which the New York Philharmonic performed in 2008 — waiting for the band to show. Our group of Western tourists sat behind a row of Korean schoolgirls from Japan: the chongryon, or pro-Pyongyang Korean expatriates, who wore Kim Il Sung pins and giggled with excitement. They approached us for photos with their expensive cameras and flashed the V sign.

The lights dimmed. A woman came onstage wearing a sparkling white dress and praised Kim Jong Il in a trembling voice. The singers came out next, the women wearing matching monochromatic dresses, the men in suits. They performed in front of a video backdrop that shuffled among an array of revolutionary images: the Juche Tower. A North Korean flag blowing in the wind. A forest fire. A path through a field in the mountains.

Against an instrumental backdrop of trumpets, flutes, strings, and piano, the singers worked their way through songs like "Long Live Generalissimo Kim Il Sung," "Led By You, We Will Win," and "The Song of Roast Chestnuts." There was a stillness to the performers; they didn’t seem to be communicating with the audience, but rather singing by rote, like a rehearsal in an empty auditorium.

After 15 minutes of this I began to get restless and looked around at the audience. Many of the Westerners sat there rapt, as if just being in North Korea were enough to make a juche-themed answer to the Lawrence Welk Show enthralling. The North Koreans, however, looked disinterested. Too well-mannered to talk, they stared at the walls or rested their heads in their hands. One woman had dozed off.

Suddenly the energy in the room changed. A tall man with a bouffant pompadour and a white bow tie came onstage. He seemed to look everyone separately in the eye as he scanned the theater, eliciting excited murmurs from the audience. The music sounded like a cross between a symphony orchestra and an Atari game. As the man sang, he moved confidently around the stage, his hands open and welcoming. The audience started clapping along. At one point, he held a note for a satisfying 15 seconds, a genuine smile on his face, and the audience went wild. I clapped along, too. Then the other performers returned. Minutes later, like the woman seated behind me, I fell asleep.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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