R.O.C.K. in the D.P.R.K.
What can we learn about the Hermit Kingdom from the amazing music videos it has on YouTube?
Pop quiz: name one North Korean song. Fair enough, it’s not the easiest country to get to know. And vice versa. Between the country’s self-imposed isolation and an outdated communications infrastructure (not to mention one of the world’s most autocratic regimes calling the shots), residents of the Hermit Kingdom probably aren’t watching a lot of MTV. Pyongyang Shore, anyone? Yet, even North Korea can’t completely avoid the Internet. Last year, foreign affiliates of Kim Jong-Il’s regime set up Facebook and Twitter accounts for North Korea. As Foreign Policy explained last year, a very small contingent of North Korean citizens, most of them government officials, are able to access the Internet.
Yet, over the past year, a number of music videos apparently made in North Korea have surfaced on YouTube. As Isaac Stone Fish explains, Kim Jong-Il and his father Kim Il Sung have fostered a nationwide enthusiasm for music. “It is music that truly permeates North Korean life, at least the parts that have been approved for foreign consumption,” he writes. “Songs communicate political messages, sometimes specifically and sometimes a general reminder of the superiority of the Koreans and their society.”
As we can see with the seven videos that follow, sometimes the North Korean propaganda machine is loud and clear — and other times, we might as well be listening to static. Either way, you’ll find these videos sometimes painful, occasionally beautiful, and entirely riveting.
“Our Kindergarten Teacher”
Forget China and its Tiger Moms — it’s clear that North Korea has been raising its children to be musical prodigies. The sheer precision of these kids (not to mention the glowing smiles) makes each second of the three-and-a-half minute video worth watching, but as one YouTube commenter noted, “Am I the only one who finds this video extremely creepy?” You can also find videos of North Korean children playing synchronized drums and the flute.
By the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble
The band Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble has merged into the digital sphere with a MySpace page featuring free downloads, including the song “Reunification Rainbow,” heard in the music video above. It’s unclear, however, whether the video was produced by the band itself or by fans. Nonetheless, it’s a tribute to the North Korean dream of reunification, featuring bucolic scenes from the Korean demilitarized zone and a number of inexplicable dancing parrots, juxtaposed with what seem to be screensavers from Windows 95.
“Women Are Flowers”
Here, Kim Jong-Il’s favorite band, Samjiyon, teams up with visiting Russian musicians to perform its hit “Women Are Flowers.” Samjiyon, as Isaac Stone Fish discovers, is North Korea’s “newly formed popular band,” a group 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.” Sit back, relax, and enjoy. Dear Leader finds that Samjiyon’s music is best enjoyed with a bottle of Hennessey.
North Korean aerobics
While everyone loves a new fitness craze, this North Korean workout isn’t likely to take off anytime soon. There’s a lot of shuffling back and forth, neck circles, high knees, and forced smiles. Around 4:00 things get tricky, requiring a bit more coordination than your typical Crossfit workout. While it may not be an international hit, perhaps the somewhat Rubenesque heir to the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong Un, could use a couple sessions.
“The Flower Girl”
An opera by Kim Il-Sung, performed by Sea of Blood
The revolutionary opera “The Flower Girl” is an old North Korean favorite. Set during the 1930s Japanese occupation, it follows a poor rural family joining the revolution to improve their lives. The performance is counted among the “Five Great Revolutionary Operas,” and was reportedly written by Kim Il-Sung himself. The opera was performed in Beijing in 2008 to great acclaim. According to a Chinese news site:
The 2,079-seat opera house thundered with applauses during the three-hour show. Over 180 artists from North Korea’s Sea of Blood Opera Troupe brought an operatic feast that was both refreshing and nostalgic.
No word yet on the date for the Sea of Blood Broadway debut.
Korean Folk Song
For those of us who can’t understand Korean, this video must speak for itself. It appears to be an ode to the ocean, featuring three girlfriends enjoying the surf and sun on one of North Korea’s beautiful beaches. There are also bicycles, goats, and a campout scene. Could it be a Korean parallel to Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” a paean to the trials and joys of teenagerdom? Maybe it’s a warning to imperialistic overlords like the United States to stay far, far away. Either way, it’s … uh … catchy?
“North Korean Party Rock Anthem”
This video was personally commissioned by Kim Jong-Il to showcase his country’s unbelievable rhythm, flexibility, and ability to synchronize. OK, that’s not true at all — but the coordination is incredible, and we all know Dear Leader likes to party. Sadly for him, his 69th birthday this year wasn’t marked by the same lavish display of pilfered wealth as usual. Instead, North Korean embassies marked the special day by appealing to their host governments for food aid.
So much for Juche. Rock on to harmonious glory, comrades.