Dynastic Dirges, Part Deux

This is a guest post from Nick Frisch, a writer based in Hong Kong: "The outside world got a listen at North Korea’s curious soundscape during yesterday’s widely-covered funeral of Kim Jong Il. Like the Hermit Kingdom itself, the DPRK’s aural heritage is a musical mishmash: bombastic or solemn Soviet anthems aped by the North’s ...

545202_kim_looking_at_people2.jpg
545202_kim_looking_at_people2.jpg

This is a guest post from Nick Frisch, a writer based in Hong Kong:

"The outside world got a listen at North Korea's curious soundscape during yesterday's widely-covered funeral of Kim Jong Il. Like the Hermit Kingdom itself, the DPRK's aural heritage is a musical mishmash: bombastic or solemn Soviet anthems aped by the North's uniformed orchestras and Red Army-style choirs, but also deeply Korean, pan-peninsular folk classics like Arirang, an unofficial anthem on both sides of the DMZ.  (It has also been expanded into an iteration of Pyongyong's infamous song-and-dance spectaculars, the Arirang Mass Games.)

This is a guest post from Nick Frisch, a writer based in Hong Kong:

"The outside world got a listen at North Korea’s curious soundscape during yesterday’s widely-covered funeral of Kim Jong Il. Like the Hermit Kingdom itself, the DPRK’s aural heritage is a musical mishmash: bombastic or solemn Soviet anthems aped by the North’s uniformed orchestras and Red Army-style choirs, but also deeply Korean, pan-peninsular folk classics like Arirang, an unofficial anthem on both sides of the DMZ.  (It has also been expanded into an iteration of Pyongyong’s infamous song-and-dance spectaculars, the Arirang Mass Games.)

As Kim Jong Il’s coffin and cortege wended their way through Pyongyang’s snowy streets yesterday, it wasn’t just the route and imagery that sought inspiration and legitimacy from the 1994 funeral of Kim Il Sung, his still-revered father and predecessor. "Memorial Song of a Partisan," played in 1994, was specially re-recorded by a Korean People’s Army Band and piped out to sobbing crowds. It evolved from a Russian folk song adapted by the WWII-era anti-Japanese resistance fighters who grew into North Korea’s founding elite. With the original’s lilting waltz meter and tempo rectified to a solemn march, a switch to a dour minor key made the transformation into "Partisan" complete; it is now a standard dirge for state occasions.

Similar music greets visitors to Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the eldest Kim lies on display and his just-departed son lay in state until yesterday.  As in 1994, the Song of General Kim Jong Il, which has "happy" and "sad" versions tailored to a given state occasion.

Not to be outdone, Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s recently-anointed "supreme commander", was first introduced to his people and the world through song: as speculation mounted over Kim Jong Il’s health difficulties and the elevation of Kim Jong Un, reports of a new song from the state’s propaganda hit-machine began to circulate in 2009.  Recounts scholar of North Korean propaganda B.R. Myers, "young North Koreans had been taught to sing a song glorifying a certain General Kim, whose vigorous stride (so the lyric goes) was making the very rivers and mountains rejoice. That this General was not the current leader, whose name is invariably invoked in its full three syllables, was clear enough, ergo the poem’s subject had to be the successor to the throne."

Now, that throne is his.

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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