How a Girl Band May Unify Korea

How to solve the Korean crisis through the power of kitschy, hyperpatriotic pop music.

North Korea's all-female Moranbong band perform in Pyongyang on May 11, 2016. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea's all-female Moranbong band perform in Pyongyang on May 11, 2016. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

The last year has been brutal on the Korean Peninsula, where nuclear tensions, diplomatic intransigence, and Donald Trump’s tweets have battered already strained relations. Rapprochement takes time; détente is a slow business. Trust has to be built, respect given and received, and both sides have to slowly commit to something of mutual benefit. All this is especially hard when you’re family and your argument has been going on for more than 60 years, when you’ve slammed the phone down on each other repeatedly, exchanged harsh words, lost tempers, and occasionally shed blood.

Even smallish gestures are hard. The plan for both North and South Korean athletes to march at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, under a unification banner (a map of the peninsula in U.N. blue with no demarcation line) is only a modest one. But according to the South Korean pollster Realmeter, barely 4 out of 10 Seoul residents support this move. A joint North-South women’s hockey team would be another small step, but many oppose that, too — not least the half of players who’d be benched.

What’s needed is the equivalent of “ping-pong diplomacy,” when the U.S. table tennis team was invited in 1971 to, and subsequently attended, a competition in Mao Zedong’s China. Richard Nixon followed in their wake. A group of athletes batting a small white ball speedily back and forth across a table led, via a twisted route, to the end of a quarter century of animosity. And so perhaps the best chance for rapprochement are the 20 or thereabouts women who together compose the Moranbong Band, Pyongyang’s contribution to global pop culture.

Could an all-girl band from Pyongyang that performs pop classics, some Disney tunes, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky break the ice between the two Koreas by performing in Pyeongchang? Fans can already see hits such as “My Country Is the Best” and “Let’s Study” on YouTube. And songs like “We Can’t Live Without His Care” (you know who he is), “Fluttering Red Flag” (you know whose flag that is), and “Victory” (of course, you know whose victory that is) will probably have to be dropped in Pyeongchang and replaced with more acceptable Moranbong favorites such as Winnie the Pooh and the theme from Dallas.

If an Olympics performance does happen, then we can assume Kim Jong Un will be very happy. Moranbong is his creation and is intrinsically linked to his own individual cult of personality as supreme leader. It is a cult that seeks to portray him as a demigod who can deliver nuclear weapons, talk tough to enemy nations looking to strangle the North, but who also understands youth. His artistic affinities are a quantum leap from his father’s taste for patriotic Korean-styled light opera that often sounded as if Andrew Lloyd Webber had joined the Korean Workers’ Party and vowed to defeat Yankee imperialism. This sound was embodied in the Unhasu Orchestra and the jauntily named Sea of Blood Opera Company. These are gone now (even though Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was a member of the former), replaced by Moranbong and not a lot else.

Moranbong first appeared in 2012 with Kim Jong Un attending their concerts, leading the standing ovations and the enthusiastic prolonged applause. Usually, with Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, it was always the other way around. Youthful but patriotic, daring (with their short skirts and Disney tunes) but obviously preapproved, they reminded many of the girl bands of a decade earlier in China. The Chinese were big fans of the popular 12 Girls Band, an all-female group using a mix of Western and traditional instruments, plenty of costume changes, performing Western covers mixed with light classical and garnished with some patriotism.

There’s no doubt that Moranbong is a reaction to a growing awareness of South Korean fashion and music (known as hallyu, or the “Korean wave” of cultural soft power emanating from Seoul) in the North, permeating censorship’s thick walls. Moranbong’s launch coincided with Psy’s international “Gangnam Style” success, and the band has also attempted a little “love the great leader” rapping.

These performances aren’t just for the elite either; the Moranbong members appear on television fairly regularly even if they often perform with massive back screens showing dramatic ballistic missile launches. According to regular visitors to Pyongyang, they are influencing hairstyles in Pyongyang and making high heels, cosmetics, and shorter skirts permissible.

If the inevitable joint committee of unhip bureaucrats can agree to a playlist, then we might be onto something. There’s a plethora of television programs, game shows, reality TV, comics, and novels obsessed with the North that are available in the South, such as Our Aspiration Is War, Jang Kang-myung’s dystopian novel of post-unification drug dealers, and shows where North Koreans compete to tell the most compelling escape stories. So it’s hard to see how the audience at home watching the opening ceremony on Feb. 9 will not be glued to their sets at the sight of genuine North Korean kitsch amid the snowy Taebaek Mountains.

But the awareness goes both ways. The last decade has seen a significant rise in awareness of South Korean culture in the North — movies, TV shows, fashion magazines, and novels coming in on USB sticks from China. Widespread ownership of laptops, at least in the cities, has made the easily concealed and passed-around USB a transmission belt of South Korean pop, dramas, and fashion into the North. The young soldier who recently dramatically defected at the border could already tell his doctors his favorite South Korean girl group.

On the North’s side, girl power appears ready to advance. Pyongyang, it seems, would really like Moranbong to perform at the Olympics. Whether or not the ideas of a unified march into the stadium and a joint hockey team came later, the North’s delegation at the inter-Korean talks had planned ahead. How else to explain the somewhat surprising sight of Hyon Song Wol, the leader of the Moranbong Band, at the talks in Panmunjom.

While being a busy North Korean pop star, Hyon has also been an alternate member of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea since last October. She was at the talks officially as deputy chief delegate (in a delegation of only four people). Technically, she was the highest-ranking member of the delegation. Ri Son Gwon, the chairman of North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, led the delegation and has a great deal of negotiating experience by North Korean standards but is not himself on the central committee.

Hyon was the star of the talks and, if Moranbong does play, will presumably be the star of the opening ceremony, too. What was once completely unthinkable may happen — a North Korean soft-power win.

It’s true that in the context of ever tightening sanctions regimes, soldiers desperately fleeing across the border while being shot at by their comrades of five minutes before, and tit-for-tat schoolyard taunting between the supreme leader and the U.S. president — and when war games are suspended only for the duration of the Olympics — perhaps a few silly songs from a kitschy band don’t mean much.

Yet the inter-Korean talks offered some hope after a bad year, and Moranbong at Pyeongchang could perhaps help lighten the mood a little more. What happens after the games is far from clear. But then, it seemed like a long route from the ping-pong table to the negotiating table, too.

Paul French is the author of North Korea: State of Paranoia.

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