Robert Foyle Hunwick wrote in The Atlantic, Although one is constantly blasted with Kim worship from loudspeakers positioned on street corners, there’s little chance of tapping your foot to a Western hit (let alone “Gangnam Style”) in North Korea. Instead, people make their own music, belting out revolutionary tunes popularized by modern folk groups like Moranbong Band,...the closest thing the country has to the Spice Girls. [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]

On hanging out and smoking weed in Rason, North Korea, not far from Russia, Darmon Richter wrote in The Bohemian Blog: “We were sitting around drinking beers in a hotel bar, just across the town square from our own lodgings. Here the waitresses were taking it in turns to sing for us, clutching cheap Chinese microphones as they performed note-perfect renditions of one (party-approved) karaoke classic after another. Many of these songs had once been written to celebrate the anniversary of a military victory... while each of the North Korean leaders is given their own orchestral theme. It was a pop song called Whistle that really got stuck in my head though, as it seemed to be on constant cycle during our trip - playing in shops, restaurants and offices. That evening I'm sure we heard it at least half a dozen times.” Sitting “around a long wooden table, we were drinking beer with our Korean guides - who up until this point had eschewed the weed. [Source: Darmon Richter, The Bohemian Blog, March 16, 2016]

In Kim Il-sung era in the 1950s through the mid 1990, only ideologically-correct propaganda music was acceptable. Listening to jazz was harshly frowned up. People didn’t even know what rock ’n’ roll was. Many artists navigated around these restrictions by attaching ideologically- correct lyrics to unacceptable music. Under Kim Jong-il, previously forbidden music, including even jazz, were permitted and even encouraged. Ko Young-hui — Kim Jong Il’s consort and Kim Jong-un’s mother — reportedly turned the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band into regular performers for the nation's elite.

Today, North Korean pop music is heavily influenced by Korean pop music and mainly available for visitors to Pyongyang at the Koryo Hotel or Number One Department Store. [Source: Wikipedia]

"Whistle" ("Hwiparam") — the song mentioned above — is set to the lyrics of North Korean poet Cho Ki-chon and is known in South Korea. Other popular songs over the years have included "The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanisation", "I Also Raise Chickens", "The Shoes My Brother Bought Fit Me Tight", "The Dear General Uses Distance-Shrinking Magic (Chukjibeop)", "Pleasant Snack Time", "We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly", "Don't Ask My Name","Song of Bean Paste", "My Country Full of Happiness","Potato Pride" and "Our Life Is Precisely a Song". Songs like "We Are One" and "Reunification Rainbow" espouse the hopes for Korean reunification. [Source: Wikipedia

Pop Music Groups

North Korean pop songs are usually performed by a young female singer backed by an electric group and percussionist, and accompanied singers and dancers. BBC radio disc jockey Andy Kershaw noted, on a visit to North Korea, that the only recordings available were by the pop singers Jon Hye-yong, Kim Kwang-suk, Jo Kum-hwa and Ri Pun-hui, and the groups Wangjaesan Light Music Band, the Mansudae Art Troupe and the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, who play in a style Kershaw refers to as "light instrumental with popular vocal". [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 2012, North Korea's first girl band, the Moranbong Band, made its world debut. Comprised of sixteen North Korean women (eleven instrumentalists and five singers) hand-picked by Kim Jong-un, they have been described as the closest thing North Korea has to the Spice Girls. Dressed in miniskirts, they sway and dance while singing and playing violins and guitas. Their hits include “Song of Red Bean Paste,” “Let’s Meet at the Front Line,” “Drink to Victory,” “Song of Bellflower Root” and “Cheers!” (“Chuk-bei!”). [Source: Robert Foyle Hunwick, The Atlantic, September 4, 2013]

There is also the State Symphony Orchestra, the Sea of Blood Opera Company, two choruses, an orchestra and an ensemble dedicated to Isang Yun's compositions, all in Pyongyang. The Pyongyang Film Studios also produces many instrumental songs for its films, and several programs on Korean Central Television have music made and performed by the Central Radio and Television Orchestra. +

North Korea: Where They Haven’t Heard of Elvis or The Beatles

Reporting from Pyongyang in 2005, Bruce Wallace wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The song has a retro feel to it, a bit of swing and the mood of a Vegas house band, and the outfits on the three female singers bring to mind the long-lost word "stewardess." Behind them, dressed in a blue, sequined shirt,Ri Jin Hyuk builds toward the finish, sticks held high above his head, striking the perfect rock drummer pose. Then he finishes with polite rat-a-tat pops on the snare. Like he's playing a polka. That's the required style if you want to play in a Pyongyang high school band, where the repertoire is pretty much limited to feel-good North Korean revolutionary folk songs such as "Let's Study Hard," "Let's Become One" and "Let's Go to the Army." [Source: Bruce Wallace, Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2005]

“Play rock music? Rap? Metal? Ri says he's never even heard them. "I have never seen a Western drummer," the thin 18-year-old with slightly spiky hair says after the performance in his school's auditorium. Ri claims he's never heard of the Beatles, never listened to any Western bands and has absolutely no interest in doing so. In North Korea, a land without Elvis or Oprah, the cultural heroes are supposed to be homegrown. Western pop culture — especially American pop culture — is unwelcome here, denounced by Kim Jong Il's regime as a capitalist virus. So it banned Hollywood and Google, like some stern 1950s parent trying to keep a lock on the kids.

“But North Korea is discovering that no country can completely seal its borders against electronic intruders. Although the demilitarized buffer zone to the south still provides protection against illegal imports from South Korea, the real action is to the north. North Korean defectors say DVDs of foreign music and movies have accompanied the increase in trade and traffic with China over the last few years, leaking across the 850-mile border. "For decades, this country was second only to Albania, or even second to none, for keeping out all information about foreign countries," says Andrei Lankov, a Russian academic based in Seoul who lived in Pyongyang in the 1980s. "But the old state supervision, where the police would do random checks looking for things like radios, collapsed over the last decade. It was too expensive to run."”

In August 2005, “mainstream South Korean singer Cho Yong Pil performed before 7,000 fans in Pyongyang, a show later broadcast on TV here. And thousands of South Korean tourists have been welcomed to the capital this fall for Arirang, a dance and music performance celebrating an idealized view of North Korean history.

“On a bus ride south of the capital, Pang Yu Gyong, a 20-year-old English student and translator, is fascinated by a Western visitor's iPod. But she crinkles her nose in distaste after two minutes of New York rockers the Strokes. Brit pop star Robbie Williams does nothing for her. "Do you have the theme from 'Titanic' on here?" she asks. But officially at least, all Western music, even Celine Dion, is considered subversive.

"The main content [of American music] is that capitalism is good," says Choe Jong Hun, an official in the Cultural Exchange Department. "This is against the aspirations of our people." But what about American rock bands such as Green Day, whose album "American Idiot" amounted to a scathing indictment of the Bush administration? It sold millions of copies in America. It won awards. Why wouldn't North Korea allow in that kind of self-criticism from America? "We have already got many songs against America," he replies.

In 2012, the Daily Mail reported on a North Korea' accordion band scoring an unlikely with their take on A-ha's “Take On Me”: “Musicians from North Korea have become an unlikely internet sensation after a video was posted of their latest performance on YouTube by Norwegian artist Morten Traavik. Immaculately dressed in black - with not even a hair out of place - the musicians look like they are taking their forthcoming performance very seriously as they prepare to launch into the first few notes. Their note-perfect version of the 1984 hit has attracted more than 1.5million views on the video sharing website. The young stars all attend the Kumsong school in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. The clip was taken by Morten Traavik as part of an ongoing art project. [Source: Kerry Mcqueeney, Daily Mail, March 22, 2012]

House-to-House Searches in North Korea to Confiscate Banned Music

In 2015, Daily NK reported that Kim Jong-un had issued a decree ordering security forces to carry out house-to-house searches and to confiscate CDs and cassettes of music that has been banned. This was thought to be a crackdown on music smuggled into the country from South Korea and a response to domestically-produced music that could inspire thoughts of rebellion and insurrection.

According to The Guardian: “Always concerned about possible threats to his regime, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly ordered music censorship to be extended, banning not only foreign songs but local tunes too, sources inside North Korea say. The Korean Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department has begun circulating a new and expanded list of banned songs, which also decree the destruction of any CD or cassette tape containing prohibited content, a variety of sources have confirmed. [Source: The Guardian, July 28, 2015]

“Concerns that certain lyrics could motivate popular dissent appears to be the motivation behind the new restrictions. “The local propaganda departments are getting inminban [people’s unit] heads to collect cassettes and CDs from people’s homes and are combing through them,” a source speaking from inside the country claimed. “If even one song from the banned list is discovered, they incinerate the whole thing.”

“The soundtrack of a North Korean-produced movie, Im Kkeok Jeong, about a Robin Hood-like figure who lived in the 16th century, is listed, including titles such as Take Action Blood Brothers and To Get Revenge. In addition, a popular track – Nation of No Tears – from a made-for-TV feature has been forbidden. Although many of the songs have been banned before, the directive takes new measures by demanding that all material is physically destroyed too.

But although apparently intended to make Kim feel more secure, sources report that the confiscations of CDs and tapes is having the opposite effect, and stirring discontent. “Recently, this [decree] has even led to fights between residents and [propaganda authorities],” a source explained. “Some women have gotten so angry that they’ve stormed into the local propaganda offices complaining that they [authorities] incinerated their goods without even telling them.” Another source confirmed that a boomerang effect was developing, suggesting that the ban seemed to be reviving interest in older prohibited songs that had faded from public memory.

Hyon Song-wol: North Korea’s Greatest Pop Singer

Hyon Song-wol, leader of the Moranbong Band, is regarded as North Korea’s biggest pop star. She headed North Korean Olympics advance team that entered South Korea via the DMZ a couple weeks before it hosted the 2018 Olympics. Reporting on that event, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: Nicknamed the “girl on a steed” by South Koreans after her most popular song, Hyon was greeted with a media frenzy that South Korea usually reserves for one of its own K-pop stars. South Korean television crews tagged along, feeding live broadcasts, as a bus carrying Hyon’s delegation and a police escort sped down the inter-Korean highway linking the two nations, which was temporarily reopened for their visit. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, January 21, 2018]

“They arrived at the main railway station in Seoul, the South Korean capital, where they faced throngs of photojournalists. Passers-by and gawkers with smartphones also struggled to get a shot of Hyon, who rose to pre-eminence on the propaganda-heavy North Korean pop- music scene with her No. 1 hit “A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed,” a song about a tireless, overachieving female factory worker. Coverage of Hyon has not always been so fawning. Several years ago, South Korean media were rife with speculation that she had been machine-gunned to death at the orders of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, who was rumored to be her ex-lover.

“Dressed in a black coat and a fur neck wrap, Hyon looked stiffly at the crowd but later flashed thin smiles as South Korean officials whisked her onto a bullet train to Gangneung, an Olympic venue on the east coast where Hyon’s art troupe is scheduled to perform during the Games....Hyon’s troupe, made up of young North Korean women known for their beauty, is expected to steal the Olympic show among South Koreans, many of whom detest the North Korean regime but feel ethnic affinity for their northern neighbors.

“Hyon, who holds the rank of colonel in the North Korean army, leads the Moranbong Band, said to be a favorite of the North’s leader, Kim. Under Kim’s rule, the band has modernized the North’s propaganda music scene by wearing short skirts and performing American pop standards like “My Way” and the “Rocky” theme song. South Korean officials have wanted to ensure that Hyon’s artists keep political propaganda out of their performances in the South.

Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: In 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly “ordered the execution of Hyon Song-wol, a singer with the Unhasu Orchestra and a former girlfriend, after she and 11 other musicians appeared in pornographic videos that were circulated in China. The 12 were machine-gunned three days after their arrest, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, with other members of North Korea's most famous pop groups and their immediate families forced to watch.” [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, September 4, 2015]

North Korean All-Girl Band 'Created by Kim Jong-un'

A new all-girl band that North Korean state media says was created by Kim Jong-un has made its debut in Moscow in 2015.. Julian Ryall wrote in The Telegraph: “The female vocalists of the Chongbong Orchestra have been tasked with "creating music for the masses", North Korean state media reported. The singers and their brass backing band play "light music" and are a "revolutionary art organisation that represents and leads the era", North Korean television reported, adding that the group was set up as part of the "grand plan" of the "respected Kim Jong-un". Since the group's formation” in early 2015 “they have also been described as "ideological scouts, the bugles of revolution and ideological flag-bearers". [Source: Julian Ryall, The Telegraph, September 4, 2015]

“Dressed all in black and with the North Korean flag as their backdrop, the seven women performed a series of choreographed numbers at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow on Monday evening, supported by the massed ranks of the North Korean State Merited Chorus. Kim Jong-un has taken a personal interest in North Korea's music scene, apparently a legacy of his late mother's influence over the arts in Pyongyang in the 1980s.” His mother “Ko Young-hui reportedly turned the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band into regular performers for the nation's elite.

“South Korean media have claimed that Mr Kim's interest in musicians went beyond their performances and there were reports in 2013 that the North Korean leader ordered the execution of Hyon Song-wol (See Above)... The onlookers were then sent to prison camps, victims of the regime's assumption of guilt by association, the reports stated.

North Korea Invites Eric Clapton to Play Pyongyang

Kim Jong-Chol — the brother of Kim Jong Un and son of Kim Jong Il — is a big Eric Clapton fan. In 2008, Reuters reported: “North Korea invited guitar legend Eric Clapton to play in Pyongyang, the communist country's embassy in London said, as the New York Philharmonic gave a historic performance in the hermit state. An embassy spokesman said a letter had been sent to Clapton's agent asking the musician to perform in Pyongyang. "If he plays a concert in Pyongyang it will be a good opportunity for the Korean people to understand Western music," the spokesman said. "He is a world-famous guitarist. Eric Clapton is quite well known not only in the U.K. but in the entire world," he said. "So it would be fantastic if he would come to play in Pyongyang." [Source: Reuters, February 26, 2008]

Such a concert would make Clapton the first Western rock star to play Pyongyang. But Clapton's U.S. spokeswoman said there was no agreement on a performance. "Eric Clapton receives numerous offers to play in countries around the world," she said in a statement. "There is no agreement whatsoever for him to play in North Korea, nor any planned shows there."

In June 2006, Japan's Fuji TV broadcast footage of a man the network said was Kim Jong-Chol at Clapton concerts in Germany. The younger Kim, apparently accompanied by his girlfriend and several North Korean bodyguards, attended four Clapton concerts in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Berlin, Fuji TV said. After years of isolation, North Korea appears to be encouraging cultural exchanges with the West. The New York Philharmonic, the oldest U.S. symphony orchestra, played in North Korea” in February 2008

In 2010, The Guardian reported: “North Korea asked America to arrange an Eric Clapton concert in Pyongyang, saying that it could help to persuade Kim Jong-il to allow humanitarian aid into the country. A confidential cable dated 22 May 2007 from the U.S. ambassador in Seoul to Washington reveals North Korean officials "suggested" to the Americans that because Kim Jong-il's second son, Kim Jong-chol, was "a great fan" of the British guitarist, a "performance could be an opportunity to build goodwill". The report adds that "arranging an Eric Clapton concert in Pyongyang… could be useful, given Kim Jong-il's second son's devotion to the rock legend"...In 2008, it was reported that Clapton had "in principle" agreed to perform in North Korea in 2009. The plan later appeared to stall, however, with Clapton denying that he had agreed to take part. [Source: Amelia Hill, The Guardian, December 11, 2010]

Slovenian Industrial Rock Band Laibach: First Rockers in North Korea

In August 2015, Slovenian avant-garde, industrial rock band Laibach became the first Western rock band to perform in North Korea, playing in front of about 2,000 people in two shows in Pyongyang. Kory Grow wrote in Rolling Stone: “The band, which formed in 1980 in what was then the communist country Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, performed a short set that was mostly composed of tunes from The Sound of Music and other covers, as well as some Laibach originals at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre and an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. The shows, dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, marked the 70th anniversary of Korea's independence from Japan after World War II. [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

“The original idea for the concerts came from a Norwegian artist and activist named Morten Traavik who had previously organized cultural exchanges with North Korea. Laibach asked him to direct a video for their song "The Whistleblowers," which appeared on their 2014 album Spectre, and when it was completed, he showed it to North Korean authorities who eventually sent the band a formal invitation to perform in the country. The group's latest video for a song off Spectre, "We Are Millions and Millions Are One," is streaming at the bottom of this article.

The name Laibach comes the German name for the Slovenian capital Ljubljana — used when the city was under the Austro-Hungarian empire and during Nazi occupation. In its early years the group used self-made electronic instruments during live performances and was characterized by critics as "industrial rock". Front man Tomaz Hostnik committed suicide in December 1982 and was posthumously expelled from the group. Accused by critics as being fascist and Marxist, but defended by some as parodying authoritarianism, the group is known for dressing up in military uniforms and doing militant versions pop hits such as Queen's “One Vision”, Europe's “The Final Countdown” and the Beatles' entire Let It Be album. The group has produced works of art as well as numerous cover versions of popular songs. [Source: BBC]

Alastair Lawson of the BBC wrote: “The band has been slated by some critics because of its ambiguous use of political and nationalist imagery. But admirers say that their tendency to wear military uniforms on stage is a critique of totalitarian ideology.” Among the songs they played in North Korea was one of 2015's “most popular hits in North Korea, performed by the all-girl band Moranbong: “We Will Go To Mount Paektu.”Mount Paektu is the tallest peak on the Korean peninsula and is the mythological birthplace of the whole Korean nation. [Source: Alastair Lawson, BBC News, July 14, 2015]

“"North Korea is portrayed in the West as the world's most closed country, but in fact it is more open to the outside world than the prevailing media narrative suggests," Traavik told the BBC. "Both the country and the band have been portrayed by some as fascist outcasts. The truth is that both are misunderstood." Despite its extremist reputation individual members of Laibach have not been vetted by the North Korean authorities because the director has given his word that they will not cause an upset. "I have informed the North Korean authorities of their bad boy reputation and reassured them that it is a reputation that can very easily be disproved of. "If they were really fascist, why would Poland's cultural ministry recently have asked them to reinterpret partisan songs in Warsaw to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the uprising against the Nazis in the city? The director argues that much of misunderstanding surrounding the band stems from their tendency in the 1980s and 90s to wear military uniforms on stage. "But Laibach are not a band making statements, but a band that is always questioning contemporary attitudes," Mr Traavik said.

Laibach’s Impressions of North Korea

Rolling Stone asked Laibach’s leader Ivo Saliger why the group wanted to do the shows. Speaking for the band he said: “Who wouldn't want to embark on such an experience? “There is no second chance to play in Pyongyang for the first time. Laibach has, since its very foundation, been dealing with totalitarianism in all its manifestations; therefore visiting North Korea was absolutely a must-do.'"

Rolling Stone: What were your first impressions of North Korea when you arrived? “Laibach leader Ivo Saliger: “Our first impression of the country was, "This is just like we expected... but it is somehow completely different." A few days later, we were thinking about an option to be able to "live and stay there to reach the higher wisdom in ourselves." The country may be poor and isolated, with a heavily oppressive political system, but the people are fantastic and they seem to possess the precious wisdom that we don't.” [Source: Kory Grow, Rolling Stone, August 25, 2015]

How did the country's government receive you? “Of the higher-ranking state officials, we only had a direct contact with the Korean vice minister of culture — also a music composer himself — who couldn't speak English much, so our communication was very formal and polite.” Did you meet with any heads of state or get any communication from Kim Jong-un? “No, there were several party officials and foreign ambassadors at the show, but we were not in touch with them.”

Did the government provide handlers or minders to watch over you? “Our group of 30 people was taken care by five Korean "helpers, guides and translators," who also made sure that we did not act "too freely" and vanish in the night. They were all very helpful and not at all a nuisance.” What were your interactions with them like? “Generally very easy, smooth and kind, even with the people who did not speak any foreign language. There were more problems when we were building the stage set for the show, primarily because of a lack of equipment and cables, but everything was fine in the end.” How did the general citizens of North Korea treat you? “They treated us without exception with utmost respect, kindness and generosity.”

What did you like and dislike about the country? “The general people of Korea are definitely the brightest jewel in the country. We couldn't find any cynicism, sarcasm, irony, vulgarity and other "Western characteristics" in their eyes, on their faces and in their behavior. It was nothing but sincere modesty, kindness, proudness and respect. There was no military parade for the 70th Anniversary of Freedom, only people dancing gracefully instead everywhere on the streets and parks of Pyongyang.

“Traffic policewomen are big fun to observe. They perform the most intriguing biomechanical, almost robotic ritual in the middle of the crossroads, probably all day long.” What we didn't like is the fact that we were not allowed to move around freely, but in a country that is almost hermetically isolated from the outside world and thus from all the media pollution, foreigners are toxic subjects that could potentially spreading their ideological disease to the inhabitants of this communist Utopia, the collective "Truman show."

Laibach’s Impressions of Misconceptions About North Korea

Rolling Stone: What misconceptions do Westerners have of North Korea? “Laibach leader Ivo Saliger: “What misconceptions don't they have? It's a country everybody in the West loves to hate, but most of the tabloid stories about the DPRK are utterly false: They don't eat their own children, they don't throw people to dogs and they don't starve because of a lack of food.”

Americans in North Korea are, for instance, not hated at all, but welcomed. And Koreans do not equate the American people with U.S. governmental policy. Entering North Korea is not that difficult at all. As a matter of fact, it is generally easier than entering U.S. Pyongyang, which was completely bombed and erased during the Korean war — of course by the American warheads — is today a beautiful, clean, well-kept and colorful city with impressive architecture and parks.”

“North Koreans laugh, smile and joke a lot and people across the country are incredibly well and "dignifying" dressed. They learn foreign languages; children begin to learn English at the age of seven. Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they want to do it slowly, on their own terms, and in a very different way than the Chinese.”

What would surprise people about North Korea? “They produce excellent beer. It is actually considered a soft drink and microbreweries there are popular. You can also drink beer freely from an open container outside on the street and smoke inside hotels and bars without a risk of prison. Pyongyang, with the rest of the country, is also probably the safest place in the world to walk around — if they let you walk around, of course. And for those who are into cannabis, North Korea is a very liberal place, where possession of cannabis is in fact essentially legal.”

Laibach on Their North Korean Concerts

Rolling Stone: How did the audiences react to the concerts? “Laibach leader Ivo Saliger: “Koreans had never heard such music before, so they didn't really know what to think about it. But again, they reacted politely, applauding after every song, and at the end of the show, they gave us standing ovations. (Maybe they were happy that it was over. The Syrian ambassador certainly didn't like the show much — he commented that "It was too loud — almost like a torture").”

“At the second show, which happened at the Kum Song music school, Laibach members performed two songs acoustically, together with Korean school musicians. The rest of the performance was actually a show-up program by the school itself, which performed in honor of Laibach. The music was incredible, and we've heard everything from Seventies Japan sounding lollipop beats to experimental electroacoustic, almost Arca-like style of music, performed on electric guitars and synths, in combination with their traditional instruments. Morten Traavik, who also performed with Laibach, "stage-dived" at the end of the show and — as a sign of gratitude — he brought a gift to the school, a new Moog theremin.”

How did you adapt your concert for a North Korean audience? “We wanted to perform something that would make sense to a North Korean audience. The majority of the program was therefore based on our versions of songs from the film The Sound of Music ("Do-Re-Mi," "Edelweiss," "Climb Every Mountain" and "Sound of Music"). On top of that, we performed a selection of Laibach classics ("Life Is Life," "Final Countdown," "Across the Universe," "The Whistleblowers").”

Why did you want to play songs from The Sound of Music? Did the audience sing along? No, they didn't sing along, but they moved their heads a bit on "Do-Re-Mi." Doing The Sound of Music was an old idea of ours, and North Korea is just the right context for it, because the population there knows this film well, they learn English with it at high schools and they even did their own Korean versions of certain songs, so they pretty much knew what we were talking about. Sound of Music can have a very powerful message within the context of Korean liberation from Japanese occupation, and it can of course also be understood differently, even in a more "subversive" way. We'd wanted to perform a version of "How Can We Solve the Problem Like Korea," but we were not sure if they'd understand that they have a problem to be solved at all.”

What about the Beatles' "Across the Universe"? “They loved it, and it actually sounded very subversive ("Jai Guru Deva, om/Nothing's gonna change my world..."), especially with American rockets launched on the projection at the back.”

How did the audience receive your visuals? “The censorship committee had problems with many of them. They don't like to see any nudity or potentially aggressive images, but we still managed to keep most of projected visuals within the original form. The audience is actually used to Korean rockets and explosions, because that is what Korean popular music and military groups use as a back projections on their concert shows. After the concert, an elder Korean citizen told us, 'I didn't know that such music existed in the World and now I know.'"

You did a Korean song, too, right? “We wanted to present three important and well-known Korean songs: "Honorable Live and Death," "Arirang" and "We'll Go to Mt. Paektu." In the end, their censors asked us to take out "Honorable" and "Mt. Paektu," because we had changed them too much from the originals, and they are extremely sensitive about their own culture.”

Finally, what did North Korean civilians think of your music after the concerts? “There was this brilliant quote by an elder Korean citizen. After the show, he told us, "I didn't know that such music existed in the World and now I know."

Pacman And Peso Make First Rap Video In North Korea

Aspiring Washington-D.C.-based rappers Pacman and Peso went to North Korea in 2014 and shot a video there, saying afterwards, ''We made it out ... we beat the odds''. Before the trip neither of the rappers had been on a plane before according to The Washington Post. “We did not go there to be political. We just go down there to shoot our video and that about the reason why we went, not political,” Pacman told Billboard. Their music video, called “Escape to North Korea”, mostly shot in and around Pyongyang, was released to coincide “with the birthday of Kim Jong-un.

Paul Lewis wrote in The Guardian: “It was a story that could hardly have been less likely to end in glory. Two aspiring rappers, who had barely been outside their impoverished communities in Washington DC, let alone abroad, declared their intention to make a music video in North Korea. When their online fundraising campaign went viral, raising more than enough cash to buy the flights, even Pacman and Peso admitted they were anxious they might not come home in one piece. [Source: Paul Lewis, The Guardian, January 7, 2014]

“The genesis of their music video was a random encounter with Ramsey Aburdene, a 25-year-old Washington-based investment banker who liked their music and became their manager. Aburdene had a friend who used to be in the military and specialises in getting people into Pyongyang, so they hatched the plan to shoot a rap video there” and “managed to raise US$10,400 on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Pacman, 19, and Peso, 20, managed to film their rap video inside Pyongyang's faltering metro, beside the demilitarized zone bordering South Korea, on a rice farm and in front of various North Korean monuments, not least the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, an ornate mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, the so-called founder and eternal president of the country, and his son, Kim Jong-il.

“In Beijing, the group picked up some tailored silk suits in preparation for North Korea” just as the U.S. “State Department strongly discouraged American citizens against visiting North Korea, the first warning of its kind since Pyongyang began allowing tourists into the country in 1995. The DC rappers did not have the blessing of Kim Jong-un, or indeed anyone else from North Korean officialdom. They had always planned to travel beneath the radar, shooting their video under the cover of a sightseeing tour. Shortly before boarding the flight to Pyongyang, they read a Gawker article mentioning how, despite the State Department advice, “a much-publicized trip by two DC rappers, Pacman and Peso, is going ahead as planned.”

"All the buzz we were getting, I thought we were gonna get hemmed up, captured,” said Pacman. His rapping partner agreed: “I was like: uh-oh. Are we gonna make it?” They put their worries behind them and flew to Pyongyang regardless. When the aircraft doors opened, they walked out to the sound of snapping cameras. “As soon as I seen cameras, I started being myself,” said Peso. “I started flipping my jacket open, smoking my cigarette in front of the cameras, turn[ing] round to make sure they got the suit.” Despite the flurry of attention from Associated Press journalists at the airport, the rappers succeeded in going largely unnoticed in North Korea.

“Each day, Pacman and Peso hopped on a tourist bus, which ferried them to approved locations across the country in the company of government-sanctioned tour guides. So as not to attract attention, they used a small, Canon camera to shoot video, filming segments surreptitiously whenever their minders were looking the other way. Microphones, headphones, or amplified music were out of the question. Instead, they improvised. “We were just spitting the voice that was in our head,” Peso said. “It was just work, work, work, non-stop.”

“They were not helped by the sub-zero temperatures and snow. There was rarely heating in any of the buildings and the silk suits provided little comfort. “One of the North Koreans, he gave me his coat,” Pacman said. “I asked him if he wanted it back, and he was like, 'Nah, just keep it for the rest of the night.'” Memories such as that left both young men with a positive experience of North Korea. They still speak about their recollections in dreamy monologues. “The old ladies looked like they were carrying the heaviest things. The army people walking down the street had guns,” said Pacman. “You see a whole bunch of rice fields. People was riding bikes. The little kids was walking down the street by themselves, they must have been in first grade. But everybody waved.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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