Pyongyang, 6 AM. The eerie stillness of the morning is shattered as loudspeakers across the city crack to life with the jarring, dissonant synth tones of "Where Are You, Dear General?" as performed by North Korea's state-sanctioned propaganda orchestra, the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. Every day, most of Pyongyang's 2.5 million residents begin their day to the recording blaring into their bedrooms. The song serves as a mandatory alarm for a people bombarded with propaganda through film, art, television, music, and radio, at every juncture of their day.
Since the installation of the Kim regime's "Monolithic Ideological System" in 1967, all music in The Hermit Kingdom—be it military, patriotic, folk, orchestral, pop—has been produced by the government at the behest of the Supreme Leader. All outside music is strictly prohibited and non-sanctioned indigenous North Korean music has been wiped out. State-produced music plays a ubiquitous role in the daily lives of North Koreans, and the regime's totalitarian grasp over its production and consumption represents the most effective manifestation of soft power in practice anywhere on the planet.
"There's music everywhere in North Korea: in the workplace, at home, in the streets," says Darren Zook, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. "North Korean television—which is all state propaganda—doesn't broadcast all day. In periods where there is nothing on, they play propaganda music, continuously, for hours on end. It's considered the duty of a citizen to have their TV on all day so they're hearing that music, just so in the background they are reminded of the presence of the state. It's behavioral conditioning; the eternal reminder that the state is watching."
The music popularized during any period in the country is a reflection of the Kim in power at that time. In the 1970s and 80s, Kim Il Sung preferred staid folk music and orchestral arrangements that glorified Korean history and socialist workers of the world. In the 1990s, Kim Jong -i's paranoid, wonky perspective on modernism shone through in the attempts at outdated synth pop of the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, whose tracks have names like "Excellent Horse-Like Lady" and "Song For Tankman." Recently, Kim Jong-un's attempts at replicating the success of South Korean K-Pop have resulted in The Moranbong Band, a 21-piece, all-female NK-pop extravaganza. "None of it's good," laughs Zook, reflecting on the timeline. "It's all bleeding from the ears bad."
Outside the gargantuan personality cult of the Kim Dynasty, government pop groups serve as the closest iteration of celebrity culture in North Korea. Alongside military or science, music is one of the few avenues for social mobility in the country. "In Pyongyang, which is really where everything happens, if you have any musical inclination whatsoever, they have guitars, they have pianos, they have all sorts of instruments in school," says Zook. "If you have musical talent, you will be groomed and sent to the Pyongyang University for Music and Dance. The privileges you get are just astonishing—access to power, different levels of shopping, preferential housing. There's tremendous competition." Kim Jong-un's wife Ri Sol-ju was herself a member of the now-defunct Unhasu Orchestra when Kim Jong-il handpicked her for the role of future first lady and wife to his heir.
But there may also be great danger in being a North Korean pop-aganda star. In August of 2013, it was reported by South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo that members of the Wangjaesan Light Music Band and the Unhasu Orchestra were rounded up and accused of the crime of "pornography" after making pornographic videos. Under direct order from Kim Jong-un, 12 individuals were reportedly executed by firing squad while bandmates and family members were forced to watch.
"If you are an artist who catches the eye of the great leader, everyone else around you is now jealous," says Zook. "If you get too comfortable in that position, that's how you end up dead or thrown out or pushed off the stage." North Korea denies the executions happened.
The big question when it comes to music in North Korea is: Do the people actually like this stuff? "I think there's a wide range of how much people buy into the propaganda," says Peter Moody, a Columbia University PHD candidate in East Asian Language and Culture currently stationed in Beijing. "Kim Il Sung was much more esteemed than Kim Jong-il, but it's very difficult to say how people feel because very little information gets out."
Although the information that makes it out of Pyongyang is as tightly controlled as ever, there has been a major shift in what makes it in.
Even a totalitarian state like North Korea cannot stop progress. As Kim Jong-un is finding out, outlawing and censoring the internet cannot stem the flow of information. A 2017 report by Washington-based agency InterMedia stated that although 100% of North Koreans have access to television—with its 24-hour cavalcade of propaganda—only 2% have access to the internet. Instead, North Korean black market media reaches people through DVD players (which 93% of surveyed North Korean defectors said they had used to view foreign media while in the country), USB flash drives (used by 81%) and mobile phones (used by 78%)—all imported from neighboring China. 98% of those people said the primary media they traded—often between family and friends—were TV dramas and music from South Korea. It turns out that the 38th Parallel, the most heavily guarded border in the world, is no match for a catchy melody.
In response to this direct attack on the monolithic system, Kim Jong-un's regime has cracked down on consumption of outside media. A specialized military unit named Group 109 roves Pyongyang and nearby principalities, inspecting the mobile devices of people on the street and entering people's homes to search for DVDs and USB sticks. The punishments reportedly range from the public humiliation of being forced to pen a "self-criticism letter," to banishment to a labor camp. Still, USBs—which are easily hidden and in the worst case scenario, can be swallowed—have proven to be very difficult to control.
Additionally, Kim Jong-un has moved to revamp the state propaganda apparatus with new groups like the Moranbong Band, the all-girl pop extravaganza intended to replicate the K-Pop phenomenon. Unfortunately, it's the same old Soviet routine, just with sequined miniskirts and electronic violins. "The regime, when they pick up on the fact that there are 1,000,000 YouTube views [on one of their videos], see it as evidence that their plan is working," says Zook. "They don't understand that people are watching it because it's a trainwreck. North Korea isn't really in on the joke, and they can't figure out why it hasn't caught on as much as K-pop."
North Korea's USB boom took only a half decade to create an informal, offline information network that threatens to unshackle the North Korean people's attention from the monolithic ideological stranglehold tightened by three generations of totalitarian dictatorship. The regime has been sluggish in stemming the tide or countering it with anything resembling a China-style intranet to refocus attention on the state media apparatus.
As of now, the content shared is Korea-centric and driven by entertainment rather than politics, but the people of the Hermit Kingdom are connected to the outside world like never before—against the will of the regime. It may yet turn out that what topples the Workers Party of North Korea is not nuclear war or economic collapse, but a slow social disengagement instigated by terrible, terrible synthpop.
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