NORTH KOREA: Moranbong Band - Moranbong Band
State-sanctioned propaganda power pop to entertain the North Korean masses manages to be interesting as both a document of contemporary North Korean culture and a collection of pleasant songs, yet its provenance remains mysterious and worrying.
When Danny and I started out on this quest to find at least one album from every country on the planet to listen to and review, I never thought we would actually be able to make it because of two countries. One was the tiny Pacific island state of Nauru, and the other was North Korea. Nauru worried me because it was so tiny in population, I did not think there would be commercially available music from there, but, with a bit of grit and determination (and a few sleepless nights) I managed to find the perfectly enjoyable Trials of Your Faith by Skylla, a Nauruan gospel singer. While only an EP and not a full album, we felt it filled the brief enough to count. North Korea, however, remained elusive, and we both placed it on the back burner as we concentrated on finding all that we could from other nations. After months of finding nothing, we had become resigned to the fact that it might not be possible to find a full album from the hermit kingdom on Spotify, and we might have to resort to other means. Until one day, a mysterious uploader known only as ‘North Korean Archives’ put onto Spotify this album named Moranbong Band. Even though we are pretty sure this is a compilation (and it’s unclear if the Moranbong Band even release studio albums), it’s a full album, it’s North Korean – we’ll take it.
“The music that we are able to find and listen to is on the surface pleasant and easy on the ears, but all the while I certainly couldn’t help but feel an unease at certain points.”
However, for the first time, I feel like there is an ethical dilemma when recommending this album to listen to. On the one hand, it’s pretty enjoyable in and of itself, and even more so when taken as the cultural document of what the North Korean state views as acceptable culture, but there is also the fact that Spotify is a streaming platform that pays out money based on streams, and since I have no idea who the North Korean Archives are or who runs them, I have to entertain the possibility that it could be going to some North Korean state agency that makes (admittedly not much) money from it being on Spotify. It could also simply be an archivist from outside the country who wants to show to the world what North Korean music is like. It could be that innocent, or it could not. If you decide you don’t want to risk your 0.000000000000765 pence per stream going to fill up Kim Jong Il’s coffers, I would understand that. However, in pursuit of the goal of one album per country, it is a risk that Danny and I had to take.
For those not in the know, which I assume is most if not all of you, the Moranbong Band are one of North Korea’s most popular music groups. Sometimes lazily nicknamed in the West as the North Korean Spice Girls, their style is of course nothing like the Spice Girls. It’s much more like Soviet pop music, which should hardly come as a surprise, and the content is clearly propagandistic. With songs such as Advancing in Socialism, People’s Joy, and We Will Follow Only You (I wonder who that’s about?), Moranbong Band’s official status is clear. The band’s leader, Hyon Song-wol was alleged to be Kim Jong-un, and they were even put together by the supreme leader as a form of ‘musical politics’ aiming to satisfy a need among young North Koreans for entertainment, while also enforcing a strict ideological agenda, as well as presenting a forward-facing image to the West. That it would be Kim Jong-un to do this is not a surprise. His family has form. His father, Kim Jong-il was known to love the arts, even going as far as to kidnap a South Korean film director and his actress wife so that they could make films for him. Which they did. For eight years, until their escape. Power is one hell of a drug. Anyway, back to the Moranbong Band. It’s not such a surprise for Kim Jong-un to create this band, as state-sanctioned music has been a feature of many totalitarian regimes, but there is an unusual caveat to all this, however. The initial reveal of the Moranbong Band led to some chatter around whether North Korea was considering opening up to some aspects of Western culture, and with their revealing dresses and short hair, were revolutionary clothing and appearance norms being relaxed? Well, not quite. Their Western influences were subsequently toned down after their first concert, and it was soon business as usual in the hermit kingdom.
Its presence poses the question if there even can exist a non-state sanctioned band in North Korea, or whether there is the possibility of existing within the state a tradition of protest songs. I would imagine not, though that would be far more interesting to listen to. The music that we are able to find and listen to is on the surface pleasant and easy on the ears, but all the while I certainly couldn’t help but feel an unease at certain points. In a country where every aspect of life is, to an extent, regulated by politics and the state, their music is a political tool for a truly ugly and reprehensible government. So, while I can on occasion enjoy the musical stylings of Let’s Go to Mount Pektu, or bop along to Marching and Marching, on the whole it feels somewhat wrong to derive enjoyment from this. Maybe that’s just liberal handwringing, maybe it’s not. Either way, it definitely can entertain, as well as being a fascinating glimpse of what contemporary North Korean culture is like.