The Early Days of Music In North Korea
Music has played a central part of North Korean life since the founding of the DPRK in 1948. Although music in North Korea still strongly adheres to the principles of its political ideology, more everyday themes are emerging and you will always struggle to find a North Korean who is shy of the karaoke mic.
Music in the DPRK is a combination of art and ideology and serves as the as the most basic way to control the spread the information and messaging to people’s minds.
Traditionally, the content of North Korean music mostly dealt with support for the party and its revolution with a cult of personality surrounding the supreme leader. The sounds were Soviet inspired and militaristic right throughout the early years of the country. By the 1980s things had started to shift dramatically.
The Electronic Music Revolution
In the 1980s electronic music gained a foothold around the world and North Korea was no exception. 1983 saw the foundation of The Wangjaesan Light Music Band. The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble followed suit in 1985. These was born out of the electronic music section of the Mansudae Art Troupe and were the first electronic pop groups in the country.
They deviated hugely from the socialist style and delved more into everyday themes including love songs. They were massively popular in North Korea from the get-go.
The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble are perhaps most famous for one of North Korea’s most popular songs “nice to meet you”.
Play it at your own risk below – it’s one hell of an ear worm.
Perhaps as a response to the growing global trend of South Korea’s K-pop, the North Korean girl group – Moranbong Band was formed by leader Kim Jong Un in 2012.
They burst onto the scene with a performance featuring more than ten songs from popular Disney movies and other Hollywood films. The group of 16 performers wore military style outfits with short skirts, high-heels & fancy accessories while still managing to play electronic instruments. This extraordinary stage show was completely different from previous ones.
All members are thought to have been hand picked by the supreme leader himself and they are often referred to in the West as the “North Korean Spice Girls”.
Former leader of the Moranbong band Hyon Song-wol has even risen to the central committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea. In 2018 she traveled to South Korea and took part in high level talks there. She also organised a series of concerts in the South featuring North Korean artists during the winter olympics.
Folk Music & Instruments
Alongside the continuing popularity of the Moranbong band, North Koreans also value their folk music heritage. The Korean folk song “Arirang” continues to be widely popular in both North & South Korea today.
It was even performed by the New York Philharmonic orchestra on a visit to Pyongyang in 2008. The earliest known recording of the song dates way back to 1896. There are over 70 different versions and 3,600 variations in existence today.
North Korea also widely uses traditional Korean instruments like the changgo drum and the long stringed gayageum. These are taught in almost every school to kids from an early age.
North Korean music has changed a lot since the founding of the DPRK. Performances have become huge spectacles and have moved closer to global trends while shedding many traditional elements.
It’s possible to travel to North Korea and take in a Moranbong band show or a state symphony orchestra performance. Whatever is happening in the country during your visit we’ll know about it and make sure to attend. Check out our full list of North Korea tours and pick yours today!
BONUS MATERIAL: Wangjaesan Troupe: North Korean version of the classic “Moskau”