Music

Kimchi and Pop Songs in Pyongyang

JP Robinson
Image from The Wallpaper Database

\What does music feel like to people in North Korea? To the civil servant who works to protect "Arirang", a traditional folk song, to the middle-aged woman tortured for singing a South Korean pop song? To the young North Koreans who trade MP3s?

One day in February 2014, Yun Jong Min, the Director of the Foreign Relations Department of the National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Pyongyang, read through the statements about kimchi -- a spiced, fermented cabbage dish -- that had been appended to the UNESCO application: Nomination File 01063, for Inscription on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. He worked steadily and, as required, the file was completed nine months before the Intergovernmental Committee were scheduled to meet.

He seemed to enjoy his work, and the pictures of him that reached the West were of a man in his 40s, smiling easily. Although his hair was well trimmed, his fringe was a little untidy and, when he wore a suit, his tie was a little too loose. The lines around his eyes were beginning to harden and his cheeks were slightly sunken. His office was close to the river, and music floated over from the far bank where singers stood beneath the Juche monument.

The kimchi file was the second successful application that Yun had worked on. Each year, the United Nations adds especially deserving examples of “intangible cultural heritage” to a list of those requiring particular recognition. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom have any examples on the list, having not ratified the relevant treaty, but Argentine tango has been included, and Brazilian capoeira, and Chinese calligraphy and Indian Vedic chanting. The application process is rigorous, with forms asserting the importance of national culture, completed in both English and French, and made available on the United Nations website.

“Most Koreans,” Yun’s application said, “eat kimchi at least once a day, and many of them, at every meal… the tradition of kimchi-making is deeply rooted into the life of Koreans.” The supporting paperwork explained that the Great Leader Kim Il Sung “regarded every tradition of the nation as a treasure”. He “took it always to his heart to give brilliance to them.”

North Korea’s, and Yun Jong Min’s, first successful UNESCO application was the previous year: Nomination File 00914, about “Arirang”, a folk song that all Koreans know. Yun had read through the supportive statements that the officials had collected, which were typed, signed, and dated in the Western style. Kye Chun Hui was 74 when she gave her statement, the forms said, recalling singing “Arirang” at the riverside with Pom Sun and No Ul. Her mother used to sing it to her as she tied red ribbons to her pigtails, Kye said, or as she prepared food or waited for her father to return home.

Kim Jong Ye had signed another statement. He said he’d found himself singing “Arirang” at the Third Concentration Plant of the Youth Heroes Mine at Daehung, when it came on the radio with no off switch or tuner. Occasionally, he told the official, the miners’ wives would come to the magnesite mine on White Gold Mountain, with long white access roads scarring the valley, and they’d sing the song to their husbands. In another statement, Hyon Su Suk remembered singing “Arirang” with his friends in Sinpo, as they returned to land to deposit their catch at the fishery.

Alongside these statements, in the documents that Yun read, there were copies of children’s work from Kyongsang Kindergarten, which is still famous for its music. Sitting at low tables beneath walls hung with felt tip drawings and star charts praising well-behaved children, the five-year-olds had written the word “Arirang” in careful, crayoned script. The more confident had added their name and age to their work. For the less confident, an adult had done it for them.

Tiny guitarists in white socks often play for visiting dignitaries to the kindergarten. Many progress to prestigious conservatories and some are sent to perform in Moscow. A 2012 ordinance of the Supreme People’s Assembly called for at least one similar kindergarten in every province. Kim Jong Un had visited once, with the uncle whom he would eventually have executed, and he commended the felt tip colours and star charts. Tall, signless buildings loom through the windows facing Changjon Street, a few blocks away from Yun Jong Min’s office.

At Primary School Number Four, on Chollima Street, another few blocks over, a teacher called Kil Kum Sung signed a statement for the officials to use in the UNESCO application. This was the primary school that the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il had attended, with long white tiles and rows of neat windows, four stories high. The cameras in each room allow the headmistress to monitor behaviour from her bare office with its parquet floor. Kil told the officials that it was her sacred duty to teach the children about “Arirang”, one of the first melodies they learn.

“Arirang,” the North Korean application said, is “about leaving and reunion, sorrow, joy, and happiness.” The words tend to be about a lover leaving and his feet aching as he walks away, over the mountains.

The song is well-known on both sides of the border, and South Korea had applied to UNESCO about “Arirang” a little before North Korea, just as they had with kimchi. “Most Koreans learn ‘Arirang’ from the cradle,” the South Korean forms said, “but its widespread popularity as the nation's most representative folk song is also due to its consistent presence in their everyday lives.” “‘Arirang’ unites Koreans as one community,” it continued, “…it is often described as their unofficial national anthem.”

The song has no fixed text, and even the melody can vary, but the core theme remains in the countless variations. “‘Arirang’ has been rearranged into modern ballads, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop, as well as symphonic pieces, appealing to a wide array of audiences,” the South Koreans wrote, “affection for ‘Arirang’ is evident throughout today's ultra-modern Korean culture, well beyond the realm of traditional music.” According to the North Korean application, the “Arirang of Reunification” and “Arirang of Great Prosperity” had been recorded, “reflecting the realities of our time.”

“Arirang”, the North Korean application said, “demonstrates that Korean people speak the same language and share a common culture”. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, athletes from both the North and South sang “Arirang” as they entered the opening ceremony together. Koreans are said to have sung “Arirang” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics too, when Son Ki Jung won gold in the marathon. At Son’s medal ceremony, he covered the flag on his shirt with the oak sapling he had been given. He was Korean, born in what is now the North, but it was a Japanese flag on his chest, and the Japanese anthem played. Son didn’t sing the anthem, standing defiant and proud and sad as the Nazi officials looked on.

Son was forced to call himself Kitei Son, a Japanese name. Korea had been a Japanese colony since 1910, and would remain so until after World War II. Korean culture was suppressed and school children were taught in Japanese. “Arirang” was banned. “‘Arirang’ in pre-modern times conveyed the joys and sorrows of commoners in traditional society,” the South Korean UNESCO application said. “During the colonial period, it gave expression to personal and national sufferings of Koreans and fanned hopes for independence in their hearts.”

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