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Kimchi and Pop Songs in Pyongyang

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.”

The Music Will Be Harnessed — or Shackled

The North Korean government is well aware of the power that popular music has, and the state is willing to either harness it or shackle it, as it sees fit. Across the country, women are employed to travel to factories to sing patriotic, encouraging songs. This was Ji Hae Nam’s job, before she was arrested. She loved kimchi, and ate it regularly, with her 180 grams of rations, at Kyohwaso Number One, a women’s prison in Kaechon. “I became so emaciated,” she told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “that I felt that the pickled cabbage they provided together with the ration was the most delicious food.” She expanded upon this to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The music is patriotic and commonplace, homely and evocative, like “Arirang” and kimchi, and it is preserved carefully.

This was 1993, during the famine, when she was 43. There were a thousand other women imprisoned with her. At the daily mutual criticism session, she said, “the inmates would give false accusations against others or else a portion of their ration was taken away.” Those without family nearby to bring them food sometimes died of malnutrition.

Her “crime” was committed as she gathered with three friends and a fortune teller, on the day the Christians celebrate Christmas. Her marriage had recently broken down and she had begun to suffer from depression. Ji and her friends danced, and she sang a song that had caught in her head recently, “Don’t Cry Little Sister”, from a film called Nation and Destiny. This was a South Korean song, included as background in a North Korean film.

Someone reported Ji, and she was charged with disrupting the socialist order, and with falsifying documents to get extra food rations. She was sentenced to three years imprisonment in an enlightenment centre. “I was subject to torture and sexual harassment that cannot be imagined by another human being,” Ji told American senators in June 2003. “The beatings I received in jail were so severe that my entire body was bruised,” she said, “and I was unable to get up for a month.” “Those who criticized the social order, those who sang foreign songs, those who wasted state assets, those who ate but did not work, those who drink, those who swindle, were harshly punished and were even subject to a death sentence.”

Ji ate sewage and swallowed her hair, trying to kill herself. She cut cement into four square pieces and ate it, but she didn’t die. The young guards who abused her, who were half her age, brought her rice and kimchi. “As I was accused of a misdemeanour of simply singing a wrong song, my preliminary hearing was relatively lighter than others. Imagine what the others with more serious sentences endured?”

Ji couldn’t remember exactly what part of Nation and Destiny she was watching when she’d heard the song, although she remembered the scene clearly: the mistress of the South Korean president sang it in a café. She told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it might have been part five of the 56 film series. This wasn’t correct, but it was understandable that part five had stuck in her mind.

It opens with an elderly composer sitting in rolling fields with his wife, surrounded by blue and yellow and purple flowers. “The eventful history of our nation,” the voiceover says, “records a musician named Yun Sang Min who tried to seek in his music the soul of national resurrection.” He hears children singing in the fields and playing their games. They sing as they walk through the long grass, with their teacher: “I saw flowers blooming too, in the fields of an alien land, but none so pretty as the flowers of my country. Vast is the world I’ve looked around, but best is the country I call my own.”

The film cuts to the composer as a younger man, living in exile in West Germany, ashamed, haunted by his unfinished Fifth Symphony. He hammers the piano, unable to sleep, and wakes his wife. “I must revive my symphony buried by South Korean dictators,” he says, “I started to compose that symphony in search of the lost soul of my land.” His music, he says, “originated in Korean folk music”. He has flashbacks to his imprisonment and torture. His captors, wearing earplugs, unsettle him by playing “Roll Me” by Abba. His wife sits in prison, bathed in an uncanny light, and makes flowers from her hair that has fallen out.

South Korean music, of the type that Ji sang, still creeps into North Korea. Korea Focus suggests that about half of all North Korean refugees have experienced some form of South Korean culture. Websites run by refugees and dissidents — Daily NK, New Focus International, http://38north.org/ — tell the stories of those still in North Korea. Some, they report, own illegal televisions that are able to receive broadcasts from the South. Some have radios that can be tuned to South Korean stations, hidden under rice containers. South Korean MP3s are traded by young North Koreans and a few Pyongyang teenagers wear their hair in bold, South Korean styles. Songs are spread, orally, or by CD, or electronically. As more North Koreans buy mobile phones, including the North Korean “Arirang” smartphone, more MP3s are shared. South Korean soap operas are popular, but their international references make it difficult for some in the North to understand.

In 2015, Na Sung Min and Han Eun Kyung, two young refugees, told New Focus International about secret parties in the North, where South Korean music plays. “At the start,” Na said, “the volume is turned down to the lowest level but as the night progresses and people have had one or two drinks, the music gets turned up louder and the atmosphere loosens more.” It’s better if one of those present is related to a senior official, as the surveillance patrols rarely check their homes. A CD of patriotic songs is left unopened next to the player, in case they arrive. “South Korean music makes you move naturally and triggers deep emotions within,” said Han, “and in that moment, lovers can slip into fantasies together, enjoying the thrill of capitalist culture while living on socialist territory… lovers can share one another’s feelings and hold each other while dancing… we take turns standing guard.”

As much as some North Koreans enjoy this “capitalist culture”, North Korean culture can seem strange to Western visitors. At the Yanggakdo International Hotel, with its revolving restaurant in the middle of the river, the visitors might giggle a little at the books and music for sale at the gift shop. This was the hotel where Otto Warmbier, an American student, was arrested for stealing a political banner, for which he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour. The banner read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong Il’s patriotism”. Visitors snigger nervously at the releases on the Pee label: “We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly”, “I Also Raise Chickens”, “Song of Bean Paste”.

Just as Western pop music tends to be about love, North Korean pop music tends to be about North Korea. There are songs of longing, of tenderness and affirmation, optimistic songs and tragic songs. Much of the imagery is familiar to Western ears — flowers and the sun and moon — but it holds a different meaning. North Korean pop music echoes with national identity. No one alive remembers a time before this. All North Korean music is for the regime, for the people, for the country. A vast monoculture is arranged, glorifying and humanising, normalising and reassuring. The music is patriotic and commonplace, homely and evocative, like “Arirang” and kimchi, and it is preserved carefully.

The full weight of the state bureaucracy is behind the endeavour. The North Korean UNESCO application lists “Arirang” safeguarding societies and national heritage protection committees in every district and county. It highlights the work of the Korean National Heritage Preservation Agency, and Professor Mun Song Ryop, of the Folklore Research Institute of the Academy of Social Sciences, and musicians at the Pyongyang Kim Won Gyun Conservatory. The application says that the North Korean state has been collecting folk songs since the mid-’60s.

Jo Jong Rim, aged 73, of the Korean National Music Research Institute, offered a supportive statement to the application: “reaching the twilight of my life, I find the greatest pleasure in transmitting our excellent cultural heritage to the young generations. ‘Arirang’ represents the emotions and feelings of our nation, thus becoming a favourite song among the youth.”

Choi Chung Hui, aged 72, gave another statement: “since my maidenhood with pigtail hair, ‘Arirang’ was my life. So I regard it as my duty to devote the rest of my life for the transmission of ‘Arirang’ to our younger generation.” She said she liked to go to Mount Kyongam, to Folk Street, a park which celebrates North Korean folk culture. She enjoyed seeing women from her city there, dancing to “Arirang” by the houses with tiled roofs and the traditional food stalls, “while recalling my younger days.”

“Arirang”, and songs like it, are familiar features on North Korean television. When the power is running, children sit with their families, and state approved music plays. It might be at quickstep pace, or lightly syncopated. There may be synthesisers or traditional instrumentation or an accordion or massed orchestration. The music is unavoidable.

In 2008, Eric Lafforgue, a French photographer, smuggled out pictures of his trip to North Korea. One picture featured men building a road, wearing their dun military caps backwards, accompanied by a cadre of French horns, trombones and drummers. In another, Korean karaoke machines, known as noreabang, play instrumentals with bright blue lyrics superimposed over images of missile launches or stock military footage. Patrons sing along in the restaurants that smell like kimchi. The regime says it sends these noreabang machines to soldiers in recognition of their efforts. According to reports from Radio Free Asia, richer citizens buy them for home, imported from China.

The songs are everywhere. They play from beige radios without tuners or off switches, mounted on the walls of public buildings with symmetrical, pastel interiors. The songs resonate in the marble lobbies, for the women in traditional, luminous dress. They resonate for the men in Western suits who stand in front of world maps aligned to the left of the Pacific, for the women with bikes laden with plastic bags, passing open brown fields and blue-grey mountains, for the workers painting the white bands on traffic cones, for the men picking edible weeds from sculpted grounds, for the weathered rice wine drinkers, for the children clinging to their mother’s shoulders as they kneel in the dust, for the families with neatly piled fruit at illegal roadside stalls.

Andy Kershaw, a broadcaster with the BBC, visited North Korea in 2003 and spent an evening in his hotel room, and watched music on the television. (Andy Kershaw’s radio programmes on North Korea are here, his television programme is here. He also talks about his travels to North Korea in his book, No Off Switch.) Kershaw ate tinned corned beef, keen to avoid another meal of meat and fermented cabbage. He’d travelled to North Korea many times before and had heard “Peace Is On Our Bayonets” playing from the bushes beneath the bronze statue of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. He’d heard children play synchronised grand pianos, and accordions and lutes, and waitresses singing songs about kimchi. “The World Envies Us” had played in the deep metro, as he travelled from Glory to Enrichment stations. He’d met Miss Chae, an amateur who had never recorded before. She sang “The Peace Song”, about hope, she’d said, and the image of a dove against a blue sky. Her voice had a keening, haunting quality, backed by her lone guitar. She sang another song, one she had first heard in a film, called The Soldiers Defend the People. It was, said the translator, a song about the people’s happiness.

Despite its ubiquity, there’s a limited amount of choice of music on offer in North Korea: the Moranbong Band, Unhasu Orchestra, Ponchobo Electronic Ensemble, Wangjaesan Light Music Band, military bands, the five great revolutionary operas. Nevertheless, even for the few North Koreans who encounter Western music, North Korean music retains its power. According to Western news reports, Kim Jong Un went to a Swiss private school as a boy, and his Western friends remembered him banging a tambourine unrhythmically. He listened to German pop music and watched American basketball, but he preferred North Korean music or the national anthem.

In the offices of the National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Yun Jong Min could hear music again as he read the UNESCO paperwork. Every hour, on the hour, from soon after sunrise, songs played from hidden speakers in the quiet streets outside. “Music is my first love,” the Great Leader once said, “my eternal companion, and a powerful weapon of the revolution and construction.” There’s a public holiday for his birthday each year, and the parks fill with families, who sing and eat homemade food. Westerners are kept away, as the people drink and dance the traditional eagle dance. Yun read the forms again, and saw his name listed as the point of contact for the Intergovernmental Committee. The melodies lingered, as he completed his work.

JP Robinson is an English writer and teacher, who lives in West Yorkshire. He has written for various online and print publications, including Freaky Trigger, Plan B, Flux and Stylus, mostly about music. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrJPRobinson.

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