As far as rock scenes go, North Korea’s is low-key. Apart from the famous Moranbong all-girl pop group, the country’s deeply restrictive system of political censorship would put paid to a burgeoning alternative rock music scene quite quickly. In all, it’s an unlikely pit stop for a rebellious group on a world tour.
But this could be about to change. In August, as part of their “Liberation Day” tour, Slovenian industrial band Laibach will play at Pyongyang’s Kim Won Gyun musical conservatory to an audience of roughly 1,000 locals, and a handful of lucky foreigners visiting with Young Pioneer Tours. While the capital has hosted everything from classical music to pro wrestling, it has never seen a Western rock band take the stage – and the band are even hoping to play one or two songs at the DMZ.
The gig takes place as the DPRK celebrates 70 years since the liberation of the peninsula from Japanese colonial rule, and the band, announcing their decision in June, proudly claimed that “Laibach will become the first ever band of its kind to perform in the secretive country of North Korea,” describing it as a “a reclusive garrison state as well-known for its military marches, mass gymnastics and hymns to the Great Leader, as for its defiant resistance to Western popular culture.”
Laibach are no run-of-the-mill, easy listening rock band -– this isn’t Hasselhoff on the Berlin Wall or the Kim family favorite, Eric Clapton. Laibach are famously political and subversive in their music, with an anarchist and ironic tone and a subversive use of Slovenian nationalist imagery and frequent flirtations with Nazi iconography. Put simply, this is a band known for causing trouble and provoking debate. So why did Pyongyang agree to host them?
Band member Ivan Novak, who operates the lights and projection onstage, said the group will be adapting their setlist to meet the sensitive needs of the country in which they’ll be performing.
“We are adjusting our program to the North Korean context,” he said, “and we’ll perform several Laibachian versions of the songs from the Sound of Music film, adding some additional songs from Korean heritage.”
“We don’t know what to expect in Korea but we hope for the best.”
THE NORWEGIAN CONNECTION
The band’s journey to North Korea started with a left-field Norwegian director with a background in leading these types of projects: Morten Traavik, a trained theater director and artist, has conducted all kinds of cultural exchange tours related to the DPRK, from organizing an Arirang-style concert in Norway coordinated by North Korean instructors, to arranging art shows and computer games, he hopes to improve understanding between countries through “cultural diplomacy.”
Traavik took a few days to respond to NK News’ requests for comment – he was in Trbovlje, Slovenia, “on a mountaintop with little internet,” as he puts it, with the band preparing for the trip.
‘The idea of trying to connect Laibach … and North Korea was kind of bound to raise its head at some point
His unlikely association with a band he has loved since the 1980s began last year, when the band approached him to direct a music video for their single “The Whistleblowers.” He agreed, and during the work on the video the topic of a visit to North Korea came up.
“The idea of trying to connect Laibach, a band which has always celebrated the notion of mass movements and collective efforts, and North Korea was kind of bound to raise its head at some point,” he said. “I’d say it’s both intended as, and so far has felt like, a quite logical and organic extension of the previous collaborations I’ve had with DPR Korean artists and cultural authorities since 2012.”
“He believes that Laibach is what Koreans need at the moment and North Korea also is what Laibach needs,” said Novak – in typical cryptic Laibach fashion – when asked why they chose to let Traavik organize the trip. “We did not object.”
“Mr. Traavik was negotiating with North Korean authorities on the whole matter since last year and we were just assisting him.”
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), grew up under the notoriously brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, a stone’s throw away from Tito’s Yugoslavia and particularly repressive when it came to controls on everyday life.
“My country of birth was the most oppressive of all Eastern European communist regimes when it came to foreign rock music,” he said. “Most of us had no record or cassette players, but we often got together at the homes of those who did.
“We grew up listening to the Scorpions, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. This was my generation, the very generation that brought down the Ceausescu regime in 1989.”
Scarlatoiu penned an op-ed for NK News when the Laibach news broke, and he’s of the opinion that while one concert is unlikely to challenge the North Korean state’s grip on power, exposing everyday North Koreans to art and culture from the outside world, especially young North Koreans, may have an impact on changing hearts and minds.
“If young North Koreans attend, there may be an impact, even if only members of the elites were in attendance,” he said. “Laibach surely has the ’80s touch that brought the fragrance of freedom to young Eastern Europeans.
“If there are few or no young people in the audience, the concert will be clearly just a sham, and Laibach will know it.”
With the band’s charged political performances, might there be a chance they could get in trouble from the authorities when they take to the stage with an avant-garde performance reflecting their anti-totalitarian past? Traavik doesn’t think so. He argues that the band is going in good faith as a cultural exchange, and that dropping a surprise would undermine that.
“We’re going with no hidden agendas and I think this simple fact will probably be more provoking to the human rights zealots on ‘our own’ side of the fence than to the Koreans,” he said. “I can’t really see what the trouble would then be.”
“Laibach has and has had many faces throughout their 35 years career, which is why they don’t need masks.”
“We hope not; we are invited to Korea, so we’ll behave like guests normally should,” said Novak, when asked whether he fears any kind of censorship.
The band don’t seem to have anything planned, in any case, and their statements so far about the situation on the peninsula would not be controversial in the DPRK. Novak, for example, blames the situation on the intervention of foreign powers, criticizing China and the U.S. for their division of Korea.
“We see the situation on Korean Peninsula as a result of the Cold War,” he said. “… North Korea is a prisoner of a Truman doctrine, which has decided that united Korea is a no-go, because it would not be in the interests of both superpowers – China and United States.”
“Such North Korea as it is fits America better, since it can be used as an excuse for strong U.S. military presence in the region.”
Since being founded in the Slovenian town of Trbovlje in the year of Yugoslav leader Tito’s death, “rising to fame as Yugoslavia steered towards self-destruction,” as they put it, has eschewed simplistic descriptions of their music, having variously been described as “rock,” “avant-garde,” “neoclassical dark wave” and, possibly most accurately, “industrial.”
Blending music with visual art, the band’s first performance took place alongside an exhibition called “Žrtve letalske nesreče” (“Victims of an Air Accident”), and their first frontman committed suicide by hanging in 1982 (an act, incidentally, the band disapproved of, posthumously expelling him from the group).
Before long this transgressive blending of visual art (often interspersed with potent political and religious messages) and complex music caught the attention of Yugoslavia’s authorities, with a piece entitled “The Revolution is Still Going On” depicting late SFRY leader Tito next to a penis being shut down by police in the middle of the show.
Before long they were banned from publicly performing in their home country, but a recording session with legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel led to an international tour and an international fame they’ve enjoyed since then, with hits from originals such as “Geburt Einer Nation” and “Opus Dei,” to covers of popular Western songs such as “Life is Life” by Noah and the Whale and “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. And it’s this fusion of the modern and the old-fashioned which Laibach specialize in, argues Travik, that make them ideal for North Korea’s first big rock concert.
“The way I see it, Laibach are the ideal pioneers for presenting more modern forms of foreign music to a larger North Korean audience,” he said. “They stand for a mixture of the familiar – songs like ‘Life is life’ or ‘The Whistleblowers’ for example – and the new.”
What the North Koreans will actually think of Laibach’s music, of course, remains to be seen. Scarlatoiu thinks there’s the chance that the music might have a real impact on them, in the way that rock music had on his generation, but that nothing is for certain until the actual concert.
‘The impact of the sound and … the lyrics, is more direct, and operates at a subconscious level, requiring little, if any prior knowledge or training’
“The impact of the sound and, if at all understood, the lyrics, is more direct, and operates at a subconscious level, requiring little, if any prior knowledge or training,” he said.
“On the other hand, it may just sound so alien that the North Korean audience won’t get it … The only way to know is after Laibach’s performance.”
Laibach said they don’t know whether Kim Jong Un himself will attend the concert, or whether he’s a fan, but that “he might as well be without knowing it yet,” according to Novak.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be quite a show.
Main image: Laibach band picture by Luka Kase