August 19-20 saw the situation on the Korean Peninsula ramped up to its highest tensions since 2013.
In the aftermath of the serious injury of two South Korean soldiers by a landmine allegedly planted by the DPRK, loudspeakers broadcasting pro-democracy propaganda messages were placed on the DMZ for the first time in over a decade.
Things escalated fast. The two Koreas exchanged shellfire, and Kim Jong Un ordered the country’s army to go into a state of “semi-war.”
But in the nation’s capital the mood was very different: the Slovenian industrial band Laibach were playing a concert to a packed auditorium, and as far as those attending were concerned, things couldn’t be more normal. Yes, despite all the saber-rattling coming from the government, Pyongyang seemed perfectly peaceful as it hosted its very first foreign rock band.
‘I didn’t feel any sense of the tensions at all’
“I didn’t feel any sense of the tensions at all, people were just excited about the holiday, otherwise it didn’t feel any different,” said Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, who took 19 tourists to see the band play.
“Honestly if you hadn’t seen the news then you’d have no idea there were added tensions at all,” said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, who also took a group – including some Slovenian tourists – into the country. “(The North Koreans) didn’t seem that fazed by it at all, people didn’t really mention it, there was no panic.”
The news, announced a couple of months ago, that a band famous for its theatrics and avant-garde music would be playing in North Korea came as a surprise to many – but it was widely assumed that, no matter what happened, it was going to be quite a show. The concert was the brainchild of Morten Traavik, a Norwegian director known for out-of-the-ordinary “cultural exchange” projects to North Korea as well as a lifelong Laibach fan. He’s taken many people into North Korea, but said that this trip was certainly the most challenging, and most successful, tour he’s done.
“When it comes to the level of international attention surrounding it, it’s definitely the biggest splash so far,” he told NK News. “Which was to a certain extent calculated, but the global media interest surpassed even my expectations, I would say.
“It’s also so far the crowning achievement in expanding the boundaries a little bit of what is considered possible and not possible to do in North Korea.”
DO UNTO OTHERS
All this media attention, however, ramped up the pressure on Traavik – not to the mention the band – in the run up to the visit. Taking a band like Laibach into one of the most secretive and oppressive countries on earth, particularly when tensions were so high, was fraught with potential challenges, and Traavik went to great lengths to make sure that nothing went wrong. In the days leading up to the trip he sent the band members a personalized briefing guide to the country, based on his knowledge, letting them know what not to do in North Korea and giving them a general idea of what to expect.
“Behave unto others as you would like others to behave unto you,” he advises in the document, sent to NK News by Traavik himself. “As long as you’re not openly critical of the system/provocative/picking a fight it’s just a positive to be curious about people’s lives and North Korea in general in a friendly way.”
“Remember that we are all pioneers – the Korean side and ourselves – in this project and a lot of experiences will be new to everyone. Not least in the technical setup field, there will be challenges which need to be approached with a creative and positive mind.”
In true Laibach fashion, of course, the preparation for the most off-the-wall concert they’d ever perform was an unconventional as the band itself. The group rehearsed the North Korean concert program at the Delavski Dom (Worker’s Hall) in their home city of Trbovlje, Slovenia, before heading to the nearby Mount Kum, “to spiritually and mentally prepare ourselves collectively,” said Ivan Novak, who operates the lights and projection onstage.
They also learned as much as they could about North Korea, and began preparing the setlist for the concert – a task which, however, did face intervention from North Korean censors. Upon arriving they were asked not to play two of the three covers of traditional North Korean revolutionary songs they had planned, for fear that the songs had been too significantly altered.
“In the end their censors asked us to take out “Honorable” and “Mount Paektu,” because we had changed them too much from the originals,” said Ivan Novak. “They are extremely sensitive about their own culture, so we only performed “Arirang,” for which we received their blessing.”
More broadly, the band wanted to play a set that would make sense to the audience. They based much of the program on songs from The Sound of Music, a film many North Koreans know well, as well as some of the Laibach classics, from “Life is Life” to the Beatles cover “Across the Universe” – “all songs that are somewhat close to Korean uplifting pop and marching music,” Novak said. The band opted, however, not to perform their famous cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” – its subject matter was, perhaps, a little too subversive for the conservative Pyongyang audience.
“That was a bit too naughty,” said Traavik with a laugh.
There were also a few concerns about the power situation. For a band whose music is entirely generated by electronic instruments, Pyongyang’s fluctuating electricity problems – a result of ongoing droughts – caused a great deal of worry that the gig might not be able to go ahead.
“You can imagine how worried we that there would be a power cut in the middle of the concert, with all the laptops and pre-programmed synths if suddenly everything went black,” said Traavik. “This gave the concert an extra nerve.”
PEACE AGAINST WAR
When Laibach took to the stage, however, everything went smoothly and the power remained steady, and in the end the band played a roughly 45-minute concert. So what did North Koreans think of it all?
State media was certainly pleased, reporting that the “Performers showed well the artistic skill of the band through peculiar singing, rich voice and skilled rendition” and praising the performance’s use of Korean songs and “songs on the theme of peace against war.”
‘The Koreans in the audience seemed somewhat bemused and unsure how to respond’
The crowd seemed to have appreciated it, too, despite one Pyongyang attendee’s somewhat neutral line that, “There are all kinds of music, now we know that there’s this kind of music, too.” Charlotte Guttridge, another Young Pioneer Tours employee who attended the concert, said the audience responded positively to the music – if a little taken aback by Laibach, a band whose music is avant-garde, even by Western standards.
“The Koreans in the audience seemed somewhat bemused and unsure how to respond to the experience as they’ve never seen anything like it,” she told NK News. “However everyone I spoke to assured me that they enjoyed watching the band perform.”
“Koreans had never heard such music before, so they didn’t really know what to think about it,” said Ivan Novak. “But again, they reacted politely, applauding after every song, and at the end of the show they gave us standing ovations.”
Not everyone in the auditorium was quite so thrilled. The Syrian ambassador, according to Novak, did not enjoy himself, complaining that the music was “too loud – like torture.”
Despite this, the band considered the concert to have been “one of the most important ones in the whole of Laibach’s career,” said Novak, and feel that, despite limited interaction with the locals, they had the impact they’d hope to have, and are hoping to return in the future.
“We wanted to perform the concert within North Korea and open the debate in the rest of the world, and that is what happened and is still going on,” he said, adding that the band would love to play in another bastion of anti-American power, Iran, if they’d be allowed.
Traavik, on the other hand, is keen to take some time to “digest this experience first” and spend some time in Norway with his family. But the massive media attention afforded to the tour stop means he’s already heard from other international musicians hoping to make their mark with a gig in the Hermit Kingdom. Among them, he said, is Marky Ramone of the legendary New York punk rockers the Ramones.
“He very, very much wants to go to North Korea as the only surviving member of the Ramones,” said Traavik. “I’ve answered by quoting Billie Holiday: The difficult I can do right now, the impossible will take a little while.”
Click here to read about the background to the trip
Main image: Tor Joerund F Pedersen