It was early in the morning, but Mark Fahey had been awake for hours. A biomedical engineer turned North Korean propaganda expert, he had spent most of the night tinkering with a radio in his room at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, secretly recording the opening moments of Pyongyang FM Pangsong.
While he listened to the station’s typical offering of classical music and propaganda, another microphone and recorder were set up next to an open window to capture the sounds of the city as it roused itself awake. It was August 2011, and the sun hung low on the horizon. Fahey expected to pick up the sound of the dredging work taking place along the Taedong River.
Instead, he heard music.
“Pyongyang is deadly silent at night,” Fahey tells NK News. “If a lorry’s just passing through the city, you’re going to hear it. It’s so quiet. And at 6 am, you hear this kind of weird…” he hesitates. “It sounds like mind control music.”
Seeking an explanation, Fahey brought the tune up with his minder.
“They didn’t know what I was talking about,” he recalls, “but I don’t actually think that means they didn’t know what it was. They probably didn’t realize that I could hear it from where I was.”
Pyongyang’s 6 am music has mystified many foreign visitors
The music Fahey heard was the same as that heard by dozens of foreign visitors from their hotel rooms since at least 2008: a thunderous, mournful wail of a theremin reverberating through the cold morning air. It seemed to come from the clock tower above the nearby train station, although nobody quite knew why. Not to be deterred, Fahey tried to find out for himself.
“It was actually, for many years, a total puzzle to me,” he says. “And then, slowly, piece by piece, various parts came together.”
For Kim Il Sung, music was the glue that held the revolution together. As a child, he was an organist in his father’s church, and keenly observed the power music had to motivate and inspire.
While having a loose grip on the specificities – the dictator appears to have believed that E major was the best note to make people “rush forward involuntarily” – according to Professor Adam Cathcart of the University of Leeds, Kim Il Sung recognised the potential for music to “build community and ‘gradually preach’ a communist doctrine by attracting Koreans looking, quite simply, for something to do.”
While North Korean music owes a great deal to the legacy of Korean folk music, it bears the heavy imprint of the first two Kim’s tastes. Where the father had a preference for martial songs harking back to the anti-colonial struggle against the Japanese, the son mixed a taste for grand opera with a predilection for electronic ballads.
All three sensibilities merged in ‘Where Are You, Dear General?’, a piece allegedly written by Kim Jong Il for the North Korean opera “A True Daughter of the Party.” It is this song, covered by the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, that Fahey heard being broadcast from the clock tower.
Played through loudspeakers, the song is heavily distorted and barely recognizable. It was only after stumbling across a music video on North Korean television from a feed running in his Sydney home many years after his visit that Fahey realized what he’d heard.
“It’s quite often played as North Korean television ends,” he explains. “And then there is an instrumental piece, and it’s quite often this song.”
The song, as it appears on late-night North Korean television
“A True Daughter of the Party” follows the story of Kang Yang Ok, an army nurse during the Korean War whose only dream is to meet the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. “Where Are You, Dear General?” is sung towards the opera’s climax, as Kang accompanies a squad of wounded soldiers under a starry night to deliver vital intelligence to their commander-in-chief.
In the pangchang – an off-stage song that places the emotions of the opera’s main characters in bold relief – Kang expresses her ardent hope to deliver her message and fulfill her lifelong desire.
“Where is the fatherly General/When the Big Dipper lights the sky!” sings the heroic nurse. “Where can Supreme Headquarters be with its light-flooded windows? Where he’s sure to be!”
“That music was my alarm clock!”
Sadly, Kang’s hopes of finally meeting her Great Leader are dashed after she’s shot to death by American troops in the final act. But as far as the regime is concerned, her (fictional) sacrifice was not in vain.
Regularly covered by official choirs and a fixture on North Korean television, ‘Where Are You, Dear General?’ is a song that’s well known to the wider population, and one that fits snugly into the state’s ultimate vision for the arts as an instrument of ideological control.
In North Korea, it is “not really possible to have any form of music that is not in some way connected to the needs of the state or to the juche ideal,” says Professor Darren Zook, an expert in North Korean music at UC Berkeley. In the end, this means that music, and by extension all art, can only exist as propaganda.
“Even if a North Korean citizen had a spare five minutes or so to listen to music,” says Zook, it could only be something that kept their minds properly focused on the needs of the state. “All art in North Korea plays a similar role.”
The song in its original incarnation: in the opera “A True Daughter of the Party”
While it is more or less clear why “Where Are You, Dear General?” is being played, less so is the reason for why it is being played so early in the morning. The most common assumption, shared by many of the foreign tourists who have been woken by the music in the Koryo and Yanggakdo Hotels, is that it’s intended as a citywide alarm clock.
Kang’s hopes of finally meeting her Great Leader are dashed in the final act, after she’s shot to death by American troops
“To understand the intent behind the song, especially as it is played first thing in the morning, you need to understand the idea of the omnipresent state in the DPRK,” Zook explains. “Privacy, for instance, is a fundamental right in a democracy, because it creates a space for each citizen where the state cannot reach.”
“Since one of the central goals of the state in North Korea is to protect the juche ideal from external and internal enemies, eternal vigilance is required. And eternal vigilance is the opposite of privacy.”
It’s a theory seemingly borne out by the way loudspeaker systems have traditionally been deployed in other socialist states. In China during the 1970s, similar systems were installed nationwide in schools, factories, villages and public spaces, while in Vietnam, the authorities continue to maintain old tannoys – many of which still broadcast patriotic music in the wee hours – despite local complaints.
Neither are they necessarily the preserve of communist regimes. In Japan, the ‘5pm Chime’ sounds out from loudspeakers that are part of the national emergency warning system, serving both to test the system and to gently remind any children playing outside to return home before sunset.
The idea that the morning music is an extension of this activity is something that one former diplomat can get behind.
“That music was my alarm clock!” exclaims David Slinn.
During his tenure as the British ambassador to the DPRK from 2002-2006, Slinn remembers hearing the song being broadcast at 7 am from a building not far from the British Embassy compound in Pyongyang’s Munsu Dong district, in addition to other locations throughout the city. An ambassadorial colleague of his even reported hearing it from his residence two hours earlier.
“There were theories that the 5 am music was aimed at areas where factory workers lived, the 7 am music at areas where office workers lived,” says Slinn, although he never received any official confirmation that this was the case.
Nevertheless, the alarm clock theory is not one that Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, finds convincing. He has had the chance to listen to the music dozens of times on visits to Pyongyang.
It’s never struck him as particularly invigorating.
“The music is mild,” Cockerell explains, not even intrusive enough to be noticed by passersby. “Also, there is no requirement for people to be awake at 6 am, of course, but it is the kind of time that a lot of people wake up. Me too, actually.”
Indeed, in many cases North Korean households may already be awake. In the 1980s, cable radios – known colloquially as the ‘Third Radio’ – have been a mainstay of most apartments and offices in the country.
According to Dr. Andrei Lankov, director of the Korea Risk Group which owns NK News and NK Pro, each set “consists of a loudspeaker with a single knob for volume control,” with only one channel.
The radios can be turned down but not switched off. Although first-hand accounts of content on the system remain sparse, there is at least one documented case of households being woken up very early in the morning by the radios blaring out the national anthem.
There is another theory for the song’s purpose, one that counts on Pyongyang’s residents being wide awake. Amid a rash of stories covering the city’s “eerie” morning music last April, technology site Gizmodo speculated that the tune might, in fact, be morning exercise music, citing a short passage from “Kim Il-song’s North Korea,” a comprehensive survey of the country by historian Helen-Louise Hunter.
The alarm clock theory is not one that Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, finds convincing
According to Hunter, most households are up by 6 am, with the following hour spent getting dressed, preparing breakfast, or washing.
“Mothers do not have the leisure of staying home a little longer to clean up the house,” Hunter writes, pointing out that all of the adults in the household needed to reach work by 8 am.
“Morning exercise is blared over the radio loudspeakers during this hour. Participation in morning exercise drills is voluntary; however, there is pressure for people to take a few moments out to do exercises in the interests of appearing revolutionary.”
The importance to the regime of promoting the physical fitness of citizens should not be understated.
“Sport, physical education [and] physical recreation is recognized at a political level and it is part of the Constitution,” explains Dr. Udo Merkel, an expert on North Korean sport.
Nevertheless, the focus of the regime is overwhelmingly on training promising individuals for overseas competitions.
Morning exercise drills, however, are common.
“Individual work units played their own music to accompany their communal exercise music,” recalls Slinn, the former British ambassador. “I often heard the 9 am exercise music from the yard of the diplomatic shop and restaurant as I was leaving home for the office.”
Plenty of visual evidence has also emerged of drills occurring adjacent to businesses and next to the Taedong River. None of these videos, however, appear to show North Koreans purposely exercising to ‘Where Are You, Dear General?’ Instead, we often see fast-moving calisthenics to appropriately jaunty music.
Typical exercise music in the DPRK – much more jaunty
Neither do the timings of these recordings match the morning broadcasts of the song.
“Most companies have morning exercises and the TV broadcasts an exercise show, but that comes on a little later at around 7:30 am,” explains Cockerell.
If it’s unlikely that North Koreans are using the song as a backdrop to organized morning exercise, what about the unorganized? Merkel considers the possibility of voluntary calisthenics remote.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I mean, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in China, and when you walk around in Beijing either early in the morning or late in the evening, you do actually see people exercising, doing Tai-Chi or martial arts in local parks in very, very big groups. It’s very obvious that people are very active in that kind of context.”
“But it’s not at all obvious or visible to the foreign eye that this is actually happening in North Korea.”
None of this necessarily precludes ordinary North Koreans from waking up to the song or using it as a backdrop for exercise, and evidence of either activity would allow for a logical inference that the broadcast is some kind of multi-purpose morning chorus. All of this would be fine, but for the fact that the music doesn’t just play in the mornings.
“It plays at 6 am and at midday,” Cockerell explains, adding that if visitors express a desire to hear the music again, Koryo Tours often arranges for them to stand outside the station at noon.
The tune has also been reported at 7 pm, 8 pm, 10 pm and midnight. Cockerell doesn’t see anything particularly sinister, or odd, about the music per se – comparing it to the somnolent tolling of church bells.
Indeed, the notion that the song is a way for the authorities to mark the passage of time is supported by the experiences of one tourist NK News had a chance to speak with. He has asked to remain anonymous, lest his story leads to his minders being punished.
The visitor first heard the song at midnight, when it woke him up in his room in the Koryo Hotel. After settling back to sleep, the music woke him up again at 6 am. Where first the song had disturbed him, sounding out from deep inside an inky cityscape, now the atmosphere was different. The city was full of life. Cars and buses whooshed by the train station, and people were skittering in all directions.
The music doesn’t just play in the mornings
“I didn’t hear it every morning, nor every night,” he says. “I was there for seven days, and I could not make out any strict schedule.”
Shortly afterwards, the group set off on a long drive south towards the DMZ. He brought it up with one of the minders, who at first didn’t seem to understand what he was saying and then dismissed the music as coming from a nearby party.
It was only when the bus returned to Pyongyang and parked outside the railway station that he finally obtained an explanation. It was 7 pm, and this time the music was sounding out loud and clear.
“I told the female guide that this was the music I had asked her about, and others on the bus joined in the conversation as well this time,” he says. “She let out a sigh and said, ‘Oh, this is the music you were talking about. Now I understand.’ She then said it was a reminder telling people when they should go to work and when they should go home.”
There’s no way of knowing for sure if the minder’s answer was true. Even so, the purpose of the music as a way of marking time remains the most logical explanation, instructional gilding to a propaganda soundscape teeming with songs of national hope, ardor, and defiance in Pyongyang’s parks, streets and metro system.
Whatever its true purpose, its implicit meaning remains abundantly clear.
“In the opera, it’s the recurring tune,” says Fahey, written to convey that whatever hurdles are thrown up by the enemies of the state, the message will always get through. It’s one that every North Korean will know.
“It’s just a reminder that the battle continues.”
Cue the theremin.
Edited by Oliver Hotham