A North Korean musical delegation has now concluded nearly a week of residency in Beijing, a visit which resulted in one of the more sustained interactions we have seen in recent years between the leading members of China’s Politburo and Central Committee and the Korean Workers’ Party.
There are, consequently, a number of Kremlinological-type data points to be worked through. However, to see the concerts only as a political staging terrain would deny a necessary reflection on the utilitarian role of music and the arts in the Party-state, and in facilitating such interactions as we have seen.
On a recent visit to Shanghai, I ran across a most curious book. It was a Chinese translation of the musicologist Eric Levi’s “Mozart and the Nazis,” a book which describes the enmeshment of Germany and Austria’s classical music elites with Hitler’s National Socialist cultural apparatus.
It was a pleasant surprise to find, on a topic worth thinking about — and, like many books with a certain refractive force, the kind of thing you would be unlikely to find in Pyongyang.
When it comes to the Chinese-North Korean relationship, Western classical music, as well as drama, has had its role.
Music has as an uncomfortable history when it is nested alongside and pulled along in the currents of dictatorships
During the maximum turbulence of the early years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Chinese comrades were “smashing the four olds” and resolutely forbidding performance of Western classical music or foreign staged dramas.
At that same time, North Korean drama students were staging Shakespeare’s “Othello” in Pyongyang, and were critical of China’s random destruction of culture. The study and performance repertoire of classical music in the North Korean capital was more akin to Moscow than Beijing.
Apart from their obvious means of domestic mobilization and ideological education, music and culture in North Korea have always had a role both as a channel for diplomatic harmony with Chinese comrades and as a kind of defense. Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, studied voice at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing, but that fact has hardly resulted in wholesale exchanges between that institution and its counterparts in North Korea.
Music has as an uncomfortable history when it is nested alongside and pulled along in the currents of dictatorships. The Russian composer Igor Stravinsky fled the Soviet Union soon after it was formed; he described his personal aversion to the simple combination of the words ‘music’ and ‘power.’
Shostakovich and Prokofiev had to tangle with centralized committees that warned them of ‘formalism’ in their works, but were still rewarded handsomely for their patriotic cantatas to Lenin and Stalin.
North Korea knows well that music is a powerful art that needs to be kept firmly within centrally-managed boundaries
Outside of North Korea there has been a long debate over the role that composers and musicians should or ought to play with respect to dictatorships.
Principled performers and composers, generally speaking, are expected to leave their countries and go into exile. Or, if compelled to work within the state, they should encode their work with ciphers of resistance and ridicule of the despots to be decoded later by musicologists and foreign fans.
CLASSICAL MUSIC IN SONGUN KOREA
North Korea, of all states, knows well that music is a powerful art that needs to be kept firmly within centrally-managed boundaries.
Choe Ryong Hae, currently one of the top party elders around Kim Jong Un, has a keen appreciation for this fact. As the chair of the Socialist Youth League in the late 1980s, he inevitably became aware of cultural movements in the socialist sphere.
In the Soviet Union, in East Germany as well as in mainland China, rock music was flourishing and the state attempted in its own ways to both compete with and manage the flow of musical cultural production.
Of course the Chinese Communist Party brought the hammer down on its students and their dissenting songs, and the Berlin Wall fell not long thereafter.
North Korea never had a comparable cultural thaw in the musical sphere in 1980s, in spite of a few films that might suggest otherwise, and its leaders have been resolutely conservative in their musical tastes.
Under Kim Jong Un, there have been slight tweaks to the formula and the content of North Korean music. Hips of female dancers on stage appear to be able to sway a couple inches further in circumference, and there have been occasional hints that a more bourgeois appearance of female performers might be allowed.
But the supremacy of the conservative approach, and the dominance of a more Red Army-Chorus approach to music, has also been apparent.
So we arrive at the concert in Beijing, where musical performances have simply been the pretext for an inter-meshing of Korean Workers’ Party officials with Chinese Communist Party officials.
Xi Jinping’s public comments were what you would expect from such a staged occasion
The repertoire is not particularly interesting; it included a few old and predictable chestnuts such as the “Flower Girl,” which was popular in China during the later years of the Cultural Revolution, but no missile launch-medleys such as the Moranbong Band became famous for in previous years.
There is still considerable confusion about what I have heard one important Chinese scholar call “the Moranbong Band Incident” of December 2015, but the role of graphics and slides on stage rather than song lyrics seemed to be at issue, and was clearly not a problem in this present round of shows.
That much at least reveals that the North Korean state propaganda apparatus is happy to play the same game with China as it is with the White House — we don’t show any on-site inspections of weapons units by Kim Jong Un, or flash our missile or nuclear capabilities around, and everyone gets along better.
Xi Jinping’s public comments were what you would expect from such a staged occasion: Chinese-North Korean cultural exchanges are evidence of the warm fraternal relationship between the two countries. Ri Su Yong replied fulsomely, and included the bromide that “a new chapter of history” is being written by the two countries.
What is probably more important than the optics are the meetings that take place on the sidelines of the concerts. The Chinese delegation with Xi Jinping included Yang Jiechi, the former foreign minister who is coordinating with Washington on Korean peninsula issues, and the current foreign minister Wang Yi.
The North Koreans also meet with China’s chief ideologist and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning, as well as Li Zhanshu, Kim Jong Un’s interlocutor from September 2018. Kim Song Nam finally got a more prevalent seat next to Moranbong Band head and Pyongyang’s envoy-of-choice to the Pyeongchang Olympics, Hyon Song Wol.
“The artistic level of the North Koreans is very high, and I wish we could see more North Korean performances in China.”
And the departure of the State Merited Chorus from the Pyongyang train station a week ago revealed that the ancient propagandist Kim Ki Nam is still active alongside Kim Jong Un’s more modish sister.
The managed PRC netizen comments on the day of the first day of the State Merited Chorus visit were fairly uniform. To summarize, they ran along the lines of: “Resist America, Aid Korea, Protect our Homes, Defend the Motherland; long live Sino-North Korean friendship; my grandfather fought in the Korean War; the artistic level of the North Koreans is very high, and I wish we could see more North Korean performances in China.”
The North Korean performers appear to have gotten out to witness some performances and take in some of China’s offerings, including a ballet and a wandering through what appears to be the National Gallery.
This may appear to be marginal exposure for these North Korean elite musicians, but, as I learned in Shanghai, cultural ferment — and cultural control — can come from all sorts of combinations.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: DPRK Today
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