Music of North Korea

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North Korean children performing for tourists at Chonsam Cooperative Farm near Wonsan Drumming children.jpg
North Korean children performing for tourists at Chonsam Cooperative Farm near Wonsan

The music of North Korea includes a wide array of folk, pop, light instrumental, political, and classical performers. Beyond patriotic and political music, popular groups like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Moranbong Band perform songs about everyday life in the DPRK and modern light pop reinterpretations of classic Korean folk music. Music education is widely taught in schools, with President Kim Il-Sung first implementing a program of study of musical instruments in 1949 at an orphanage in Mangyongdae. [1] Musical diplomacy also continues to be relevant to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with musical and cultural delegations completing concerts in China [2] and France [3] in recent years, and musicians from Western countries and South Korea collaborating on projects in the DPRK. [4] [5]

Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble orchestra

The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble is an orchestra from North Korea. It is famous for its performances of revolutionary and folk songs. They have been reported to be one of the country's most popular groups.

The Moranbong Band, also known as the Moran Hill Orchestra, is an all-female music group in North Korea whose members were selected by the country's supreme leader Kim Jong-un. Performing interpretive styles of pop, rock, and fusion, they are the first all-female band from the DPRK, and made their world debut on July 6, 2012. Their varied musical style has been described as symphonic because it is "putting together different kinds of sounds, and ending in a harmonious, pleasing result."

Kim Il-sung President of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea

Kim Il-sung was the first leader of North Korea which he ruled from the country's establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. He held the posts of Premier from 1948 to 1972 and President from 1972 to 1994. He was also the leader of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) from 1949 to 1994. Coming to power after the end of Japanese rule in 1945, he authorized the invasion of South Korea in 1950, triggering an intervention in defense of South Korea by the United Nations led by the United States. Following the military stalemate in the Korean War, a ceasefire was signed on 27 July 1953. He was the third longest-serving non-royal head of state/government in the 20th century, in office for more than 45 years.


Taejung kayo

After the division of Korea in 1945 and the establishment of North Korea in 1948, revolutionary song-writing traditions were channeled into support for the state, eventually becoming a style of patriotic song called taejung kayo in the 1980s [6] combining classical Western symphonic music and Korean traditional musical forms. [7] The songs are generally sung by female performers with accompanying bands or choirs accompanied by a large orchestra (either Western style or a hybrid of western and traditional) or concert band, and in recent years, a pop band with guitars and brass section.

Division of Korea Historical event separating North and South Korea

The Division of Korea began at the end of World War II in 1945. With the declaration of the Soviet-Japanese War, the Soviet Union occupied the north of Korea, and the United States occupied the south, with the boundary between their zones being the 38th parallel.

Concert band performing ensemble consisting of several members of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families of instruments

A concert band, also called wind ensemble, symphonic band, wind symphony, wind orchestra, wind band, symphonic winds, symphony band, or symphonic wind ensemble, is a performing ensemble consisting of members of the woodwind, brass, and percussion families of instruments, and occasionally including the double bass or bass guitar. On rare occasions, additional non-traditional instruments may be added to such ensembles such as piano, harp, synthesizer, or electric guitar.

North Korean music follows the principles of Juche (self-reliance) ideology. The characteristic march like, upbeat music of North Korea is carefully composed, rarely individually performed, and its lyrics and imagery have a clear optimistic content.

<i>Juche</i> Political thesis formed by Kim Il-sung

Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea, described by the government as "Kim Il-sung's original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought". It postulates that "man is the master of his destiny", that the Korean masses are to act as the "masters of the revolution and construction" and that by becoming self-reliant and strong, a nation can achieve true socialism.

Much music is composed for movies, and the works of the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917-1995), who spent much of his life in Germany, are popular in North Korea.

Isang Yun Korean composer

Isang Yun, also spelled Yun I-sang, was a Korean-born composer who made his later career in West Germany.

Pop music

Performance at a Pyongyang opera Scene at the Pyongyang Opera.jpg
Performance at a Pyongyang opera

Under Kim Il-sung's era, only ideologically correct music was allowed. Jazz in particular was considered out of bounds.[ citation needed ] Many artists however found their way around these limitations by writing ideologically correct lyrics while taking liberties with the score. Under Kim Jong-il, previously forbidden genres, even jazz, became permissible and encouraged. [8]

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

Many North Korean pop songs are usually performed by a young female singer with an electric ensemble, percussionist, and accompanying singers and dancers. Some North Korean pop songs such as "Hwiparam" ("Whistle")—set to the lyrics of North Korean poet Cho Ki-chon [9] —have become popular in South Korea. [10] They are primarily influenced by Korean pop music and songs have titles like "Don't Ask My Name", "Our Life Is Precisely a Song", "We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly", "The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanisation", [11] "The Dear General Uses Distance-Shrinking Magic (Chukjibeop)", [12] "Song of Bean Paste", "My Country Full of Happiness", "Pleasant Snack Time", "I Also Raise Chickens", "The Shoes My Brother Bought Fit Me Tight", [13] "Potato Pride" [14] and many more.

Cho Ki-chon North Korean poet

Cho Ki-chon was a Russian-born North Korean poet. He is regarded as a "founding father of North Korean poetry" whose distinct Soviet-influenced style of lyrical epic poetry in the socialist realist genre became an important feature of North Korean literature. He was nicknamed "Korea's Mayakovsky" after the writer whose works had had an influence on him and which implied his breaking from the literature of the old society and his commitment to communist values. Since a remark made by Kim Jong-il on his 2001 visit to Russia, North Korean media has referred to Cho as the "Pushkin of Korea".

"Don't Ask My Name" is a famous North Korean song. The music was composed by Ri Jeong-sul (Korean: 리정술) and the lyrics were written by Hwang Sin Yong (Korean: 황신영). It was released in 1990 by the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. Since then, various versions of the song have been played by other musical groups based in North Korea, including the Wangjaesan Light Music Band. The song is quite popular and is frequently played on North Korean radio stations and television shows.

The word shukuchi (縮地), sometimes written shukuchihō (縮地法) or shukuchijutsu (縮地術), is a Japanese-language term for various techniques of rapid movement. The characters in the word can be rendered literally as "shrink earth method", referring to the way the technique reduces the spatial distance between opponents.

Songs like "We Are One" and "Reunification Rainbow" sing of the hopes for Korean reunification. In 2012, North Korea's first girl band, the Moranbong Band, made its world debut. [15] It is a group of about sixteen North Korean women (eleven instrumentalists and five singers) which was hand-selected by Kim Jong-un. [16]

BBC radio disc jockey Andy Kershaw noted, on a visit to North Korea, that the only recordings available were by the pop singers Jon Hye-yong, Kim Kwang-suk, Jo Kum-hwa and Ri Pun-hui, and the groups Wangjaesan Light Music Band, the Mansudae Art Troupe and the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, who play in a style Kershaw refers to as "light instrumental with popular vocal". [11] There is also the State Symphony Orchestra, the Sea of Blood Opera Company, two choruses, an orchestra and an ensemble dedicated to Isang Yun's compositions, all in Pyongyang. The Pyongyang Film Studios also produces many instrumental songs for its films, and several programs on Korean Central Television have music made and performed by the Central Radio and Television Orchestra.

North Korean pop music is available for visitors to Pyongyang at the Koryo Hotel or Number One Department Store, as well as gift shops in tourist destinations. [13] International and Western music can be enjoyed by locals and tourists at the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang's central library. [17] [18]

Folk music

Alongside contemporary pop songs, groups like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble have recorded arrangements of Korean folk songs. [19] The Korean folk song "Arirang" continues to be widely popular in the DPRK, with UNESCO inscribing the song to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014, representing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. [20]

Like Korean music in general, North Korean music includes kinds of both folk and classical, courtly music, including genres like sanjo, pansori, and nongak. Pansori is long vocal and percussive music played by one singer and one drummer. The lyrics tell one of five different stories, but is individualized by each performer, often with updated jokes and audience participation. Nongak is a rural form of percussion music, typically played by twenty to thirty performers. Sanjo is entirely instrumental that shifts rhythms and melodic modes during the song. Instruments include the changgo drum set against a melodic instrument, such as the gayageum or ajaeng. [11]


In North Korea, traditional instruments have been adapted in order to allow them to compete with Western instruments. Many older musical forms remain and are used in both traditional performances that have been attuned to the ideas and the way of life of the modern North Korean communist state and to accompany modern songs in praise of Kim Il-sung, his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un from 2012 onward, plus songs that wish for a reunited Korea, thus creating a mix of traditional and Western music that is truly North Korean, a unique variant of Korean music as a whole mixing the old and the new.

The modern Ongnyugeum zithers and the Sohaegeum four stringed fiddle are North Korean modernized versions of traditional Korean musical instruments, both used in traditional and modern musical forms.

Military music, in contrast, often makes extensive use of Western brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments, often omitting the Korean ones entirely. Although usually original compositions, the melodies are not easily distinguishable from Western ones in the absence of their lyrics, which heavily feature the customary ideologically oriented content.

Active musical groups and ensembles



See also

Related Research Articles

Culture of North Korea Culture of an area

The contemporary culture of North Korea is based on traditional Korean culture, but developed since the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic in 1948.

The Wangjaesan Light Music Band is a light music (gyeongeumak) group in North Korea. It is one of two popular music groups that were established by North Korea in the 1980s, both named after places where Kim Il-sung fought the Japanese in 1930s. It takes its name from Mount Wangjae in Onsong-gun, North Hamgyong Province, on the border with China, where Kim Il-sung is said to have held a meeting for anti-Japanese activities in 1933.

The Mansudae Art Troupe is a North Korean troupe of musicians that create light-classical operas and music, as well as dance pieces.

The State Symphony Orchestra of DPRK (SSO) is the only symphonic orchestra in North Korea and the first classical music ensemble to be established there.

The Isang Yun Orchestra is a Western-style chamber orchestra in North Korea. Named after the composer Isang Yun, the orchestra is attached to the Isang Yun Music Institute in Pyongyang.

"No Motherland Without You", is a North Korean song about the country's former leader, Kim Jong-il. Composed by Hwang Jin-young and written by Lee Jong-oh, it extols the proclaimed talent and virtues of Kim, and the attachment of the Korean people for him as he led them out of the turmoils of the 1990s famine. The repeated phrase in the song is "We cannot live without you! Our country cannot exist without you!" It is also considered to be the anthem of the Songun ("military-first") policy that Kim implemented in coexistence with the Juche Idea in 1995. It is frequently broadcast on the radio and from loudspeakers on the streets of Pyongyang.

"Onwards Toward the Final Victory" is a North Korean propaganda hymn dedicated to the country's leader Kim Jong-un. It continues the tradition of North Korean supreme leaders having hymns dedicated to them, as was the case with Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung and Kim's father Kim Jong-il

Hyon Song-wol North Korean singer

Hyon Song-wol is a North Korean singer and politician.

Korean revolutionary opera

Korean revolutionary opera is a tradition of revolutionary opera in North Korea based on that of China during the Cultural Revolution. It is characterized by a highly melodramatic style and reoccurring themes of patriotism and glorification of Juche, President Kim Il Sung, and the working people, as well as a focus on socialist realist themes. Composers of North Korean revolutionary opera are employed by the North Korean government and the fundamental principles of North Korean revolutionary opera were dictated by Kim Jong-Il in his speech On the Art of Opera.

The Unhasu Orchestra is a musical group based in Pyongyang, North Korea. It performs primarily with Western instruments, sometimes performing alongside traditional Korean soloists. The orchestra has a concert hall, the Unhasu Theater in Pyongyang, dedicated for its use. Ri Sol-ju, the wife of Kim Jong-un, was a singer in this group.

Chongbong Band is a North Korean light music choir and orchestra. The group consists of seven members: singers and instrumentalists playing mainly brass instruments. According to KCNA, the band members are instrumentalists of the Wangjaesan Art Troupe and singers of the Moranbong Band's chorus.

"We Will Go to Mount Paektu" is a 2015 North Korean light music song in praise of the country's leader, Kim Jong-un.

The Samjiyon Band is a North Korean classical music ensemble.

Spring is Coming was a concert that occurred in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 1 and 3, 2018. It included numerous South Korean performers, and was described as an important event in the 2018 thaw in the North Korea–South Korea relations.

Revolutionary Site

Revolutionary Sites are designated historical sites in North Korea. The sites were designated by Kim Jong-il when he began working at the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1966. He would send troops all over the country to unearth sites that "were supposedly once forgotten and undiscovered". Kim's goal in designating the sites was to solidify the North Korean cult of personality centered around him and his father Kim Il-sung.

Events of 2019 in North Korea.

The State Merited Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the Korean People's Army (Korean:조선인민군공훈국가합창단) is the principal musical performing unit of the Korean People's Army, based in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang. As the second oldest military chorus and instrumental ensemble, it serves as the one of the outstanding of the premier musical ensembles within the whole KPA proper and has been hailed as a model institution. It has been in existence since February 1947.


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Further reading