The Sound of North Korea: The Moranbong Band – Kim Jong-un’s Answer to the Spice Girls.

The Sound of North Korea: The Moranbong Band – Kim Jong-un’s Answer to the Spice Girls.

Who Are The Moranbong Band?

The all-female group, Moranbong Band, who are also known as the Moran Hill Orchestra, were founded in 2012. Each member was hand-selected by the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un in an effort to culturally modernize North Korea and was ‘prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins.’

According to a report by KCNA on July 7th, 2012:

All of the musicians and singers of the band are promising, he noted [Kim Jong-un], praising Seon-u Hyang-hui, leader of the band, for her splendid directing. He underscored the need to steadily develop the traditional music and popular music in a balanced manner to suit the thoughts and feelings of Koreans and their aesthetic taste while meeting the need of the times and the people’s desire.

The bands departure from certain classical NK musical aesthetics and sounds, in which it has shown a more westernised approach to music, has often been attributed as a response to the growing popularity of South-Korean pop. In 2013, Sherri Ter Molen (Sino NK) would acutely correlate that Moranbong Band’s debut concert for Kim Jong-un was hosted in July 2012, the same month in which Psy’s Gangnam Style” was released and took the world by storm.

While the bandmates are often seen wearing quasi-military uniforms and singing lyrics that would curl the toes of even the most hardened nationalist, they have been recognised as both an aesthetic and musical departure from the old-school style of NK music. Performing in sequin-covered mini-dresses and feet clad in high heeled shoes, the band has shown a shift from the “revolutionized mother” archetype often displayed in North Korea (i.e. Kang Ban-sok, leader of the Democratic Women’s Union and mother of Kim Il-sung) and have instead moved towards a less conservative, public image of the young woman.

Although, the Moranbong Band is certainly more modern than many of its predecessors, they cannot exactly be placed within the 21st century; as Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee (Sino NK) have argued, ‘The vocalists dance restrained choreography is more evocative of 1960s girl groups than any K-Pop act today.’

While the band has yet to move out of the 20th century, its cultural progression could certainly be viewed as a step in the right direction in the development of North Korea, and may even contribute to an increased level of freedom for the people of this nation. However, like all forms of media we should question its intent and attempt to not take such efforts at face value.  

The endeavour to demonstrate ‘western values’ through mimicking cultural musical staples (see below) and iconography (see Reuters analysis of the bands use of Disney characters) might initially seem like a dramatic shift from the once Yankee loathing state, however, the suggestion that the country is ‘readying for cultural reform and opening’, which has been asserted by academics such as Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, might still be far on the horizon.

At their debut “demonstration” concert alone, the band performed “Czardas,” a traditional Hungarian folk dance; “Zigeurnerweisen (Gypsy Airs),” a musical composition for violin and orchestra written in 1878 by the Spanish composer and virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate; and four French pieces, including “La Reine de Saba (The Queen of Sheba),” “Menuet,” “Penelope,” and “Serenade de l’Étoile (Serenade of the Star).” The band even covered American pop songs, including the theme from the film Rocky as well as an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s My Way.

Sino NK, ‘Packaged and Controlled by the Masculine State: Moranbong Bandand Gender in New Chosun-Style Performance’, by Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee, May 3rd, 2013.
Moranbong Band, My Way(originally by Frank Sinatra)

While the state has indeed modernised in certain regards since Kim Jong-un became Supreme Leader in 2011, the reasoning behind these reforms should be scrutinised. Is this truly an attempt to be modern, more expressive, and musically diverse, or is this simply a veiled effort at encouraging foreign diplomats and its internal populous that North Korea is developing culturally to the point that it can match its long established rivals?

[…] lasers occasionally flashed across the stage and fireworks even shot from the floor. These features are not simply entertaining; they are perfectly in line with the broader propagandistic re-imaging of the North Korean economy as driven by high-tech development. North Korea thus joins the digital age without linking up specifically to the globe. In the age when musical emotions are expressed through electronic music, the Moranbong Band’s Chosun-style electronic music initiated by Kim Jong-il introduces a more contemporary and globally relevant Chosun-style electronic music while widening the scope of the Great Leader’s musical politics.

Sino NK, ‘Packaged and Controlled by the Masculine State: Moranbong Bandand Gender in New Chosun-Style Performance’, by Darcie Draudt and Jimin Lee, May 3rd, 2013.

The answer to this question cannot be given in black and white terms. North Korea has without question developed culturally within recent years. Pierre-Oliver François’ revealing documentary, ‘Life in North Korea’, which was filmed over the last 8 years, has demonstrated the great changes made to North Korean life (or at least for the upper-classes contained in Pyongyang), in which water parks, fairgrounds, shops, supermarkets and restaurants have either grown in number or have been modernised in comparison to previous reports.

However, this does not necessarily mean that such architectural and cultural improvements have been made for the primary purpose of benefiting the people. Instead, these developments, like the Moranbong Band, have almost certainly been fashioned to satisfy the needs of the elite-classes within Pyongyang and improve the global perception of North Korea.

The Music of the Moranbong Band:

Journalists have largely poo-pooed the musical talents of the Morangbong Band, with The Guardian exclaiming, ‘Oh, they’re extremely bad […] the music sounds like a chat show orchestra from the 1970s being told to fill time’, while Adam Cathcart (Sino NK) has argued that they are simply ‘old revolutionary wine’ placed ‘into a new aesthetic form’.

And while these comments are not wholly unjustified (just listen to the tinny synthetic drum beat on ‘Let New Year’s Snow Fall’), to say that they aren’t without musical talent or have a catchy beat here or there would be insincere.

Just listen to the seminal propaganda hymn, We Will Follow You Only, which was dedicated to Kim Jong-un himself, after his uncle Jang Sung-taek was arrested in December 9th 2013; further consolidating his power as the supreme leader.

He is the strong force that leads Korea
He has our whole people's fate in his hands
He is our hope and dream for high ideals 
He makes everything grow beyond anyone's wish.

Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will follow no one but You.
Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will be faithful to You.

His bright shining ideals is our only goal
The determination of our leader brings victory for us all
Along the one and only direction he points to
Our millions of people will advance like a raging storm.

Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will follow no one but You.
Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will be faithful to You.

If the world turns upside down in strong headwinds
You will be the last one remaining in our hearts
Together until the end of our lives
We ill defend Your leadership

Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will follow no one but You.
Great Comrade Kim Jong-un, we will be faithful to You.

Now, for a western audience (or for that matter any audience outside of North Korea) the lyrics leave a lot to be desired, for we do not hear about the singers drinking habits, substance abuse or how wet their nether regions are at a given moment. Instead, we are treated to a dramatized ego-trip, in which the ‘dear leader’ is vocalised as the centre of the known universe – a rather different approach to pop than our usual dose of narcissism.

However, to believe that the Moranbong Band is your standard pop-band is a notable mistake made by many media outlets. While this association is certainly unsurprising, when one considers the outfits, bouncy beats, and ‘catchy’ chorus’ used by the band, they should really be regarded, for all intents and purposes as a military orchestra. As Korhonen Pekka (Sino NK) writes:

They dress in military uniforms and wear one, two, or three small stars on their shoulders, symbols which according to Wikipedia make them all officers, with ranks of sangjwa (상좌), chungjwa (중좌), and sojwa (소좌), corresponding with captain, first, and second lieutenant in US Army rankings. This does not necessarily mean that band members have gone through long military training in addition to their intensive musical studies: in North Korea it is possible to be promoted to a military rank, such as general or marshal, without previous experience.

Sino NK, ‘Rock Gospels: Analyzing the Artistic Style of Moranbong Band, by Korhonen Pekka, March 4th, 2014.

Aside from discussing the merits of their supreme leader, the band have tackled a wide variety of themes and narratives. These have included, the benefits of educating oneself for the betterment of your country (‘Let’s Study’); the wonders of socialism (‘Advancing in Socialism’); the future progression of the ‘Fatherland’ (‘Dash to the Future’), and how each North Korean citizen should work harder to economically benefit the Republic (We are the Mallima Riders).

Their lyrical content is filled with the dramatic narratives, party policies, and the vocabulary of the regime that one might expect from an act created for the purpose of promoting the state. We repeatedly hear of Junche (North Korea’s ideology of self-reliance, named by the states founder Kim Il-sung), Mallima (an imaginary horse that can run long distances at extreme speed), and a variety of other key-terms and North Korean ideals.

However, despite the bands military style, classical use of political narratives, and Ingoc-styled language, innovation (in the context of North Korean music) has still managed to occur. While many have questioned how western artists, such as Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo were able to establish new techniques, styles and storytelling devices, in spite of a ‘restrictive’ Catholic culture, we too should investigate how innovation is possible within the confines of dictatorship.

Although the Morangbong Band has indefinitely worked within the boundaries of the regime, they have still created a new style of music, regardless of certain familiarities. The act of mixing North Korean-styled military marches, classical music, pop and politics, has in of itself established a new genre or a Morangbong style.

The distinct Moranbong Band style, simultaneously catchy and intricate, is clearly created by people used to the refined modulations of sound in classical music. It is not Unhasu Orchestra style, but resembling it at a more popular level. It can be called a symphonic style, in the Greek meaning of the word σύμφωνος, putting together different kinds of sounds, and ending in a harmonious, pleasing result. This poetic creation is continuous. Practically all of their versions of the national hymn Aegukka are different, although there would be no ethical social realist reason for this. They simply create art.

Sino NK, ‘Rock Gospels: Analyzing the Artistic Style of Moranbong Band, by Korhonen Pekka, March 4th, 2014.

What Is The Moranbong Band Doing Today?

  • First Electric Violin and Band Leader: Seon-u Hyang-hui (선우향희)
  • Second Electric Violin: Hong Su-kyeong (홍수경)
  • Electric Viola: Cha Young-mi (차영미)
  • Electric Cello: Yoo Eun-jeong (유은정)
  • Synthesizer: Kim Hyang-soon, Ri Hui-kyeong (김향순, 리희경)
  • Saxophone: Choi Jeong-im (최정임)
  • Piano: Kim Young-mi (김영미)
  • Electric Drum: Ri Yoon-hui (리윤희)
  •  Electric Guitar: Kang Ryeong-hui (강령희)
  • Electric Bass: Ri Seol-lan (리설란)
  • Vocals: Kim Yoo-kyeong (김유경), Kim Seol-mi (김설미), Ryu Jin-a (류진아), Pak Mi-kyeong (박미경), Jung Su-hyang (정수향), Pak Seon-hyeong (박선향), Ri Myeong-hui (리명희)

The Morangbong Band, like any other ‘pop’ group, has been the subject of great changes in their line-up. Since their creation in 2012, the ensemble (see original list of members above) has seen artists come, go, and disappear. As Pekka commentates:

By the April 11, 2013 concert bass player Ri Sol-lan and synthesizer player Kim Hyang-sun had disappeared from the ensemble. Kim Yong-mi, who had been playing piano thus far, replaced Kim Hyang-sun in one of the two synthesizers. Kim Jong-mi (김정미) became the new pianist. Jon He-ryon (전헤련) came to play bass. By the April 25, 2013 concert an eighth singer joined the choir for four concerts, but her name was too unclear to be deciphered. She did not appear in the last 14th concert.

Sino NK, ‘Rock Gospels: Analyzing the Artistic Style of Moranbong Band, by Korhonen Pekka, March 4th, 2014.

In July 2015, feverish speculation about the band would hit mainstream press, including the BBC, after they seemingly vanished. The band were not seen in public or on television for over two months (only appearing as ‘sound recordings covered by pictures‘) which led many to believe that either some or all of the band members had been purged.

Many would hypothesize that these events were related to the creation of another all-girl pop band (Chongbong Band), which occurred approximately at the same time as Moranbong’s disappearance.

However, by early-September it was discovered that the band hadn’t been either disbanded or purged, and would go on to perform at a multitude of venues.

Today, it appears that the band will face even greater changes than have happened in the past as members of the ensemble approach suitable ages for marriage, as Daily NK reported:

The singers in the Moranbong Band are now approaching their late 20s or early 30s, so it is considered time for them to be married off to the sons of central government officials or other individuals who have had a direct connection with the leader [for example, someone who received a letter from Kim Jong Un or was spoken to directly during an on-the-spot visit],” the source said. “While the musicians are able to continue performing even after marriage, it is more difficult for the singers since having children tends to weaken their bodies and vocal chords. Accordingly, this order is being interpreted as preparation for an inevitable generational shift.

Daily NK, ‘North Korea may select new members for Moranbong Band’, by Ha Yoon Ah, 7th July, 2020.

Kim Yo Jong (the sister of Kim Jong-un) would issue an order to recruit talented female singers and musicians. This would be carried out under the leadership of Hyon Song-wol (Central Committee member & the current leader of the Moranbong Band).

According to a Daily NK source, a panel of judges (made up of 18 members) has been put together to scout students from arts-related universities to recruit the most talented female students who fit the criteria set out by Kim Yo Jong.

This ‘criteria’ will largely focus on the academic record, experience, physical appearance and ideological records of these students. Since the selected candidates will be working and performing in close proximity to Kim Jong-un, it has been deemed as the utmost importance that they will have the “appropriate” background necessary to carry out their duties.

Whether the Moranbong Band continues to exist in its current form, alters its ensemble, or ceases to exist entirely remains to be seen. What is certain though is that the landscape of North Korean music continues to change with each passing year. As we move forward towards a new epoch around the world, the question remains: how much will North Korea change with it? Will this trajectory of cultural development progress or will it falter, collapse, and regress even further than it has before? Whatever the case, we will keep observing and reporting on the political and musical scene of this nation to inspect how their culture changes with the tides of time.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about North Korean culture and music then make sure to check back here for more articles. This will be the first of a short series exploring The Sound of North Korea.

About The Author

Gregory Segal

While humanity has has continuously ventured into the unknown, today we are on the precipice of a new uncertainty. With covid, political unrest, and economic decline we feel that another sinister turn is just round the corner. Although discussion, art, and storytelling won't necesserily create any solutions for this in the short-term it might provide a conduit for productive thought, or at the very least might take our minds off our current reality.

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