North Korea: Slovenian rock group Laibach set to become first foreign band allowed to tour communist country

17 07 2015

Laibach in Pyongyang(ABC News, 17 July 2015) Slovenian rock group Laibach is set to become the first foreign band to tour the politically and culturally isolated communist dictatorship of North Korea.

In August, the group will play two concerts in the Kim Won Gyun Music Conservatory in Pyongyang in front of up to 2,000 people.

Laibach describe themselves as “an avante garde group” who play industrial, martial, and neo-classical music styles, and it is expected they will play a combination of their own hits and North Korean folk songs.

It is sure to be a change from the socialist-style operas and classical music most North Koreans are used to.

Laibach’s sound is best described as electronic rockers Kraftwerk meets heavy rockers Rammstein, with a bit of Soviet-era patriotic music thrown in for good measure.

The band was formed in 1980 in then-communist Yugoslavia. The band has been criticised for its use of political and nationalist imagery, but others argue it parodies totalitarianism.

The tour was organised by Norwegian director Morten Traavik, who has been one of the few to arrange artistic and musical performances in North Korea.

Dr Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the Australian National University, said North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un was trying something new and unusual.

“Bringing into North Korea a Slovenian group such as Laibach, I think gives a perfect substitution to South Korean K-Pop, which is illegal in North Korea.

“[It’s] something that is not really Western, something which is palatable to the regime and purely apolitical.

“It’s obvious North Korea is trying to demonstrate and pretend that it is looking for some change or trying to introduce some changes or innovation, but not really.”

Dr Petrov said, surprisingly North Koreans did listen to wide range of music.

“Popular culture in North Korea does exist, it mostly relies on local tunes mixed with Chinese or Russian pop and South Korean pop is also very popular in North Korea but it’s illegal, it’s underground,” he said.

But in North Korea most of the finer things in life are reserved for the elite and Dr Petrov says it is highly unlikely the average North Korean will get to see Laibach perform.

“The question is how many people are going to listen to that concert,” he said.

“It’s probably going to be restricted to the members of elite families, children and descendents of the regime and decision-makers going to view the concert, but I doubt that it is going to be broadcast across the country.”

The band announced on its Facebook page that the concerts would also be subject of a documentary film, scheduled to premiere in 2016.

Russia Friendship Section Added to ARIRANG Mass Games

23 07 2013

NK-Russia-friendship-ARIRANGby Chad O’Carroll (NK News, 23 July 2013) Headline image by Koryo Tours.

SEOUL – North Korea has added a chapter on Russian friendship to the Arirang Mass Games, a source who attended the show on Monday night told NK News.

The new section includes a banner that says “Russian friendship [carries on] century by century” and represents the first time North Korea has included a section specifically focusing on relations with Russia during its Mass Games.

“The role of the USSR in the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule has always been acknowledged by Pyongyang. But with this news perhaps Pyongyang is trying to play the Russian card in its diplomatic game with China,” Dr. Leonid Petrov, a researcher at Australia National University told NK News.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea often used its relationship between Moscow and Beijing to gain competing concessions from the two superpowers. Dr. Petrov speculates that following increasing reliance on China in recent years, the DPRK might now be using Arirang to fan a closer relationship with Russia.

“Kim Jong Un desperately needs closer links with and more developmental aid from China. The best strategy in this game would be that he use the tried and tested policy of maintaining ‘equidistance’ from Beijing and Moscow,” Dr. Petrov explained via email.

In addition to the new Russia chapter, the manner in which China was presented was also different, the source said. “The Chinese part was shortened this year, they still had the friendship section but it seemed a lot shorter. I didn’t see so much about the pandas last night,” the source told NK News after watching the inaugural show.

The Mass games normally includes a major chapter on North Korea’s relationship with China, though experts had predicted it was likely this would change following an apparent “frosting” of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pyongyang in recent months.

“[North Korea has] been so angry with China this year, do they want to send a message to the Chinese by dropping the friendship chapter? Or if there is a big overhaul and thus a change in the narrative story of the performance, perhaps this is a good opportunity to drop the awkwardly placed chapter in a fairly natural way,” Andray Abrahamian, a Director at Chosun Exchange, told NK News.

Another notable change to this year’s proceedings was the inclusion of a short chapter on North Korean relations with the entire world. The performers formed an olive branch, possibly as a metaphor of the country’s own self-professed willingness to seek better relations with the rest of the world.

“It was very brief, just a glimpsing moment – but it was interesting and a change from last year,” the source told NK News. The theme of this year’s mass games is focused on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War (known as the Fatherland Liberation War in North Korea) and the 65th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK.

The Arirang mass games, a 120,000 person gymnastic and artistic performance, started in 2002, and tells a “grand story of a divided peninsula and how North Korea became a dignified nation,” according to North Korean state media.

North Korea and ’80s pop music

24 02 2012

(23 Feb. 2012) On this week’s Closeup, ABC Radio National “Drive” travels to North Korea, by way of the 1980s Norwegian pop hit ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha.

Leonid Petrov, lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sydney, is your expert guide. He speaks Korean and has travelled to North Korea several times.

And he’s joined by Norwegian artist and director Morten Traavik, who made a video of North Korean music students playing ‘Take on Me’ on piano accordion, which has now gone viral on YouTube ( North Korean students play “Take On Me” )

Listen to the full audio segment here…

THE PROMISED LAND, Barents Region / North Korea, 2012

Part 1: ñ3
After years of devising artistic projects inside the ‘world’s most secluded country’ (see also projects DISCOCRACY and ROCK STEADY NORTH KOREA!), Morten Traavik is now overseeing this unique collaboration.  For the first time ever, a larger group of North-Korean are visiting Norway and Northern Europe, as participants in THE PROMISED LAND: a project that brazenly aims at the opening of minds over a divide of mutual suspicion, challenging established truths and prejudices about ourselves and each other.

Part 1: ME/WE
Calls on both locals and visitors to the international arts festival Barents Spektakel 2012 to take part in a pioneering record attempt and a test of our ability to act together as one: with the help of North Korean mass games instructors we will try to create Norwayís biggest living picture, hopefully with several hundred participants. Following the signals of the North Korean instructors, every participant turns over pages of a colorful flip-book, becoming one of the hundreds of living pixels forming huge, shifting mosaic pictures of well-known motives from the High North. ME/WE also puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours? Join the project and find out! The ME/WE performance is accompanied live by the accordeon  virtuosos of Kum Song (Gold Star) Music School Ensemble from the North Korean capital Pyongyang. ( ME/WE – A North Korean mass game in Kirkenes, Norway )

In Western media-influenced society almost everyone can be a star with relatively little effort. Popular shows such as X-factor and Idol bring the dream of stardom within reach for generations of youth, where image and personality often are at least as important as skills and talent to ‘make it big’. North Korean culture,on the other hand, is characterized by an extreme focus on practice and technical skills, with stylists and marketing being a somewhat lower priority. North Korean young musicians keep a high international level, and among the country’s national instruments we find the accordeon. From Kum Song (Gold Star) School of Music in Pyongyang, Traavik has brought a quintet of the school’s most talented accordeon students to perform a concert program of Korean and international hits during the festival, as well as accompanying the ME/WE performance live.

Traavik has collaborated with North Korean software engineers to develop the simple and fun strategic computer game Norway On Norway. Inspired by todayís Korean peninsula, here it is Norway that is divided in two opposing sides: South and North. The player can choose to be South Norway or North Norway with the goal to reunite the whole country under oneís own colour. Just like on the chess board of global politics, the player has to rely on skills and luck in equal measures to achieve success, while handling not only outside interference from bigger foreign powers like EU, USA and Russia, but also conflicts of interest with indigenous minorities like the Saami.


BBC News, 10 Feb. 2012
Alastair Lawson,  ‘North Korean A-ha accordionists ‘destined for stardom'”
Full article, 02.02.12:
Full article

YouTube 01.02.12:
Take On Me by a-ha, North Korean style
Full clip

Norsk Kim-show
Dagbladet, 07.01.12

Publikum blir kunst
Finnmarken, 17.02.11

North Korean Art Stirs Muscovites

2 02 2011

By Leonid Petrov (Asia Times On-Line, 2 Feb. 2011)

After two months, an exhibition in Moscow of North Korean graphics, mosaics and embroidery is coming to a close. Oddly entitled “And Water Flows Beneath the Ice”, the exhibition was a major project initiated and hosted by Russian entrepreneurs at the trendy Winzavod Gallery, a revamped wine factory in central-eastern Moscow.

All the pictures came from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, a government-run enterprise that employs more than 1,000 artists to create art for export. The late (and eternal) North Korean president, Kim Il-sung, is known to have once said, “Abstraction in art is death,” leaving no choice for North Korean artists but to embrace socialist realism as their method.

Russians, who still remember when this artistic trend was the only one permitted by the Communist Party, were given a chance to refresh their memory exactly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is no surprise that many felt a sense of familiarity and at times nostalgia for while visiting the unusual exhibition.

During a short trip to Moscow last month, I met with colleagues, Russian scholars and researchers of Korean studies at the exhibition. They came along with their students, and we had a lively discussion about the hidden messages and artistic value of each picture. It was good to share opinions on a contentious topic such as North Korean art, and our feeling converged on many things regarding the commonalities and differences between North Korean and Soviet propaganda art.

First of all, socialist realism in art is a misnomer, since it depicts life as it should be, not as it really is. For instance, in this exhibition, there was an image of chubby children in Pyongyang Zoo feeding monkeys with ice-cream. The abundance of rice, vegetables and rabbits on show in other pictures also seemed a disservice to aid agencies diligently dispatching food and other humanitarian relief to starving North Koreans. In the artwork, life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was consistently depicted as affluent and pleasant.

In fact, North Korea is a revolutionary state, struggling to achieve economic success and advance its military power. This can be viewed and sensed through the canvases dedicated to the heroism of builders working on the Taegyedo Tide-land Reclamation Project or soldiers engaged in constructing the Huicheon Dam.

Heroism at war and in peaceful reconstruction is venerated and equated to the revolutionary course of Juche (national self-reliance) and Songun (military-first) politics. Thus, every picture, embroidery and poster carries a condensed revolutionary message that must convince the viewer that the people of North Korea are determined and invincible. Some may call it propaganda, but in North Korea this genre is known as Chosunhwa (Korean painting).

In fact, there is very little of Korean tradition in Chosunhwa. Although most pictures are created with watercolors and ink, the characters, actions and settings are Stalinist Soviet or Maoist Chinese. Even where the North Korean artists try to be experimental and use such materials as gouache or mosaic, the results resemble the typical posters and murals once omnipresent in the streets of Moscow and Beijing.

Only the embroidery works were genuinely traditional, and most viewers were stunned by their elaborate composition and vibrant range of colors. After discussing the merit of each exhibit, my expert friends and I agreed that totalitarian societies do produce impressive pieces of art, which inspire awe and overwhelm the target audience. While the value of such art is transient and more akin to propaganda, the technical side of it is so unquestionably powerful that it deserves recognition and research, if not admiration.

Unfortunately for the North Korean artists and Mansudae Art Studio entrepreneurs, the value of this art is restricted by the willingness of the purchaser to help the Juche and Songun revolution. Otherwise, mainstream North Korean art, which is dutifully devoid of abstraction, has very limited export value. That explains the usual commercial difficulties encountered by the North Korean art exhibitions brought overseas by the North Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Among the rare buyers of the socialist kitsch are maverick revolutionary zealots and some rich sympathizers from South Korea.

In Russia and China, former communist patrons of North Korea, the appetite for hackneyed images and themes is dwindling. What leaves the strongest impression from “The Water Flows Beneath the Ice” is not the contrived propaganda on the walls but the artistic installation placed in the middle of the gallery.

Dozens of green combat helmets hanging from the ceiling form perfect lampshades over the scarlet-red carpet hosting a lonely short-legged Korean traditional table. A bowl of white rice on the table symbolises the prosperity that Songun was designed to create and protect. The soft pink light gleaming from each helmet resembles the cherished hope of the Korean people for peace, love and harmony.

The bouquets of colourful firework shots projected on the screen at the end of the gallery hall surmount the composition and instil a sense of triumphant fulfilment. The aim is seemingly to capture the unbending spirit of Koreans (in both the North and South), as well as their hard-working and peace-loving character.

Overall, “The Water Flows Beneath the Ice” was a bright and memorable phenomenon for the cultural life of the Russian capital. Neither the awkwardness of the premises (conditions in the old liquor factory demanded that all visitors wore clumsy overshoes) nor the overpriced pamphlet (more than US$30) spoiled the positive and inspiring atmosphere.

Although it is commercially and morally questionable as well as kitsch, the unusual initiative has awakened in hardened Russian art-lovers a long-lost belief in fairness and altruism: ideals that are highly valued by Koreans.

North Korean art or propaganda? (Joongang Ilbo, January 19, 2011)

Photos and reviews in Russian…

Mythmaking is a long-time specialty of Pyongyang-watchers

7 12 2010

by MARK MacKINNON (Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Dec. 04, 2010)

“There’s wistfulness in the young man’s eyes, a longing for home as he walks purposefully along the edge of a lake that looks to be somewhere in Central Europe. But he doesn’t dress like the locals. Even thousands of kilometres away from the place of his birth, the young man proudly wears a collarless grey Mao suit and military-style greatcoat, the favoured attire of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The young man in the portrait – which was photographed hanging in a museum by a sharp-eyed Canadian tourist to North Korea – bears a striking resemblance to Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something youngest son of Kim Jong-il and the recently named heir to power in the Hermit Kingdom…

…If it is him, and a majority of the experts consulted by The Globe and Mail believe that it is, the portrait marks the first glimpse anyone outside North Korea has had of how the regime will sell Kim Jong-un to a people conditioned to believe his father is their infallible Dear Leader and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, an immortal who remains president despite his death in 1994. It would be laughable, perhaps, if the new propaganda campaign weren’t accompanied by new military recklessness – including last month’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island – intended to give Kim Jong-un, already praised as “the Young General,” victories to claim as his own.

Out of half a dozen North Korea scholars who were sent a copy of the portrait, only one [Andrei Lankov] disagreed that the subject was likely Kim Jong-un. The other experts saw it as the launch of a massive propaganda campaign that will attempt to portray the heir apparent as having been sent abroad to learn foreign ways and technologies, while always keeping North Korea and its people in his heart. Several who saw the portrait noted the physical resemblance (though the heir apparent is much flabbier in recent television footage), as well as a background that looks to be Interlaken, Switzerland, where Kim Jong-un is known to have spent time while studying at the International School of Berne in the late 1990s.

“It’s big news,” said Brian Myers, an expert on North Korea at Dongseo University in South Korea. “It’s hard to be completely certain on the basis of an untitled image alone. … But I cannot imagine a schoolboy outside the Kim family meriting this kind of painting, and it is very similar in mood and layout to depictions of the young Kim Il-sung and the young Kim Jong-il. So I would assume that it is Kim Jong-un although it is not a particularly striking likeness in view of the Kim Jong-un we have seen photographed in the past few months”…

…The portrait appears to be the start of an effort to turn that potential liability into in asset. “It goes to the heart of what will be the regime’s main problem in glorifying the boy, namely the fact that he was overseas during at least part of the famine or [so-called] Arduous March. The regime is for some reason loath to let foreigners see this nascent personality cult,” Prof. Myers said. “We have seen footage of [Kim Jong-un], and of course we can see him on the TV news every few days … but we know next to nothing about how the regime is articulating his biography. This painting offers important insight into what kind of mythobiography the regime is either planning or is already teaching the masses in party meetings, study meetings etc. outside the view of foreign visitors.” He noted that the young man in the painting was gazing at the sun rising in the east, another suggestion that North Korea consumed his thoughts, even while he was far from home…

“It will start with pictures likes this, TV documentaries, poems and some writings and then, the next breakthrough point, he’ll appear on a lapel badge with his dad we assume,” said Paul French, author of North Korea: the Paranoid Peninsula, referring to the lapel pins of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that all North Koreans are forced to wear. Mr. French said it was surprising the regime has decided to deal head on with Kim Jong-un’s foreign education. “The next great theorizer of Juche theory strides out to soak up foreign culture for the good of the people,” he joked after viewing an e-mailed copy of the portrait. “Of course, I doubt very much if he strolled around Switzerland dressed quite so revolutionary, though the coat and hat are reminiscent of the 2009 Banana Republic collection.”

There is, however, some debate among Pyongyang-watchers over whether the picture is important. Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, scoffed at the notion that this was the new boy’s coming-out portrait. “This is his grandfather. Generalissimo Kim Il-sung. The background and school uniform leaves no doubt about it: the late 1920s,” Prof. Lankov wrote in an e-mail after seeing a copy of the portrait. Kim Jong-un’s likeness to a young Kim Il-sung is uncanny to the point that some have speculated Kim Jong-un may have undergone plastic surgery to accentuate the similarities and cement the link between himself and his supposedly immortal grandfather. Prof. Lankov also said the houses in the painting’s background looked more like traditional Korean homes than anywhere in Switzerland.

However, that opinion is, thus far, a minority one among those who have viewed the portrait. Mr. Toop, for one, said he knew he was looking at something different as soon as he laid eyes on the picture on the wall of Rajin Art Gallery. Tourists in North Korea are shown hundreds of portraits, busts and statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung over the course of their stay, so it’s unsurprising that something new would jump out after several days in the country. “I identified the portrait as Kim Jong-un when I first saw it,” the 54-year-old Mr. Toop said. “To my knowledge, neither Kim Il-sung nor Kim Jong-il can be situated in a Western backdrop like this at any time in their youth.”

See the full text of this article here…

Opinions of Real Experts

Koen De Ceuster: “This is not Kim Jong Un and all the pundits that think they have struck gold with this have only proven how much they like to believe in their own stories. I was shown, through another source, the same painting and did a close analysis. First of all, the painting is dated 2001. Secondly, why does no one catch the badge on the cap? Though not legible, clearly Chinese.

Finally, in the left top corner, a Chinese-style entrance to a compound can be seen. In fact, if anything, this is probably Kim Il Sung in front of a Catholic church in Jilin City. This is certainly speculative, but given Kim Jong Il’s visit to a Catholic church in that city during his last visit to Manchuria late August 2010, and the reference he made to the fact that his father had found sanctuary there once, this may well be what is depicted here. In any case, definitely not Kim Jong Un.

What I find fascinating is how “we” are all excited about the fact that Kim Jong Un spent some semesters in Switzerland, but fail to wonder whether this is also newsworthy in North Korea! Given that I have never seen any reference to the fact that Kim Jong Il spent a year in Malta, I very much doubt his passage to Switzerland will ever be part of the North Korean myth building. All the more so of our myth building, as it turns out.

When Kim Jong Il went to Manchuria, the intention was clear: it was a pilgrimage along revolutionary sites. The church must feature as a revolutionary site for the North Koreans, otherwise he would not have visited. By clicking on to the photo of the young Kim Il Sung, it is obvious that that is the same badge in the painting (the bottom of the character/s is visible in the painting, as it is in the photo: ). Knowing Korean practices, chances are that this photo was used by the painter for inspiration. Anyone familiar with genre paintings in North Korea knows there is a story in the painting. That means that clues are hidden in the painting to make it understandable/legible to a North Korean viewer.”

*Dr. Koen De Ceuster – lecturer at Leiden University, Institute for Area Studies (LIAS)

If it were real, what would the painting tell us?

by By Ruediger Frank (38 North)

…According to the official mythology around the top leaders, in 1925 Kim Il Sung—at that time still called by his real name Kim Song Ju—left his home country at the tender age of 13 for Manchuria. He did so promising to return only after he had liberated his then occupied country from Japanese colonial oppression (picture 2).

This is one of the key moments of North Korean propaganda and the starting point for the Kim Il Sung myth. Kim Il Sung expressed his feelings in his official autobiography: “While singing, I wondered if would ever feel our land again, when would I be returning to the land of my forefathers. I felt sad and determined. I swore that I shall never return until Korea was freed.”

Not being on the peninsula represents an almost unbearable pain for any good Korean patriot. In that sense, living abroad is a major self-sacrifice; at least it will be depicted as such. Self sacrifice is a recurring theme of the cult not only of Kim Il Sung’s first wife Kim Jong Suk, but also around Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as reflected in numerous stories and paintings of long working hours, restless travel around the country, caring about every little detail, sharing their simple food with the soldiers, sleeping on the floor in a peasant’s cabin and so forth. Therefore, we have reason to believe that Kim Jong Un’s exile will either be negated, or displayed as a period of deliberately endured hardship in order to study the enemy…

…The dating of the painting does not provide a clear answer either. On the contrary, it raises a number of questions. It is dated February 16, 2001. If this is correct, we can almost exclude that the man on the painting is Kim Jong Un because even if the decision to promote him to become the next leader of North Korea was made around 2005, it would still have been painted too early. However, this is, again, not the final answer. Those of us dealing with art and propaganda of North Korea know that documents and paintings have frequently been backdated in order to make new policies look less like changes. Prominent examples include songun (“military first”) and juche, North Korea’s doctrine of self-reliance. We can therefore realistically expect that Kim Jong Un’s history will be backdated at some point…

…You see why it is so tempting to brush all doubts aside and treat the painting as being one of Kim Jong Un. However, it most likely is not. Similar paintings of Kim Il Sung have existed since at least the 1980s; the background is most likely Jilin, China in the 1930s, and the idea of starting the Kim Jong Un cult in Rajin and with his European exile is too far-fetched. I suggest we use this example both as an etude in the anecdote-based Pyongyangology, and as a warning of how easy it can be to derive far-reaching conclusions from questionable evidence. Do we need culture-specific expertise? Obviously, we do. Otherwise, we risk basing policy decisions on a hoax…

*Ruediger Frank – professor of East Asian Economy and Society at the University of Vienna.

Osaka black mark in Kim’s life?


OSAKA–Without fail, North Korea’s propaganda machine deifies any location associated with the Kim dynasty, but the birthplace of the mother of future leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be accorded such reverence. In any event, the sad history of her family in Osaka is hardly the stuff of legend. Specifically, Ko Young Hee came from Osaka’s Tsuruhashi district, an area that for decades has had a thriving Korean community.

According to a resident of the neighborhood, someone linked with North Korea recently came to check on the site of her birthplace, long an empty lot. Kim Jong Un is the third son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the grandson of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. In September, Kim Jong Un was anointed heir apparent. His mother was born in June 1953, a month before a cease-fire agreement was reached in the Korean War. Her father was called Ko Tae Mun. He was born in 1920 in Jeju island when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule. Ko Tae Mun came to Japan when he was 13 to join his father…

…A former high-ranking Chongryon official said a legend about Kim Jong Un could be created along the following story line: “Ko Tae Mun carried on the will of Jeju islanders who fought bravely under the guidance of Kim Il Sung. After fleeing to Japan, he returned to North Korea to be embraced by the greatness of Kim. Ko gave up his life to serve as a soldier for Kim. Kim Jong Un would be an individual who carried on the great revolutionary bloodline from Jeju.” Tsuruhashi would have no place within that legend…

See the full text of this article here…