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Norkore – Excerpt from See You Again in Pyongyang

By Travis Jeppesen.

— edited excerpt from See You Again in Pyongyang (Hachette, 2018)

If Kim Jong Il tried to make the most of his artistic pretensions formulating a Juche-oriented literature and cinema, today the most seductive instrument of the state propaganda machinery is music. You hear it in every shop, every restaurant, every taxi you climb into. The sound is quaint, old-fashioned, with its soaring melodies and lyrics of ideological affirmation, but it sinks in quickly. After a few days, you’re humming along, every tune recognizable. In those rare moments of silence, I often find myself missing it.

Around Alek, I’ve started jokingly referring to this genre as Norkore, the North’s very own version of K-pop. And it is the only acceptable, state-sanctioned style. What it is, really, is a stylistic hodgepodge of virtually every known mode of the anthemic: Disney and Broadway musical ballads, gospel uplift, Chinese synth pop, Russian disco, patriotic folk—and with maximalized sentiment etched into the overall with operatic, usually soprano, vocals. Norkore’s borrowing from all of these genres does nothing to diminish its Volkish appeal to mass sentiment; if anything, its defiant hijackings serve as righteous affirmation of survival, of victory, in a world where, let’s face it, everyone hates them. It is so catchy, so sticky sweet, that there’s something almost sinister about it.

The hottest Norkore act is the all-female Moranbong Band. It’s really the DPRK’s house band, each of its members handpicked by Kim Jong Un for not just her musical talent but also her attractive features. The twenty-member band performs in matching nursing uniforms with—gasp—short skirts and high heels, a look that must have shocked the audience when it held its first performance on July 6, 2012. It was, after all, only a few years before that Kim Jong Il had decreed that the ban on women wearing trousers was to be lifted; skirts ending above the knee were something new and salacious indeed.

Moranbong’s brand of pop wouldn’t be out of place aside many of the entries at the Eurovision Song Contest. Lyrics extoll the greatness of the country, the military, but also the Marshal. His father, Jong Il, also had his own house act, the Pochonbo Band. One’s lifelong musical taste is often forged early in life, and Kim Jong Il’s was reminiscent of the oompah-pah songs of the Soviet era that formed the background soundtrack of his childhood and adolescence. By 2012, Pochonbo’s Russian disco-inspired tunes sounded embarrassingly old-fashioned. The masses were bored. Kim Jong Un had to grapple with any number of inherited unpleasantries—among them, the undeniable fact that Western and South Korean pop music had begun to flood in through the underground markets. There was a desperate need to upgrade the country’s state sound, to discard all the accordions and Soviet-esque stompery to appeal to the youngest generation, of which Kim was a part. After all, he needed them on his side. Fittingly enough, the Moranbong Band’s first public performance was for an audience of university students in Pyongyang.

We know from Dennis Rodman that the Marshal’s two favorite songs are the themes from Rocky and Dallas—tunes that undoubtedly implanted themselves in the young Jong Un’s brain during his own adolescence, growing up in Switzerland—which were played over and over again by an orchestra on the night of their banquet together upon the basketball player’s first visit to Pyongyang. In addition to this stylistic influence, the Moranbong Band has layered electronic beats, dance breaks, and soulful vocal acrobatics that channel Whitney and Mariah. Concerts are replete with synchronized dance moves, laser light shows, and digital video backdrops showing footage of missiles blasting off into the sky, ecstatic marching soldiers, and the biggest rock star of all, the Marshal himself, swarmed with hysterical citizen-fans.

The oversimplified sloganeering and sentimentalism that so often fall flat in cinema and literature and the propaganda banners that fill the landscape prove memorable and persuasive when encased in the gold of pop overdrive. “Dash Towards the Future,” that song that elicited shouts of “Hooray!” at the mass dance, is the anthem of youth, with its calls to reunify the country by staying up all night studying. A celebration of a new country in a new era—the great era of the Workers’ Party—a time when the fatherland should be celebrated and extolled for all its wonderful achievements and inventions that have been made famous all over the world. A time that includes, above all, you, the youth of today. Victory Day, every day.

Then there’s the driving rhythms of ‘Let’s Go to Mount Paekdu!’ The beat is infectious enough that one could easily lose oneself in it on the dance floor—if such a dance floor actually existed anywhere in the country. But you can goose- step to it! Soldiers sing it aloud as they march in regimen.

At its climax, the melody is transposed to a higher octave, soaring the spirit even higher. Over the chorus, the soulful improvised wails of a soprano hit those Mariah Carey highs, her heart swelling uncontrollably with love of this supreme signifier of the motherland, the sacred mountain of the Korean people. Mount Paekdu, where Tangun, the mythical founder of Korea, emerged. Mount Paekdu, where Kim Il Sung held fort while bravely fighting off the Japanese. Mount Paekdu, where Kim Jong Il is said to have been born to continue his father’s fight. It is the place “where miracles and fortune are called upon this land,” as the lyrics go.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all just frivolous fun for these bonging Moran babes. There is a serious, sentimental side to the Norkore sonaesthetic they espouse, one that suits more contemplative inquiries into the heart of what it means to be Korean. The Norkore canon wouldn’t be complete without this ongoing series of slow, moving ballads that one can hardly goose-step to but that nevertheless serve as sentimental wellsprings for delving into the spirit of the day. With titles like ‘Confession,’ ‘Burning Wish,’ and ‘Voice of My Heart,’ a non-Korean speaker might be fooled into thinking these are mere conventional love songs. While they may not sound so unlike the songs you first slow-danced to in your junior high school gym, these love songs differ in that they are nearly all addressed to one particular human subject.

In ‘World of Compassion,’ soloist Ryu Jin Ah meditates on just what it could be that draws so many people—the entire world, really—to Comrade Kim Jong Un. Could it be his warmth? His affectionate style? “How can it be I feel him so close?” she sings. “How can it be I feel the heat / of his heart burning with love?” Just like the crowds that follow him everywhere, smiling and weeping tears of joy, “blindly I was also drawn to him / by his mind flaming with compassion.”

After a lilting string solo, all seven vocalists rise in a chorus:

His compassion worth more than tons of gold
Envied by the whole world

Even at the end of the sky
A world of endless compassion 

His love for us, the Korean people, who “all share the same bloodline in our veins,” Ryu passionately intones, kneeling forward to push the racial affirmation out of her lungs. These songs, like nearly all solos, tend to be sung with so much passion, it sometimes sounds as though the singer is about to pass out for want of oxygen.

There’s the lilting ballad ‘Burning Wish,’ in which the Marshal is addressed directly. Marshal, soloist Kim Yu Kyong intones in her endearing soprano, we know you are about to embark upon a long journey late at night—as you must do every night, in your selfless devotion to the country—but just to let you know, we are all thinking of you. The drums, mic’d up for maximum reverb, kick in, as the chorus rises to its apotheosis: Marshal, we only have one burning wish: that you are in good health. Our happiness, our fate all depend on you, dear Marshal.

Flaming heart. Burning wish. Lyrically, it’s all so hot, and sonically, the fire it most evokes is St. Elmo’s. Dwelling on it for long is likely to give you a burning sensation in one part of the anatomy that is never mentioned in any of these songs. The DPRK’s brand of socialism has a painfully limited vocabulary, but what it lacks in words, it makes up for in pure melodious sentiment.

Travis Jeppesen‘s previous books include Dicklung & Others, Wolf at the Door, VictimsPoems I Wrote While Watching TV, and a collection of art criticism, Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary” (3:AM Non-fiction Book of 2008).  He is also a former editor at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 4th, 2018.