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PYONGYANG, North Korea – Step aside, Sea of Blood Opera. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un‘s favorite guitar-slinging, miniskirt-sporting girl group, the Moranbong Band, is back. And these ladies know how to shimmy.
After a six-month hiatus, the queens of North Korea’s pop scene are once again playing to standing-room-only crowds and rave reviews in the state media. They’re the darlings of primetime TV, such as it is. Even athletes at this month’s Pyongyang marathon were treated to one of the band’s livelier tunes — blared at them from a sound truck.
More than merely a pop sensation, the Moranbong Band, said to have been hand-picked by Kim himself, has since its stage debut in 2012 come to be the softer, more hummable face of the new Kim regime, despite speculation at least one of its members had fallen out of favor in connection with the purge of Kim’s once-powerful uncle earlier this year.
The last big concert by the band, made up of more than a dozen members who play everything from electric violins and cellos to keyboards and drums, was in October.
Kim was on hand this month for one of band’s comeback concerts, when, according to state media, he was treated to “colorful numbers” including “O My Motherland Full of Hope,” ”Our Father,” ”We Think of the Marshal Day and Night” and other “light” arrangements.
“The supreme commander spared time to watch the performance though he was very busy with the work to protect the destiny of the country and its people from the arrogant and reckless moves of the U.S. imperialists and other hostile forces to stifle the DPRK,” the concert host reportedly told the audience. “Kim Jong Un waved back to the cheering performers and audience and congratulated the artistes on their successful performance.”
Performances are peppered with solos, fast-paced drumming and mildly suggestive choreography that give the appearance of an almost-current Western-style pop rock show. In one of their early concerts, they played the theme song to the movie “Rocky.”
Led by violinist Sonu Hyang Hui, band members wear their hair clipped short — which has become all the rage among trend-conscious young women. They dress in a manner best called “conservative sexy,” with skirts cut well above the knee. That’s generally a no-no for your average North Korean lady, but hemlines on the streets of Pyongyang do appear to be rising, which could also be partly because of the band’s impact.
Still, this is North Korea, where the national motto is: “Military First.”
For their latest performances, the band mostly went back to military-style dress, with white or olive uniforms featuring epaulets, knee-high boots and pleated skirts just a tad shorter than regulation.
“An all-female band that showcases both instrumental virtuosity and a more alluring femininity is pretty interesting,” said ethnomusicologist Donna Kwon, of the University of Kentucky. “They are incredibly well-coordinated and obviously good musicians. I can’t say that I like their music, per se, but they do seem to represent an effort to update North Korean ‘popular’ music practices in many ways.”
North Korea’s top performing groups tend to be symphonies or operatic troupes, such as the Unhasu Orchestra and the State Symphony of the DPRK, which are as highly trained and technically skilled as they are stodgy and frozen in the amber of an era long gone to all but the most tenaciously nostalgic of socialist cadres. Case in point: The Sea of Blood Opera Company, which has toured China and was also recently back on tour to entertain farmers and factory workers.
The Moranbong Band appears to have hit a more resonant chord with both the regime it promotes — and which tirelessly promotes them — and the listening public.
But in a country where all forms of art serve political ends, what exactly is behind this pop sensation? Could it be that Kim, who spent some of his childhood in Europe, harbors a promising openness to Western culture? Or are they just another repackaging of the old guard — this time in sequins?
On that score, foreign reviews are mixed.
“I guess the question is whether control from above can ever be relaxed sufficiently, and I see no signs of that happening,” said Keith Howard, a professor at the department of music and center of Korean studies at the University of London. “Managers, composers, arrangers, choreographers and all the others who sit behind the performers themselves are still bound by the dogma of socialist realism, in terms of texts, towing the party line, respect to the leadership, morality.”
Adam Cathcart, a China and North Korea expert at the University of Leeds, said violinist Sonu’s reappearance this month when the band went to the provinces after performing in Pyongyang was particularly noteworthy because it quashes rumors she was somehow caught up in the fallout of the purge and execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek.
He said the band traveled to China during Jang’s visit there in August 2012.
“She obviously hasn’t been purged or otherwise ostracized,” Cathcart said.
The timing of the band’s debut, less than a year after the transition to Kim from his father, Kim Jong Il, suggests they were one of the younger Kim’s first big signature projects. Broadcasts of their initial show were so popular the streets of Pyongyang reportedly went empty.
Kim’s role as executive producer is also not unprecedented.
“North Korea has a history of regime-supported arts that in both content and form serve the state,” said Darcie Draudt, a North Korea analyst and contributor the Sino-NK website. “Kim Jong Il had a special interest in the film industry, and saw it as a powerful ideological weapon in service of the revolution. He also formed the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble in 1983, which combined electronic instruments with traditional Korean music.”
Draudt said Kim Jong Un is similarly trying to use the Moranbong Band as a tool to “spur the appropriate spirit” of the nation behind the goals of his leadership.
How the band feels about any of that is hard to say. Its members don’t do interviews.
But one thing is certain: They exist to serve their No. 1 fan.
“I don’t think (the band) is in any danger of eclipsing Kim Jong Un in terms of popularity, given the weight and inherent momentum of the cult of personality around the Kim leadership since the late 1960s,” Cathcart said. “North Korean artists and musicians know their place within that system and know that to succeed within it, one does not attempt to go beyond established boundaries.”
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