Believe it or not, North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is actually a big fan of K-pop music. In fact, he’s so passionate about it that he hand-picked every member of the girl group ‘Moranbong Band’ – his country’s answer to the Spice Girls.
As a result of Kim Jong-un’s endorsement, the band has been playing sell-out gigs across the country. Their first concert was so popular that the streets of Pyongyang were apparently deserted during the broadcast. Often dressed in conservatively sexy attire – with skirts cut well above the knee and hair clipped short – the Moranbong girls have received good reviews from local critics as well.
Although the band has been around for a few years, they appeared to have fallen out of favor in late 2013. But after a six-month hiatus, they were back to performing in April 2014 to rave reviews from Korean media, thus reclaiming their status as queens of North Korea’s pop scene, and the darlings of primetime TV. Their comeback concert featured ‘colorful numbers’ such as ‘O My Motherland Full of Hope’, ‘Our Father’, and ‘We Think of the Marshall Day and Night’.
“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 US imperialists and other hostile forces,” the concert host is reported to have announced. “Kim Jong-un waved back to the cheering performers and audience and congratulated the artistes on their successful performance.”
The band is believed to represent the softer, more likable face of Kim’s regime. Ethnomusicologist Donna Kwon, of the University of Kentucky, believes that the Moranbong Band represents an effort to update North Korean ‘popular’ music practices. Traditionally, the country’s top performing groups tend to be symphonies or operatic troupes, consisting of highly trained and technically skilled musicians who are also kind of frozen and stodgy. In one of their earlier concerts, they even played the theme song to the ‘Rocky’ movie series.
Several experts have stated that in North Korea art serves a political end and the Moranbong Band is no different. “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. Kim Jong-un’s predecessor Kim Jong-il had a special interest in the film industry – he saw it as a powerful ideological weapon. Experts believe that Kim Jong-un is trying to use the Moranbong Band in the same manner, as a tool to get his people to sympathise with his leadership.
It’s hard to say what the band feels about all these speculations, because the members don’t do interviews. But it is widely believed that they only exist to serve their number one fan – Kim Jong-un. “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,” said Adam Cathcart, a China and North Korea expert.