Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

DPRK culture update: sports and film

Monday, November 17th, 2008

In football, North Korea won the under-17 women’s football World Cup yesterday with a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the United States in Auckland, New Zealand.

According to a New Zealand sports web site:

The Koreans fell behind after two minutes to a freak own goal from a throw-in, but drew level through Kim Un Hyang with 13 minutes of regular time remaining.

Jang Hyon-Sun netted the winner in the second period of extra time, seven minutes away from a penalty shoot-out.

North Korea now boast both age-group women’s World Cup titles, having taken the under-20 version in Russia two years ago.

In film, the Daily NK reports that the popularity of South Korean films is giving way to American, Thai, and Chinese films:

In North Korea, the fervor of the South Korean Waves is on the wane; Korean dramas, which have spearheaded the spread of South Korean culture and progress since 2000, are no longer generating huge interest among North Korean citizens. The prevailing response of the citizens has been “I have seen enough” and “I have had my fill.”

A source form North Hamkyung Province said in a phone conversation with the Daily NK on the 2nd, “Nowadays, a Thai movie, “Ong-Bak (2003), Muay Thai Warrior,” is immensely popular among the younger generation. Chinese or American movies have become more popular than South Korean movies.”

The source added, “When South Korean dramas were first popular, adoration, curiosity, new storylines and exotic scenes generated a wave of interest, but people seemed to have had their fill.”

“Previously, Chinese people would bring back South Korean films when (North Korean) people requested DVDs, but now, and they mostly bring American or Chinese martial arts movies. According to smugglers working along the border, South Korean DVDs cannot be found in the homes of the Chinese.”

He evaluated thus, “More than anything, we like clarity and accuracy, but South Korean movies tend to be ambiguous. It frustrates me that they take and twist around words when the reality of the situation is clear.”

Gwon Myung Chul (pseudonym), who visited his relatives in China at the end of October, noted, “In Pyongyang, people can mostly acquire South Korean songs. With the rising popularity of South Korean songs, CDs containing these songs have come out, but they did not generate much interest.”

Gwon explained, “Recent Korean songs have not resonated with us emotionally and they have been difficult to understand. I don’t know what the people there (in the South) think, but rap or Pansori (traditional Korean narrative songs) are really difficult to listen to.”

He observed that “South Korean songs were better in the past” and listed off the Korean songs which he could sing, such as Noh Sa Yeon’s ‘Meeting’ and Kim Jong Hwan’s ‘For Love.’

Read the full article here:
South Korean Movies Not Popular Anymore in North Korea
Daily NK
Lee Sung Jin


North Korea on Google Earth

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

North Korea Uncovered: Version 12
Download it here

mayday.JPGAbout this Project: This map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, markets, manufacturing facilities, energy infrastructure, political facilities, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, national parks, shipping, mining, and railway infrastructure. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the 12th version.

Additions include: Tongch’ang-dong launch facility overlay (thanks to Mr. Bermudez), Yongbyon overlay with destroyed cooling tower (thanks to Jung Min Noh), “The Barn” (where the Pueblo crew were kept), Kim Chaek Taehung Fishing Enterprise, Hamhung University of education, Haeju Zoo, Pyongyang: Kim il Sung Institute of Politics, Polish Embassy, Munsu Diplomatic Store, Munsu Gas Station, Munsu Friendship Restaurant, Mongolian Embassy, Nigerian Embassy, UN World Food Program Building, CONCERN House, Czech Republic Embassy, Rungnang Cinema, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Pyongyang Number 3 Hospital, Electric Machines Facotry, Bonghuajinlyoso, Second National Academy of Sciences, Central Committee Building, Party Administration Building, Central Statistics Bureau, Willow Capital Food House, Thongounjong Pleasure Ground, Onpho spa, Phipa Resort Hotel, Sunoni Chemical Complex (east coast refinery), Ponghwa Chemical complex (west coast refinery), Songbon Port Revolutionary Monument, Hoeryong People’s Library, Pyongyang Monument to the anti Japanese martyrs, tideland reclamation project on Taegye Island. Additionally the electricity grid was expanded and the thermal power plants have been better organized. Additional thanks to Ryan for his pointers.

I hope this map will increase interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to receiving your contributions to this project.

Version 12 available: Download it here


DPRK symphony’s London concert postponed

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

UPDATE 2:  Soprano Suzannah Clarke, the first Briton to perform in the DPRK, has been working to bring North Korea’s state symphony to perform in London.  Unfortunately, she has had to postpone the Sept. 17 perforance until next year:

Although a bank has withdrawn its sponsorship for the tour because of the credit crunch, organiser Suzannah Clarke said the concerts could have gone ahead with another backer but concerns over the venue in London had forced a rethink.

“We could have still run the tour with the sponsorship that was promised to us but we felt it would have been a squeeze and that is not the way to do things properly,” Clarke, a British opera singer, told AFP.

“We were not 100 percent sure about the venue in London. It is a very large orchestra which needs a very big stage and we were trying to fit them into a very small space.” (AFP)

It will cost at least 400,000 pounds (US$720,000) to fund the trip (Yonhap).

UPDATE 1: Fingers crossed that NK orchestra will visit UK in September
by Michael Rank

Fingers are tightly crossed that North Korea’s State Symphony Orchestra will visit Britain as planned in September as planned even though a key sponsor has withdrawn its support due to the credit crisis.

Soprano Suzannah Clarke, who is something of a superstar in Pyongyang, has been greatly frustrated in her battle hard to bring the 160-member orchestra to London by the decision of the bank to drop out, and fears she could be pipped to the post by a visit by the orchestra to the U.S. instead.

She said that with just a few weeks to go plans are uncertain, but “We are still working to make it happen in September.” But if the visit does go ahead the orchestra will perform in Methodist Central Hall, close to the Houses of Parliament, rather than the bigger and more glamorous Royal Festival Hall or Royal Albert Hall as originally planned.

Not that Central Hall is lacking in political or historical significance–far from it. As Clarke noted, it hosted the 1946 inaugural meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, which would make it a highly appropriate venue for the first visit by a North Korean orchestra to the west.

She said one of London’s prestigious concert halls had told her the orchestra could not play any North Korean music, which she found surprising and shocking as the visit is aimed at promoting peace and understanding and is not political in nature.

Clarke said she was, to her consternation, in competition with American efforts to bring the orchestra to the U.S. in October, and although she had little definite information about this it appeared that the Bush administration was eager for the visit to go ahead before the end of the Bush presidency following the recent nuclear agreement. It would of course be a fitting return visit following the historic visit by the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang in January.

She said raising money for the planned visit had been an enormous headache. “There isn’t a good feeling around for the DPRK for funding,” she added.

She was hoping that the orchestra would follow its visit to the U.K. with a visit to the U.S. and that it would all be part of a “world peace initative”,  but the State Department, Korea Society and New York Philharmonic were keeping their cards close to their chests and it was hard to tell what their plans were. “They are being very difficult, they want to go it alone,” she added.

Apart from visiting London, she hopes the orchestra will perform in her native Middlesbrough in northeast England, which has enormous significance in North Korea as that’s where the North Korean football team sensationally beat Italy in the quarter finals of the World Cup in 1966.

Clarke has performed every year since 2003 in North Korea, where she has sung everything from Mozart to Gershwin and from Verdi to Andrew Lloyd Webber. But she is unlikely to be going this year as she gave birth to her first child in January.

Mr. Rank wrote about Ms. Clark last October as well.

ORIGINAL POST:  The Times of London reports on Suzannah Clarke’s continuing efforts to bring North Korea’s state symphony to the West for the first time.  No word on whether “ordinary” people will be able to attend.  Excerpts below:

Children more used to singing When the Saints go Marching in are now being taught North Korean anthems in preparation for the state orchestra’s first visit outside the world’s most secretive nation.

The unprecedented tour is part of a mission by a former steel worker turned operasinger to bring the 160-piece orchestra beyond the last Cold War frontier to Britain for a one-off performance in Middlesbrough. As one of the few Westerners to be invited to North Korea, the celebrated soprano Suzannah Clarke has been given permission by Kim Jong Il to bring the ensemble on tour to Britain.

The first stop will be the unlikely location of the Teesside town, which has shared a strange bond with Pyongyang ever since the North Korean football team delivered one of sport’s most surprising results when they beat Italy during the 1966 World Cup at the local stadium.


Clarke said: “I have deliberately chosen non-political songs, including the Arirang, which is enjoyed by both North and South Koreans as a celebration of their culture.” She added that military propaganda would not feature in the repertoire.

The tour, scheduled for this September or May next year, depending on the level of American involvement, will be the first time that the orchestra has been allowed to perform outside the reclusive Stalinist state.

Read the full article here:
Children sing for peace as North Korean musicians make historic visit
Times of London
Lucy Banneerman


Vienna trains North Korean orchestra conductors…

Friday, February 29th, 2008

This week that Washington Post (hat tip Dr. Petrov)published an article which took a unique position on the NY Phil’s performance.  Rather than comment on whether the event was diplomatically significant, or whether it legitimized a regime with a poor human rights record, the columnist denounced it for having a “tinge of benevolent didacticism”…before pointing out that North Korea has no shortage of classically-trained, quality orchestra conductors.  In fact, for years they have been sending students to Vienna:

Asia is a hotbed of Western classical music. This passion has evidently not bypassed North Korea. Much of the West harbors images of North Koreans as either wealthy soldiers or starving peasants. But in Vienna, Austria, there is another image of them: as conducting students. The elite conducting class at the University of Music and Performing Arts there has trained no fewer than 17 North Korean students in the past decade.

According to Mark Stringer, the conductor who leads the class, the North Korean government decides, every few years, that it is time to train a new crop of elite young conductors. In the early 2000s — a few years before Stringer took over in 2005 — the government’s choice fell on this Vienna school. There were considerable bureaucratic hurdles to overcome; North Korean representatives insisted on sitting in on auditions, and had a hard time understanding why not all of their handpicked candidates were accepted by the school. But they were also paying attention.

“The next batch,” Stringer said, “knew what to expect. They were so prepared they could nail every single bit of our ferociously difficult entrance exam.”

The students also do not fulfill anyone’s expectations of politically guarded wards of the state. “They have a completely normal experience,” Stringer says. “Once they’re in the walls of the school, politics disappear. There is no breathing down our necks from the North Korean officials.” He describes the students as generally more open, easygoing and funny than their South Korean counterparts.

“Were they to be allowed to stay in the West,” he says, “a number of the ones I’ve seen would have a serious chance of a prominent international career. It’s phenomenal what they come to Vienna knowing how to do.”

UPDATE email from a reader:

I also visited that performance of the joint North-South Korean student’s orchestra at Vienna Music Universtity (and took a video of this performance).

Contrary to the Washington Post article the ambassadors were not attending the performance, but other staff of the respective embassies [were]. I don’t know, if they drank beer together, but anyhow, when arriving at the hall before performance the consuls (not ambassadors) greeted themselves nicely.

Very interesting the seating arrangement of the South and North Korean spectators in this student concert. The men (Korean, North an[d] south) in rows 2-4, the women in rows 5-6 and the students behind. (very Confucian …)  It was amazing to see how many North Koreans must be living here in Vienna.

In Vienna, there are not only North Korean conductor students, but also piano, violin, biology, architecture or English students. The same in Germany, Italy and maybe France and other countries.

The full article can be read here:
The N.Y. Philharmonic in North Korea: Symbology and the Music
Washington Post
Anne Midgette
Tuesday, February 26, 2008; Page C04


NY Philharmonic wrap up (and US national anthem)…

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

UPDATE 2 (2013-6-24): A documentary was made of the NY Phil’s visit to Pyongyang.  You can watch both parts here:

Part I:

Part II:

UDATE 1 (2008-11-17): Suki Kim wrote about the experience in Harpers.  Download the PDF here:  harpers.pdf

ORIGINAL POST (2008-2-27): Its difficult to say anything about the NY Phil’s performance that has not already been reported on by numerous other forums, but I think I managed to put together enough interesting material to meet the high standards of North Korean Economy Watch readers:

Pyongyang and the Star Spangled Banner

This site claimed that the philharmonic’s performance would likely be the first time that the US national anthem was broadcast on North Korea’s airwaves.  The Joong Ang Daily backs this claim up with a caveat:

The Unification Ministry of South Korea said the U.S. national anthem was played in Pyongyang in 2005 at an international boxing match. It is, however, the first time the Star Spangled Banner has been broadcast live across North Korea. (Joong Ang Daily)

The first public performance of the Star Spangled Banner in Pyongyang was in honor of US female boxer Yvonne Caples (official biography here).  Here is how it was reported in KCNA:

DPRK Female Pro Boxer Choe Un Sun Wins World Championship

Pyongyang, June 28, 2005 (KCNA) — Female pro boxer Choe Un Sun of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea captured the championship title of the WBCF in the women’s light flyweight category (48.98 kg). Choe Un Sun settled the bout by a unanimous decision over Yvonne Caples of the United States.
The champion belt, trophy and certificate were awarded to Choe.
The match was held at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium in Pyongyang Tuesday.

In the interest of fair reporting, here is Ms. Caples’ side of the story:

…Yvonne traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea to be a part of the historic first professional boxing matches in North Korea to fight for the WBCF Jr. Flyweight World Title against North Korean Eun Soon Choi. During Yvonne’s bout the American National Anthem was played for the first time in North Korea. Yvonne knew that in order to get a decision she would probably have to get a knock out. Eun Soon Choi proved to be very strong and skillful. Fighting in front of 13,000 cheering North Koreans, Yvonne fought what she felt was the best fight of her career. Despite the intimidating crowd Yvonne felt relaxed and confident throughout the fight. “I fought the fight of my life and came on very strong in the last five rounds. Even though I felt I won the fight, I knew I wouldn’t get the decision. It is no joke fighting in an arena with 13,000 people cheering against you. I was so proud of myself for keeping my composure and fighting so hard in this fight. I do have to take my hat off to the North Korean fighters. I expected them to be strong and well-conditioned, but they were also very skillful fighters. I don’t think anyone would be able to go over there and completely dominate them or knock them out.”

Ms. Caples aside, the editor of this site sang the US national anthem on a bus full of tourists and north Korean guides traveling to Wonsan in August 2005. For the record, this counts as the second live, “public” performance of the Star Spangled Banner.  The NY Philharmonic is only now taking the bronze.

Jazz also made its debut.  According to Defector Kim Chol-woong:

[“An American in Paris”] is a masterpiece, a mixture of classical and jazz. I am amazed that they will play jazz, because the genre is strictly forbidden in North Korea.

[W]hat musicians are allowed to perform is strictly political. Jazz is forbidden because it is American music. Jazz is considered lewd and immoral. (Joong Ang Daily)

What are North Korea’s full musical capabillities?
Dr. Petrov sent in a great Washington Post article on North Korea’s musical capabilities on which I wrote a separate post.

How many people heard the performance?
The theater holds 1500.  According to the WSJ, there were a minimum of 150 foreigners likely in the audience (they flew in with the orchestra).  Who knows if any of the small business, NGO, and diplomatic community residing in Pyongyang were able to attend.  There was also a dress rehearsal for 1200 earlier in the day.

The Daily NK reports (Via the Japanese Mainichi) the the performance was not boradcast on radio, only on television.  This means that relatively few people saw it since the penetration of radios is far more significant than television in the DPRK.

Addendum: Who attended?
In the comment section below, “Gag Halfrunt” (clever handle) links to a list of VIP attnedees in KCNA.

Don Kirk notices who did not attend.

Here you can listen to the perfomrance:

In the comment section below, Greg Halfrunt posts a link to  Beginning Friday, Feb 29 (happy leap year), 2008.

The full stories cited in this post can be found here:
Americans in Pyongyang
Joong Ang Daily
Kim Ho-joung and Ser Myo-ja

Philharmonic is hopeful sign for defector
Joong Ang Daily
Ser Myo-ja

North Korea Criticizes the US during the New York Philharmonic Performance
Daily NK
Park In Ho

A Sour Note in Pyongyang
Asia Times
Don Kirk


Eric Clapton has important fan in North Korea

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Anna Fifield (whom I briefly met in Pyongyang in 2005) reports today in the  Financial Times that the DPRK has invited Eric Clapton to make an appearance in Pyongyang:

The New York Philharmonic performed in Pyongyang on Tuesday night. The North Korean State Symphony Orchestra plans to perform in London this summer.

Pyongyang has invited Mr Clapton, whose hits include “Cocaine” and “Tears in Heaven”, as a reciprocal visit for the North Korean orchestra tour, the Financial Times has learnt.

“These cultural exchanges are a way of promoting understanding between countries,” a North Korean official told the FT. “We want our music to be understood by the western world and we want our people to understand western music.” (Financial Times)

Of course, we have known since 2006 that Mr. Clapton has at least one important fan in the DPRK:

While the rest of the world was anxiously following news about North Korea’s recent missile tests, Kim Jong-il’s second son and possible heir apparent, Kim Jong-chul, had his mind focused on entirely different matters. He was among the fans who followed British rock and blues guitarist Eric Clapton on his German tour, which took him to Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Berlin.

Jong-chul, 25, is said to be a diehard Clapton fan, and may have acquired a taste for Western popular music when, in the mid-1990s, he studied at a private international boarding school in Bern, Switzerland. (Asia Times)

The full articles can be found below:
N Korea strikes chord with Clapton invite
Financial Times
Anna Fifield

Sons and heirs
Asia Times
Bertil Litner


PBS Will Broadcast Concert From North Korea

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Update: Today the New York Times reports that the North Korean government has agreed to broadcast the New York Philharmonic’s Pyongyang concert live on state television.  Why is this interesting? First of all, this means that the US national anthem, and many other beautiful songs, will be played over North Korea’s airwaves–probably for the first time.  Secondly, communist countries are typically very hesitant to broadcast anything live. 

easttheater.JPGThe concert will take place in Pyongyang’s East Theater, located in the Munsu district on the east side of the city.

One thing is for sure, Politics aside, the performance will certainly be more interesting than the concert South Korea’s Shinhwa and Baby V.O.X. put on in Pyongyang! 

Original Post: 2/7/2008 
Today the New York Times (link requires free registration) ran a story on who will be broadcasting the New York Philharmonic’s concert in Pyongyang…

The New York Philharmonic’s concert in North Korea on Feb. 26 will be broadcast that evening on [New York’s local PBS station] WNET, Channel 13, and distributed two days later on PBS, broadcast officials said Wednesday.

In an unusual arrangement, ABC News will cooperate with WNET, New York’s public television station, to produce the broadcast.

Because of the time difference, the concert will actually take place before dawn New York time on Feb. 26. A live broadcast will be made available for any takers by EuroArts Music International, which produces and distributes classical music programming and has the rights to the broadcast outside South Korea.

The most interesting part of the story, however:

One place where the broadcast is still uncertain is North Korea itself. Government officials there have not said whether the concert will be shown on local television, according to Eric Latzky, the Philharmonic’s spokesman.

Given North Korea’s deep isolation and the government’s tight control over its citizens, the broadcast issue is of crucial interest. Orchestra officials said they had pressed hard to have the concert shown on North Korean television, to ensure that it would be heard by more than just a small audience of dignitaries. The broadcast of any event from North Korea is rare.

You can read the stories here:
Concert in North Korea to Be Broadcast Live
New York Times
Daniel Watkin

PBS Will Broadcast Concert From North Korea
New York Times
Daniel Wakin


Reporters Without Borders 2008 Report

Thursday, February 14th, 2008


The Reporters Without Borders 2008 Annual Report has been published.  It is not an index (with rankings assigned to each country) but rather a survey that groups nations into one of five quintiles based on the publisher’s perceptions of press freedom: (1. Good situation, 2. Satisfactory situation, 3. Noticeable problems, 4. Difficult situation, 5. Very noticeable problems.

If you read the report (here), it is mostly a qualitative analysis and there does not seem to be any objective methodology for grouping countries into a particular quintile. (Disclaimer: I have note read the whole thing, but usually the methodology is spelled out in its own section for these types of publications, but I have not been able to find it). This worries me because if there is no standard methodology, with relative weights, then the results are vulnerable to questions of subjectivity.

North korea is ranked a “Very Noticeable Problem.”  To read just the North Korea section of the report click: rwb-dprk.pdf


Esquire Magazine recognizes Ryugyong Hotel

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

…as “The Worst Building in the History of Mankind.”  (h/t Marginal Revolution) Excerpts below:

It’s the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea, where the world’s 22nd largest skyscraper has been vacant for two decades and is likely to stay that way … forever.

Even by Communist standards, the 3,000-room hotel is hideously ugly, a series of three gray 328-foot long concrete wings shaped into a steep pyramid. With 75 degree sides that rise to an apex of 1,083 feet, the Hotel of Doom (also known as the Phantom Hotel and the Phantom Pyramid) isn’t the just the worst designed building in the world — it’s the worst-built building, too. In 1987, Baikdoosan Architects and Engineers put its first shovel into the ground and more than twenty years later, after North Korea poured more than two percent of its gross domestic product to building this monster, the hotel remains unoccupied, unopened, and unfinished.

Construction on the Hotel of Doom stopped in 1992 (rumors maintain that North Korea ran out of money, or that the building was engineered improperly and can never be occupied) and has never started back up, which shouldn’t come as a shock.

What is most interesting is that a group of German architechts is already speculating on projects to revitalize the site.

Richard Dank and Andreas Gruber, a pair of German architects and self-described “custodians of the pyramid’s diverse manifestations.” The duo run, which they describe as an “experimental collaborative online architecture site.” Sad you can’t visit the building in real life? Log on, view the detailed 3-D models, and “claim” a subsection for yourself.

And of course, no story on the Ryugyong is complete without the “Demolitoin S How” video, which shows how the Ryugyong’s dominance of the Pyongyang skyline might make it valuable as a good bill board platform in the future:


The video [which you can watch by clicking on the image above] was mounted as part of the exhibition Fiction Pyongyang, curated in part by Stefano Boeri, who also collected 120 speculative designs for the hotel in the June 2006 domus magazine (archives here). The designs, he says, “have forced it to reveal its icy nature, its irresistible fascination as a fragile alien meteorite.” The worst building in the world is also, we now know, “the only built piece of science fiction in the contemporary world.” And it’s true. Demolition S How is all Blade Runner-style flying ads and soaring concrete, and the video reminds us that the worst building in the world is the closest humans have come to building a Death Star.

Other information:
Ryugyong Wikipedia page
Ryugyong photo (showing the base)

Full Article:
The Worst Building in the History of Mankind
Esquire Magazine
Eva Hagberg


N.K. orchestra to perform in Britain: report

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Back story: It looks like Suzanne Clark’s efforts are finally paying off…


North Korea’s national symphony orchestra will perform in Britain as part of its planned concert tour to Europe in early September, a U.S. radio station reported Friday.

The North’s 120-member State Symphony Orchestra will hold three concerts in London and Middlesbrough Sept. 2 to 14, Radio Free Asia said, quoting a British businessman who arranged the tour.