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The Life of an Artist in North Korea
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2016-01-26 13:40:33
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The Life of an Artist in North Korea



Escaped from North Korea in 2010

Entered South Korea in 2010



I was a Class 1 Vocalist and Vice Dean of Arts in the Propaganda and Agitation Department before I came to South Korea in 2010. At the age of 16, I won first place in the All-Nation Singing Contest, and entered the world of the arts by joining the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band of Song and Dance as the youngest member in history. Then, my potential being highly esteemed, I was assigned to the Central Party’s Jechang Theater, and began as a section chief in the arts department before eventually becoming Vice Dean of Arts.


Member of the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band, at the age of 17

There was a movie called On the Railroad when I was in middle school; its story was about a train driver. Its theme music was a song with a lyric like this: “A young train driver driving the train, on the railroad in sunset blowing the steam whistle. The brave young man driving through artillery smoke, kept on driving the train that terrible day.” I was really moved by that song, and I began to sing it out of habit. One day there was a singing contest in my village, and I participated in it. I participated because everybody in my town was egging me on: “Come on, try that railway song of yours in the contest!” The judges for the contest came from Pyeongyang and went around the entire nation listening to people sing, and I won the first prize!


At that time I was 16. I had no notion of vocalism; I simply sang what I felt. The judges commented that I was “very good at expressing emotions; tried to convey the meaning of the lyric; and the atmosphere and sense of the song was well expressed.” Then, after winning the village-level contest, I went on to higher-level singing contest until I took part in the All-Nation Contest. And I won the first prize in that contest. This made me a promising singer who “is very young, and therefore has greater potential,” and so even though I was only 17, I got to appear as a guest member in the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band of Song and Dance.


The first piece that I appeared in as part of the Hamgyeong Band was an opera called Under the April Sun. It was set in Bukcheong. Bukcheong is the most famous city for fruit production in both North and South Korea. It might be known throughout the entire world, I think. There was even a movie called Picking Apples about Bukcheong. But then in North Korea everything is attributed to the Suryong(Meaning “the Head of the Nation,” this title refers to Kim Il-sung) and the Party, so the Party was propagating that such an abundance of apples and other fruits was due to the grace of the Suryong. So they told us to rename Picking Apples as Under the Bright Sunlight of April or Under the April Sun, seeing as the Suryong’s birthday was April 15th. As it happened, the Suryong had visited Bukcheong’s farms on site inspections many times, even on rainy days, and even applied Palggi(A chemical applied to trees to protect them from insects) himself.


Of course, there may have been better singers in the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band, but I think the Party decided that I had the greatest potential, and so I was given the chance to appear as a member of the Children’s Union in that opera. That was the moment I began my life as an artist. As a result, in the last part of my school years, I didn’t even go to school and lived with the Band while performing professionally. Apart from operas, I also performed something called “sing story”(A type of performance that utilizes skills similar to those used in Daewhachang). Back then we didn’t have Jeolga(Jeolga is a type of singing that repeats the same lyrics with the same melody. It takes the place of the Daehwachang or aria in revolutionary North Korean opera) so I sang Daehwachang(Conversational singing). Daehwachang was developed around the time I began singing in the Band and became popular. And right after I got out of secondary school, I was assigned to the Jechang Theater and grew up as an artist there. 


You can’t be an artist if your family background is bad!

So I began performing with the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band at the young age of 17, and lived the life of an artist for 40 years until I left North Korea in 2010. The potential seen in me allowed me many roles in the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band. And immediately after my graduation from secondary school, I was summoned to the Jechang Theater where I continued to grow as an artist. 


Back then, I had a big dream. First, I wanted to be a great singer, so that I could take on a leading role. That was the first part. And then I would become a great solo singer and be broadcasted across the nation. That was the dream that sustained my youth; I really worked hard. Gradually I worked up from minor and kid’s roles to major roles. I appeared in many works as the lead; I became a section chief; and later, I became the Vice Dean. I sang for such a long time, for forty years. 


Treatment of artists in North Korea was very good. That was because, in North Korea, artists are important; we are the first ones to let the people know what the Party wants, and we educate and agitate the people. When they doled out 6-700g of rice to others, they gave us artists 900g. We received the same treatment as pilots. Blowing trumpets, singing, and dancing, all require a lot of energy. So no matter how much you ate before leaving home, you got hungry very quickly after 40 minutes of singing in front of the piano. The continual strain on the muscles and respiratory system does that. Artists were given meat, oil, sweets, tobacco, liquor and the like.


For that reason, becoming an artist is very difficult in North Korea. Just being gifted is not enough; first, if your household has ever been related in some way to the Japanese, you have absolutely no chance whatsoever of becoming an artist. That is still the same now. They educate us ideologically, saying, “This nation suffered so much under the whip of the Japanese. We were left with an empty land because the Japanese took away every resource we had.” That made many people very hostile to the Japanese.


Japan still says Dok-do is its island. When such claims are made, the writers in the North immediately begin composing music and making songs, and they distribute them throughout the nation during certain periods designated for promoting the nation’s culture and arts. Then the whole country sings them. In North Korea, you say anything they tell you to say, and the whole country says the same thing.


Our land of five thousand years

North Korea puts tremendous emphasis on armed resistance in the Japanese colonial period. Especially in the arts and literature, there are lots of songs and plays about it. So if you are related in any way to the Japanese, you are never chosen to work in the arts. Because culture and the arts are means of educating people in North Korea, it simply won’t do for an artist to be related to the Japanese. 


So there are many cases in which great talent is wasted because a person is related to the Japanese. Such people can’t even live near the Central Party after college graduation. They are sent to the hinterlands, culture clubs and schools, but never to the actual stage or silver screen. Their bad influence on the people is the reason. People get offended, thinking, for example, “Maybe the guy who killed my father is his father. How can a man like that appear in movies? How dare this happen!” It used to be worse right after North Korea’s inauguration as a state.


Fortunately, in my case, I had a wife with a splendid family back-ground. Also, my uncle used to be a scholar of law when North Korea was founded, and was the first member of the North Korean Security Agency. Although I couldn’t attend school regularly after I started the South Hamgyeong Provincial Band when I was 17, North Korea has a correspondence college course for those working, and so I was able to receive my post-secondary education while working. I was given many such privileges during my life as an artist. Of course, there were those who came directly from college to the stage without having any actual previous experience. But it took some years for these people to apply what they learned in school to the actual stage. None of those students fresh out of college did it right in the beginning.


Artists are Messengers of the Party’s Decisions!

So from 17 I, as a professional artist and someone with a college education, began to view myself as a role model and felt a sense of responsibility. I felt I should be responsible for being the first one to know the will of the Party, and conveying it quickly to the people. I really worked passionately. In North Korea, art is directly connected with the state and, as everything else is, to the Suryong. So I thought I was doing art for my life, my hometown, my country, my parents, my brothers, and for the future. Just singing a song and doing that job is a kind of art, so one feels that what he is doing is truly valuable.


Let’s take an example. If a new editorial says that we should work on the coal frontier and fishery frontier, and then raise a revolution in light industry, writers make a play out of it and composers make music for the lyrics the writers make. After that, choreography is added. Thus, art in North Korea is not aesthetic, but is instead the foremost means of spreading the Party’s propaganda. The role that art and literature plays in North Korea is very big.


That is the mission of culture and arts in North Korea. Here in South Korea, I’ve seen much art that has nothing to do with social reality. In North Korea, you sing songs that suit the countryside when you go to the countryside, songs that city people like when you go to the city, and songs related to factories when you go to a factory. 


Oh my mother, my factory, my worksite,

Nowhere else do I know to be so good

We are the strong workers, we are

The healthy and sound workers we need

So that trains will get made,

So that cars will be assembled,

Clang and clang, the steel is produced.


Whereas, here in South Korea, you sing pop songs and dance even when some forty people die in the Cheonan incident. But you see, culture and art should be the people’s and the society’s. In North Korea, if you have 1 hour and 20 minutes of playtime, about half of that time is for political stuff and the other half is for art. We sing songs that have something to do with the place, the work and the atmosphere of the place where the play is taking place.


I go to the farm when the dawn is bringing the sun

And that girl is already there, the lark girl,

Lalalalalala the lark girl, my love the lark girl.

Is that love that I see on the rice paddy? Is it love...


The Soldier and the Sound of the Ear of Rice

There is a song in North Korea with a lyric that goes: “The soldier passing by hears the sound of rice growing.” The soldier and the ear of rice: why mention the two together? It is to boost the morale of the soldiers. So they will think, “At home, my father and mother and younger siblings will eat this rice,” and remember their family and hometown, and train harder.


When the rice planting season begins, the soldiers go to farms. They help with the chores. After all the hard work is finished, they return to their posts and continue on with military life. As they return, however, they move in lines along the side of the road, along the golden rice paddies that they helped to plant and weed. Yesterday, today and for a few days, they have been passing by these fields, and then suddenly the sound of the rice ripening, the sound of the grain bursting from the spike, reaches their ears. How do they feel? They say to themselves, “Ah, aha, such a rich year! This year! At home my family will eat this rice!” Then the memories of their hometown, of playing in the rice paddies when they were kids and getting soaked in the village stream, come up. All this is in the lyrics. We are singing songs like this for them so that an idea will be engrained in their hearts: “Don’t forget your dreams, your peaceful daily lives, don’t forget anything in this world.”


The night is silent at the guard post, but no sentry falls asleep for a

moment. Hold tight the gun and spear, comrades. Behind the post are

our parents and brothers.


This song sends the message that soldiers shouldn’t fall asleep, that everybody else is making love and drinking and enjoying life because they have put their trust in the soldiers.


Pibada Revolutionizes North Korean Art*

*(Pibada(Sea of Blood) is a North Korean novel that has also been made into movies and an opera. It is the story of a revolutionary figure who fights against the Japanese during the colonial period)


After graduating from Kim Il-sung University, Kim Jong-il joined the Party’s ideology department in the 70s. It was then in 1972 that he triggered a blaze of activity in the field of opera. That was the time that the foundation of the Korean Worker’s Party was established. Kim Jong-il asked his father to let him take charge of culture and art, and revolutionized the whole field! He is actually due credit for that. For example, when a play was being created, he wouldn’t sleep a night until the play was finished, and even when he was sleeping would wake up in the middle to come out and ask, “How’s that scene going? I didn’t like the song in that scene. Let’s hear it again, let’s make it again”.


A breakthrough achievement of Kim’s in the field of the arts is the introduction of Pibada-style opera. That is a style not found in Europe and unique to North Korea, and I may say that its originality and artistic style has been given global recognition. Take a scene from The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man for example. Gamnyong and Geumsun are walking side by side. The audience has no way of knowing what those two are thinking or what their relationship is like just by watching them walk. In Pibada-style opera, the female chorus tells you what the girl is thinking, and the male chorus tells you what the male is thinking.


Gamnyong [from the play]: Soon, when your father’s hardships are over, we will live with him, Geumsun.

Female Chorus: We will live with our parents, who have lived such difficult lives.


Like that, in Pibada-style opera, even when the characters are just walking, the chorus tells you their inner feelings. 


The invention of the floating stage was also a landmark achievement of Kim Jong-il. Before, in order to change the setting during a performance, we needed to turn off the lights and close the curtains. And even then, only by using hammers could we change the set. The floating stage device, however, enabled us to change the set in sequence with the performance, so we did not need any extra time to change the background. For instance, first, a brook surrounded by many willow trees appears, and suddenly the set has changed to that of the next scene. Likewise, the background changes in sequence with the performance. In this way, the

acts of the play proceed in a more natural and rapid way. It was truly a revolutionary development.


Moreover, Kim Jong-il was the first person to invent a score system to mark down choreography. The movements of a dance cannot be written on a piece of paper in the same way as a music score. We had to train the choreographer in order to teach the movement of a dance. However, as it became possible to mark down the movements of a dance just like one would do with a musical score, choreographers started to copy the dances of the world after watching them on DVD or TV. These went well with the music after trying out the movements written down on the score. From where to stretch one’s feet front and back to how to turn one’s hands, it was all written down on a piece of paper. 


In short, everything could be marked down on paper. Afterwards, this kind of score spread across the nation and revolutionized the field of choreography. Although many criticize Kim Jong-il, one has to admit that he achieved a revolution in the field of culture and arts.


Playing a Lead Role in the Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man

During the time Kim Jong-il was revolutionizing the culture and arts sector of North Korea in the 70s, I helped him in the field of opera. I played many different roles in the revolutionary Pibada-style operas, such as The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man, Pibada, and A True Daughter of the Party. I played a main character in The Fate of a Self-Defense Corps Man, which is a story of three young men from a farm village during the Japanese colonial period. The story goes as follows.


The characters are Gamnyong (main), his girlfriend Geumsun, Manshik’s sister Geumok, Gamnyong’s friends Manshik and Chulsan, and Gamnyong’s parents. Gamnyong and Geumsun, although they have promised to marry each other, do not have enough money to pay for a wedding. So, Gamnyong has decided to work in the mountains to earn money, but is slowed down by a landslide and can only return home a few days before the wedding. However, at the same time, the vice head of the village has had his eyes on Geumsun and thinks, “I don’t want to lose Geumsun to a vagabond like Gamnyong.” So he sends every young man in the village off to join the self-defense corps. 


In Act 1 Scene 2, Geumsun visits the training camp of the self defense to meet Gamnyong, and there’s a barbed-wire fence between them. There’s also a scene where Japanese soldiers order the young soldiers to enter the village to steal food. Manshik, one of three friends of Gamnyong, escapes the unit after enduring hardships in his duties. However, he is caught and executed in front of his friends. Japanese soldiers also whip Gamnyong’s elderly father and force him to do harsh labor. This is witnessed by Gamnyong, who finally, together with Chulsan, engages in a gunfight with the Japanese soldiers. The scene continues with a victory led by the young men of the village in cooperation with other revolutionary forces in a fight against the Japanese. During this battle, Chulsan dies, as does Gamnyong’s father. 


Gamnyong, Geumsun, and Geumsun’s mother survive. In such a way, the once peaceful farm village is destroyed because of the Japanese. The main character sings:


People die when they join the self defense; people also die when they refuse to join the force.


Kim Jong-il, however, after listening to this song, ordered the lyric to be changed to the following: “If people die even though they do not join the force, then it is a brutal world.”



Listening to Tchaikovsky, watching Titanic

In college, we were trained to analyze Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Marriage of Figaro regardless of class level. As the curriculum proceeded, students were required to evaluate the classics, and arrange the notes in them and play them on the piano. Not to mention that we had to master all these famous classics of Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. To meet these requirements, musicians listened to not only classics in operas, but all the famous music out there, even church music. Living in North Korea, it is unusual to be acquainted with church music, but famous foreign composers created a number of church hymns. After I arrived in South Korea, I looked through all the hymnals and was able to find the melodies that I used to sing in North Korea. For example, one song I used to hear in the North “Tramp the earth, tramp it with your heart, with the chimney of the furnace in your hometown...” was actually motivated by the first part of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. I had a colleague who made a song commemorating April 15th, Kim Il-sung’s birthday, and dedicated it to a government agency for creative arts. The song was so great that I wondered who had

made the song, but that information was not available. Accordingly, I assumed it was a piece that had been created by several composers, a collective creation.


One time I visited China and got a chance to watch a Western movie. In one scene of the movie, the sheriff picks up a

harmonica and plays a song that happens to be the 4/15 commemorative song that my colleague had submitted to the government. I was surprised and did some research and found out that that movie had been filmed in 1990. It was such an old piece of music.