What Do North Koreans FEEL About Music?

I’ve been to North Korea. Well, sort of.

A couple of years ago, I visited the DMZ north of Seoul. Part of the tour involves going inside one of the buildings right on the border of North and South Korea. In fact, the border goes right down the middle of the conference table set up in the middle of the room. Step around to the north side of the table and you’re officially inside the DPRK. I think I got about 15 feet inside the country–but I never left the building. An armed guard at the door made sure of that.

I’ve long been fascinated by this weird hermit kingdom and would love the opportunity to see it for myself one day. What, for example, is the music scene like in Pyongyang? Well, for one thing, they apparently like to sing about fermented cabbage. From PopMatters:

One day in February 2014, Yun Jong Min, the Director of the Foreign Relations Department of the National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Pyongyang, read through the statements about kimchi—a spiced, fermented cabbage dish—that had been appended to the UNESCO application: Nomination File 01063, for Inscription on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. He worked steadily and, as required, the file was completed nine months before the Intergovernmental Committee were scheduled to meet.

He seemed to enjoy his work, and the pictures of him that reached the West were of a man in his 40s, smiling easily. Although his hair was well trimmed, his fringe was a little untidy and, when he wore a suit, his tie was a little too loose. The lines around his eyes were beginning to harden and his cheeks were slightly sunken. His office was close to the river, and music floated over from the far bank where singers stood beneath the Juche monument.

The kimchi file was the second successful application that Yun had worked on. Each year, the United Nations adds especially deserving examples of “intangible cultural heritage” to a list of those requiring particular recognition. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom have any examples on the list, having not ratified the relevant treaty, but Argentine tango has been included, and Brazilian capoeira, and Chinese calligraphy and Indian Vedic chanting. The application process is rigorous, with forms asserting the importance of national culture, completed in both English and French, and made available on the United Nations website.

Keep reading. It’s too weird not to.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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