“Music Politics” Shows the Changing View of Women in North Korea

A woman plays gayageum, a traditional Korean musical instrument, at the state-hosted Lunar New Year concert in Pyongyang, North Korea. Screenshot from footage broadcast on KCTV on Feb. 5, 2022.

In recent years, the changing role of women in North Korean society, brought on by the famine of the 1990s, has become apparent through the songs the state deploys to indoctrinate the people.

This indoctrination is referred to as “music politics.” It’s very effective.

I’ve been in South Korea for 10 years, but I still hum North Korean songs and I was surprised recently when I realized I was humming the song Nostalgia, which North Korean propagandists claim was written by Kim Il Sung himself. “You must have worked too hard in school,” my fellow defector friends joked. As kids, we’d sing the Song of General Kim Il Sung every day as we marched in a group to school.

Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong Il, is credited with introducing music politics. The term itself was first used at a Ministry of People’s Armed Forces symposium about Kim Jong Il’s ‘greatness’ on February 7, 2000.

It functions rather like “music in advertising” in other societies, where music is used to influence the consumers’ emotional response to an advertisement. 

The main themes in music politics are the blood relationship between the leader and the people and the will to die for him and the revolution. Kim Jong Il stressed its importance, saying, “Music has sometimes replaced thousands of guns and millions of tons of food.” 

Kim Jong Un has continued in the same vein. According to state media, he established and named the Moranbong and Chongbong bands, the Samjiyon Orchestra, and the Band of the State Affairs Commission, and also directed the selection of their songs. 

Music politics gives us a way to observe social change. There is a famous song about women that every North Korean knows called Women Are Flowers. In this song, a woman is a “flower that tends to its entire family” and a “flower that nurtures our sons and daughters into heroes.”

This emphasis on the femininity of the housewife and mother was intended at the time to address a social problem. Many men and women left their spouses but were unable to divorce because of the tight laws, and when they found new partners, they lived together pretending to be married.

They came to be known as 8.3 couples. This comes from a decree on August 3, 1984, instructing that daily necessities be made from by-products from factories. In other words, fake or crudely manufactured goods.

“During the Arduous March (of the 1990s famine), women were forced to work in jangmadang markets to support their family,” a North Korean economic expert explained. They became involved in “running sales,” selling local specialties in other areas. “They asked for divorces from husbands who were unable to make money and this resulted in 8.3 couples. The song emerged as a solution from the regime,” he said.

From 2010, this feminine perception of women shifted.

Now, they were seen as having what we might call patriarchal femininity. Thus, the second verse of the song Ode to My Wife, released that year, goes, “when I get tired, she supports me,” and (she is) “a person I need as a life companion.” Thus, a woman became seen as a companion and a breadwinner rather than as a housewife.

Women became the main pillar of the jangmadang market economy starting from the Arduous March in 1996. While men were tied to the military or their organizations as the official heads of their household, women were relatively less controlled and therefore free to work in the market to support their families.

As men started to depend on them, many women sought to avoid marriage altogether. “You suffer a lot when you get married,” they would say. “It’s just one more burden.”

Given this, the new characterization of women in music shows how the regime is trying to encourage social participation by women, who have now become the main pillar of economic activity.

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