The Power of Musical Propaganda

Monday, 4 September 2017

This is a research paper I wrote in my first semester of third year in Yonsei University, called Understanding Popular Music. In my paper, I sought to understand the power music had in terms of propaganda in North Korea. I have always been fascinated by how the thoughts and mentality of people can be utterly transformed by the words of another, and the special sensation that music gives draws people to process the lyrics more so. I hope you enjoy this paper and may it bring you a night's worth of contemplation and deep thought.

            Propaganda has always been an excellent way of promoting a political point of view and with the evolution of times come the evolution of methods used to transmit this information. Some of these common media include news reports, government reports, historical revision, books, leaflets, movies, social media, radio, television and posters (Wikipedia, Propaganda, October 2015). However, one technique that has proven effective time and time again throughout the years is music. In this paper, I will be uncovering the effects of music used by North Korea to propagate the leadership to its people.
            The Kim family in the North has always been a family well versed in the musical arts. Kim Il Sung first discovered the sway of music through his youth experience in a church where the influence of Protestant music could “motivate and unify disparate groups” (Cathcart, 2008). Through his childhood experience growing up playing the organ, he grew more confident in the fact that music played a massive and persuasive role in propaganda. Kim’s understanding of music was relatively deep, considering the fact that he knew much about tonality. He had shared with his son, Kim Jong Il, in the 1960s, about the emotional influence of key structure on the audience and performers. He mentioned that “each key retains the power to provoke certain emotions” (Selected Works, Volume 1, 1964-1969, Vol. I, Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992, pp. 27-34). Kim Il Sung realized that, like Christianity, people gathered interest to attend church for the community and enjoyable activities and thereafter for the preaching of the gospel. He followed suit after realizing that a community could be built through music and thereafter sermonized by a doctrine, applying these principles to the military.
            The Korean People’s Army, established in 1946, was the first project of Kim Il Sung, who provided brass bands for drill and inspection and orchestral-choral performances for inspiration. He used this as a means of instilling a military spirit in his people. The music that North Korean people listened to were military music and this played an immense role in “forging a cohesive and ideologically consistent army” (Cathcart, 2008). It even got to a point where the orchestral musicians were encouraged to become soldiers themselves. They were liked to warriors “fighting with art as a weapon for the building of a new, democratic Korea” (Works, Vol. II, p. 299).
With that, the age of musical propaganda had begun, with songs like “Song of General Kim Il Sung”, written by Kim Won’gyun. Thereafter, due to the overwhelming reputation he had reaped through the song, he attained the commission of the national anthem. The national anthem, much like the song before it, crooned about the unwavering hearts of the Korean people, and these lyrics were a prerequisite “in favor of a more idiomatic nationalistic profile” (Human Remolding, p. 113). He further announced that these songs were the people’s “urge to sing lustily of their joy and emotion at enjoying freedom and happiness” (Cathcart, 2008) while being under the rule of Kim. With the national anthem being the first step towards a new era of propaganda, Kim Il Sung continued to edge on the artistic community in North Korea to resume the production of music that would forge a sense of patriotism within the people. He opined that the songs sung by the soldiers are to be composed with “ardent patriotism, burning hatred against the enemy and the lofty revolutionary spirit of fighting for the reunification and independence of the country” (Works, Vol. II, pp. 402–403). Recognizing the power of music, Kim Il Sung embarked on a greater mission to continue improving and refining musical propaganda.
To maintain the creation of musical propaganda, Kim needed to continue a young line of music lovers, willing to learn and compose for the country. He began to introduce a regime of the study of musical instruments as a means of building morale between students. This was also a means of raising the spirits of the children and drawing them “closer to the Great Leader” (National Archives, SA2012, 1/108, Mass Cultural Section, “Handbook for Study of Music”, Vol. 4, Nov 1949). Composers sponsored by the regime began to produce music such as the “Song of Nationwide Youth Democratic League” written by Lim Yim-hwa and Kim Sun-nam, has verses that repeat and exude premises of resistance and strength and each verse concluded with the praises of the people’s power (Cathcart, 2008). The songs spoke of new beginnings and conveyed a sense of optimism for the future from the youth. The power of propaganda needed to continue and Kim knew that the way to maintaining was through the youth and thereafter the next generation. Fresh into liberation, the rising country was short on the supply of textbooks, but Kim utilized music and took advantage of the ease in transmission to propagate swiftly without the use of a printing press (Nettie Ma, 1989).
The lyrics composed in any songs in North Korea encouraged the audience to place unwavering faith in the leadership. Songs such as (우리는 당신밖에 모른다/ Urinun tangsinbagge morunda in Korean), dedicated to Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, indicates a “necessary degree of faith”. These verses are structured in a way where it removes any other form of competing authority to the Supreme Leader from the minds of the people in North Korea (Cathcart &  Korhonen, 2016). Songs sung within the country were songs of loyalty and faithfulness to their leader and no other. Not only were songs broadcasted to the people on a regular basis, they had national festivals as well, where the music took on a more important role than any speech that could ever be made. North Korea has realized that music in concerts forges a collective spirit among the audience, whether they are singing or listening (Sondermann, 1995). Especially in a country like North Korea, where there were no other forms of independent musical production, national bonding through music is particularly obvious.
According to neuroscientific theory, psychological and chemical mechanisms are affected when people listen to music. Rhythms in music facilitates movement and emotion which merges the consciousness of the individual and that of others. This outcome is an immensely powerful psychological state leading to a form of social bonding that is non-sexual and non-relational. Endorphins are released in the bodies when humans are exposed to rhythmic sound, and the feeling is intensified if it encompasses the synchronizing movements with others, even if the listening is done passively (Tarr, Launay, and Dunbar, 2014). On top of this uniting phenomena, with the lyrics ringing about the magnificence of their One True Leader, what more could be expected of the people in North Korea?
As North Korea progressed throughout the years, some sort of evolution in the music played in terms of diversified content, topic and style would have been expected. Although it did evolve in terms of presentation like the rest of the world, the content was still directed toward indoctrinating North Koreans. The establishment of the Wangjaesan Light Music Band in 1983 brought about dancing and circus performances, which was meant for on-stage performances. The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, too, used electronic instruments and glittering lights as a way to attract the younger generation through “danceable and easy-to-sing popular melodies” (Cathcart & Korhonen, 2016). In the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s reign, there was a wave of creative transformation. There were new songs being composed and new styles of music were experimented with. The orchestral movements commenced by Kim Jong Il continued to perform many of the same popular music, however with newer pop styles. Yet, with all things changing, the aim of the lyrics was still consistent as ever: exonerating their true leader.
According to Mary Douglas, the way the institution thinks and behaves greatly affects the way the members think and behave as well. Institutions, or thereto the North Korean leadership, gets to dictate what the people remember and forget. In due time, as the institution continues to classify and direct, the people lose the independence that they conceivably had. Without any form of resistance, they lose intellectual independence and would not be able to discover the grip that institutions have upon their minds (Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think, 1986). True to this statement, if the North Korean leadership continues to defensive against outside influence, then the people have close to no chance of having different viewpoints of their leadership, and in other words, they would have no means to break free from the power of musical propaganda. In this aspect, North Korea could identify and exploit the power of musical propaganda over its people and till now maintain their reign, something that might be seen as a commendable feat. North Korean music played an extremely important role in boosting the power of the state and in generating hatred of the state’s enemies (Cathcart, 2008). Music, is definitely not just for pleasure.

References and Citation
Wikipedia, October 2015. Propaganda. Retrieved from
Adam Cathcart, Fall 2008. Song of Youth: North Korean Music from Liberation to War. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Adam Cathcart & Pekka Korhonen, 2016. Death and Transfiguration: The Late Kim Jong-il Aesthetic in North Korean Cultural Production, Popular Music and Society. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Kim Jong Il, Selected Works, Volume 1, 1964–1969, Vol. I, Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1992, pp. 27–34. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. II, p. 299. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
H. C. Kim and D. K. Kim, Human Remolding, p. 113. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. II, pp. 402–403. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
United States National Archives and Records Administration, Captured Enemy Docu-
ments: Record Group 242 College Park, Maryland [hereafter “National Archives”], SA2012, 1/108, Mass Cultural Section, “Handbook for Study of Music,” Mass Cultural Library, Vol. 4, dated November 10, 1949, published by Mass Cultural Section NK Professional League.
Nettie Ma, “The Curricular Content of Elementary Music in China between 1912 and 1982,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Texas, 1989. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Sondermann, Klaus. O Deutschland! Oi Suomi! Vielgeliebtes sterreich!: Zur Politischen und Gesellscha lichen Karriere Vorgestellter Wesen. Tampere: Universität Tampere, Forschungsinstitut für Sozialwissenscha en, 1995. Print. Retrieved from Yonsei Library E-Resources.
Tarr, Bronwyn, Jacques Launay, and Robin I. M. Dunbar. “Music and Social Bonding: ‘Self-Other’ Merging and Neurohormonal Mechanisms.” Frontiers in Psychology 30 Sept. 2014. Retrieved from web.
Mary Douglas, 1986. How Institutions Think. Book. Retrieved from Yonsei Library.

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