The music of North Korea includes a wide array of folk, popular, light instrumental, political, and classical performers. Beyond patriotic and political music, popular music groups like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and Moranbong Band perform songs about everyday life in the DPRK and modern light pop reinterpretations of classic Korean folk music. Music education is widely taught in schools, with President Kim Il Sung first implementing a program of study of musical instruments in 1949 at an orphanage in Mangyongdae.[1] Musical diplomacy also continues to be relevant to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with musical and cultural delegations completing concerts in China[2] and France[3] in recent years, and musicians from Western countries and South Korea collaborating on projects in the DPRK.[4][5]

Taejung kayo

After the division of Korea in 1945 and the establishment of North Korea in 1948, revolutionary song-writing traditions were channeled into support for the state, eventually becoming a style of patriotic song called taejung kayo (대중가요) in the 1980s[6] combining classical Western symphonic music, the Soviet socialist realism style, and Korean traditional musical forms.[7] The songs are generally sung by female and male performers - either a choir, small groups or a soloist - with accompanying bands or choirs accompanied by a large orchestra (either Western style or a hybrid of western and traditional) or a concert band, and in recent years, a pop band or big band/jazz band with guitars, electric guitars, keyboards, strings, a drum kit and brass section with occasional accordions and traditional instrumentation.

North Korean music follows the principles of Juche (self-reliance) ideology.[8] The characteristic march like, upbeat music of North Korea is carefully composed, rarely individually performed, and its lyrics and imagery have a clear optimistic content.

Much music is composed for movies, television dramas, and TV movies, and the works of the Korean composer Isang Yun (1917–1995), who spent much of his life in Germany, are popular in North Korea.

Pop music

Performance at a Pyongyang opera

Under Kim Il Sung's era, only ideologically correct music was allowed. Jazz in particular was considered out of bounds.[9] Many artists however found their way around these limitations by writing ideologically correct lyrics while taking liberties with the score. Under Kim Jong Il, previously forbidden genres, even jazz, became permissible and encouraged.[10] In 2010, a brutal death metal group purporting to be from North Korea, called Red War (붉은전쟁), released a three-track demo online. However, as of 2014 the group are believed to be disbanded.[11] The metal music archive Spirit of Metal currently lists two bands that claim to originate from North Korea, Red War and the pornogrind band Teagirl.[12]

Many North Korean pop songs are usually performed by a young female singer with an electric ensemble, percussionist, and accompanying singers and dancers, today there's even male singers or a chorus in community or company pop bands. Some North Korean pop songs such as "Hwiparam" ("Whistle")—set to the lyrics of North Korean poet Cho Ki-chon[13]—have become popular in South Korea.[14] Common lyrical themes include military might ("We Shall Hold Bayonets More Firmly", "Look At Us!", "One Against a Hundred"), economic production and thrift ("The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanisation", "Attain the Cutting Edge (The CNC Song)", "I Also Raise Chickens", "Potato Pride"), patriotism ("My Country Is the Best", "We Have Nothing To Envy", "Onwards Toward the Final Victory") and glorification of the party and leaders ("Where Are You, Dear General?", "No Motherland Without You", "Don't Ask My Name", "The General Uses Warp", "Footsteps"). Songs like "We Are One" and "Reunification Rainbow" sing of the hopes for Korean reunification. There are also songs with more casual themes, such as "Women Are Flowers" and "Ballad of Gold Mountains."[15][16][17]

In 2012, North Korea's first major girl band, the Moranbong Band, made its world debut.[18] It is a group of about sixteen North Korean women (eleven instrumentalists and five singers) which was hand-selected by Kim Jong Un.[19]

BBC radio disc jockey Andy Kershaw noted, on a visit to North Korea with Koryo Tours in 2003, that the only recordings available were by the pop singers Jon Hye-yong, Kim Kwang-suk, Jo Kum-hwa and Ri Pun-hui, and the groups Wangjaesan Light Music Band, the Mansudae Art Troupe and the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, who play in a style Kershaw refers to as "light instrumental with popular vocal".[15] There is also the State Symphony Orchestra, the Sea of Blood Opera Company, two choruses, an orchestra and an ensemble dedicated to Isang Yun's compositions, all in Pyongyang. The Pyongyang Film Studios also produces many instrumental songs for its films, and several programs on Korean Central Television have music made and performed by the Central Radio and Television Orchestra.[20]

North Korean pop music is available for visitors to Pyongyang at the Koryo Hotel or Number One Department Store, as well as gift shops in tourist destinations.[16] International and Western music can be enjoyed by locals and tourists at the Grand People's Study House, Pyongyang's central library.[21][22]

Music of Enlightment

A lot of songs composed during Korea under Japanese rule, which are known in South Korea today as Trot are called "Enlightenment Period song" (계몽기 가요).[23][24] It is no longer composed as propaganda music has since displaced other musical forms.[25][26] Those songs were only orally-recorded for a long time. However, it was intentionally revived during the Kim Jong Il administration: in the late 2000s, Korean Central Television aired a TV program that introduced those "Enlightenment songs".[27]

Folk music

North Korean children performing for tourists at Chonsam Cooperative Farm near Wonsan

Alongside contemporary pop songs, groups like Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble have recorded arrangements of Korean folk songs.[28] The Korean folk song "Arirang" continues to be widely popular in the DPRK, with UNESCO inscribing the song to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014, representing the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.[29]

Like Korean music in general, North Korean music includes kinds of both folk and classical, courtly music, including genres like sanjo, pansori, and nongak. Pansori is long vocal and percussive music played by one singer and one drummer. The lyrics tell one of five different stories, but is individualized by each performer, often with updated jokes and audience participation. Nongak is a rural form of percussion music, typically played by twenty to thirty performers. Sanjo is entirely instrumental that shifts rhythms and melodic modes during the song. Instruments include the changgo drum set against a melodic instrument, such as the gayageum or ajaeng.[15]


In North Korea, traditional instruments have been adapted in order to allow them to compete with Western instruments. Many older musical forms remain and are used in both traditional performances that have been attuned to the ideas and the way of life of the modern North Korean communist state and to accompany modern songs in praise of Kim Il Sung, his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un from 2012 onward, plus songs that wish for a reunited Korea, thus creating a mix of traditional and Western music that is truly North Korean, a unique variant of Korean music as a whole mixing the old and the new.

The modern Ongnyugeum zithers and the Sohaegeum four stringed fiddle are North Korean modernized versions of traditional Korean musical instruments, both used in traditional and modern musical forms.

Military music, in contrast, often makes extensive use of Western brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments, often omitting the Korean ones entirely. Although usually original compositions, the melodies are not easily distinguishable from Western ones in the absence of their lyrics, which heavily feature the customary ideologically oriented content.

Active musical groups and ensembles

Further information: List of North Korean musicians



See also


  1. ^ Cathcart, Adam (2008-09-01). "Song of Youth: North Korean Music from Liberation to War". North Korean Review. 4 (2): 99–100. doi:10.3172/nkr.4.2.93. ISSN 1551-2789.
  2. ^ "Music, diplomacy, and dictatorship: North Korean concerts in Beijing | NK News – North Korea News". 2019-01-31. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  3. ^ Cathcart, Adam (Fall 2013). "North Korea's Cultural Diplomacy in the Early Kim Jong-un Era" (PDF). North Korean Review. 9 (2): 29–42. doi:10.3172/NKR.9.2.29. JSTOR 43908918.
  4. ^ "Making friends in the new North Korea". 2013-01-03. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  5. ^ "South Korean K-pop stars perform for Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang". The Guardian. Reuters. 2018-04-01. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  6. ^ "Pop music of Asia". IIAS Newsletter Online. Archived from the original on July 9, 2013. Retrieved September 27, 2005.
  7. ^ World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation. 2007. p. 929. ISBN 9780761476313.
  8. ^ "Songs for the 'Great Leaders': Ideology and Political Agitation in the Music of North Korea". Archived from the original on 2021-06-16. Retrieved 2020-11-07.
  9. ^ "Playing "jazz" is a crime in North Korea". Salon. 2013-07-24. Retrieved 2020-04-28.
  10. ^ "The good things in North Korea | NK News". NK News – North Korea News. 2016-06-06. Retrieved 2020-05-01.
  11. ^ The Oppression of the Western Devils is Over: One Underground North Korean Metal Band MetalSucks. December 18, 2012. Retrieved May 23, 2020.
  12. ^ North Korea: Band List Spirit of Metal. Retrieved May 25, 2020.
  13. ^ Gabroussenko, Tatiana (2005). "Cho Ki-ch'ŏn: The Person Behind the Myths". Korean Studies. 29: 79. doi:10.1353/ks.2006.0005.
  14. ^ Chun Su-jin (6 October 2002). "Attention! Military more receptive to filmmakers". Korea Joongang Daily.
  15. ^ a b c Provine, Rob, Hwang, Okon and Kershaw, Andy. "Our Life Is Precisely a Song". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, pp 160–169. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  16. ^ a b Broughton, Simon; Ellingham, Mark; McConnachie, James; Duane, Orla (2000). World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, Volume 2 (New ed.). London: Rough Guides. p. 167. ISBN 9781858286365. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  17. ^ "Oh Potatoes!". Retrieved 4 August 2015. "Potato Pride" is a North Korean propaganda tune in which the elder of the village receives his government ration of potatoes and shares it with his fellow villagers.
  18. ^ Patrick Boehler (6 July 2013). "Moranbong style: North Korea's first girl band may be a sign of change". South China Morning Post.
  19. ^ Beth Stebner (29 May 2013). "North Korea's five-part girl band, formed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, blast out hits like 'Let's Study!' and 'Our Dear Leader!'". New York Daily News. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  20. ^ "BBC Radio 3 – Andy Kershaw, North Korea, Kershaw in North Korea, part 1". BBC. Retrieved 2019-12-23.
  21. ^ "Grand People's Study House – North Korea". Young Pioneer Tours. 2018-06-13. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  22. ^ "Grand People's Study House | North Korea Travel Guide – Koryo Tours". Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  23. ^ "[북한 문화 산책] 2. 북에도 '뽕짝'은 있다". 중앙일보. 2000-11-10.
  24. ^ "[김문성의 盤세기]분단의 최대 희생곡 '조선팔경가'… 남북 정치 현실 따라 가사 난도질". 동아일보. 2018-04-27.
  25. ^ Choi Cheok-ho (2001): "So-called People music in North Korea", pp. 64–71. PDF Archived 2019-04-07 at the Wayback Machine (in Korean) (최척호: "북한의 음악: 대중가요", 통일경제, 2001 (5·6).
  26. ^ Unification Ministry: Music in North Korea (in Korean).
  27. ^ "[클로즈업 북한] 남북이 함께 부르는 노래…'계몽기 가요'". KBS. 2016-11-12.
  28. ^ "Vol. 36 (세 36 집): 조선민요곡집2 Korean Folk Songs 2". Discogs. Retrieved 6 October 2019.
  29. ^ "UNESCO – Arirang folk song in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea". Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  30. ^ "N. Korea's all-female band unveiled in Moscow". Yonhap. 2 September 2015. Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  31. ^ a b "Samjiyon Band". Naenara. Foreign Languages Publishing House. 16 January 2013. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  32. ^ Ha Yoon Ah (18 January 2018). "Why is North Korea sending the Samjiyon Orchestra to the Olympics?". Daily NK. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
  33. ^ Zhang Jingya, ed. (2013-01-27). "DPRK national folk art shines in South China". Archived from the original on 2015-05-23. Retrieved 2015-05-23.
  34. ^ Stage Art of DPRK Improved in 2012 Archived 2013-01-21 at the Wayback Machine

Further reading