Pyongyang style: North Korea girl bands rock China's border

A North Korean band performing for tourists at a hotel in Hunchun, in northeast China's Jilin province.
A North Korean band performing for tourists at a hotel in Hunchun, in northeast China's Jilin province.PHOTO: AFP
North Korean performers in China rarely venture outside.
North Korean performers in China rarely venture outside.PHOTO: AFP
Two women outside a karaoke bar in Hunchun, which shares a border with both Russia and North Korea.
Two women outside a karaoke bar in Hunchun, which shares a border with both Russia and North Korea.PHOTO: AFP

HUNCHUN, CHINA (AFP) - Like many Chinese hotels, the Kunlun International hotel has rock bottom prices. It also boasts rooms with round beds and dance poles, and an all-female North Korean rock band who belt out Anthem Of The Worker's Party and other socialist classics every night.

Young and good-looking, the seven-piece group bear a striking similarity to the Moranbong band, a North Korean musical phenomenon who have been accorded huge success since their members were hand-selected by leader Kim Jong Un.

Now, imitators from Pyongyang are performing in Chinese border towns, looking to provide genuine entertainment rather than the novelty value long offered by North Korean restaurants and bands in Asia - which provide the diplomatically isolated government with much-needed hard currency.

At the hotel in Hunchun, sandwiched in a sliver of China between Russia and North Korea, the band - who have no name of their own - wore lurid red and were bathed in purple spotlights and clouds of dry ice.


They delivered ear-splitting renditions of traditional Korean folk songs and patriotic tunes, complete with howling electric guitars, heavy drums and thumping basslines.

The Chinese tribute to the ruling organisation, Without The Communist Party, There Would Be No New China, was given the same treatment, in front of a video of a waving Chinese flag.

Three middle-aged Chinese men raised their arms, crying "Bravo". "North Korea is so impoverished and they really need the open up economically like China did," said tourist Zhao Dongxia.

"But the band was pretty good. It's the first time I've seen North Koreans. They didn't look that poor."

Pyongyang strictly controls which citizens are allowed to leave the country, and Beijing's policy is to repatriate illegal border crossers - returning them to an uncertain fate.

The performers spend almost all their time in the hotel, rarely venturing outside, singer Lim Tae Jeong said, picking up a Chinese edition of Vogue.

"I can't read Chinese but I love to look at the pictures, the clothes are very different, very modern," she said in halting Chinese.

"Of course I love the Moranbong band, although we are not anywhere as good as them," she demurred.

South Korea's pop culture has given Seoul a soft power push in recent years, and singer Psy's 2012 hit Gangnam Style became a worldwide phenomenon.

The Moranbong band have not had a similar global impact. But inside North Korea, streets reportedly empty during their concerts and students can sing their repertoire at the drop of a hat.

The all-woman band are radically different from previous musical offerings, with fast tempos and disco stylings.

Pekka Korhonen, a political science professor at Finland's University of Jyväskylä who runs a website dedicated to tracking the group, attributes the traits to Kim's years spent studying and living in Europe.

"The Moranbong band is incredibly popular, but what does popular mean in North Korea?" he said.

"The band is a symbol of Kim's new reign, and therefore will be popular until he says otherwise."

North Korea has been sending workers abroad for decades, working in everything from Russian logging camps to Gulf state construction sites and restaurants in Cambodia.

According to human rights groups, the bulk of the workers' hard currency salary is confiscated by the state, and the programme has expanded since Kim came to power in late 2011 as a way of subverting sanctions.

A 2012 study by the North Korea Strategy Center and the Korea Policy Research Center estimated that 60,000 to 65,000 North Koreans were working in more than 40 countries, providing the state with US$150 million to US$230 million (S$204 million to S$314 million) a year.

Many of the border performers have attended music college, although some shows are little more than glorified karaoke.

At one such display in a Hunchun restaurant, three singers doubled as the only waitresses, singing duets with diners for a fee and awkwardly accepting proffered 100 yuan (S$22) notes - an unusual sight in a country where tipping is extremely rare.

The Ryugyong hotel in nearby Yanji shares its name with a gargantuan 105-floor pyramid-shaped Pyongyang hotel that began construction in 1987 but still stands unfinished.

Women in red and white uniforms performed a synchronised a tap dancing routine evoking a socialist Riverdance.

All the artists express deep pride for their country, but musical prominence can be perilous in the North.

The Unhasu Orchestra, previously the pinnacle of North Korean music, was disbanded in 2013, and according to South Korean intelligence Kim had four members executed by firing squad earlier this year for espionage. Pyongyang has not commented on the issue.

Ryu Seol Sin has been in China for nearly two years and has started to think about her return home.

The 28-year-old is a graduate of Kim Won-Gyun Pyongyang University of Music, reportedly the same alma mater as many Moranbong members.

"I used to want to work very hard and try to rise to play for huge crowds," she said. "But now I think I want to teach music, I think it's a more stable and safer way to serve my country."