Meet North Korea's New Girl-Pop Band

The Moranbong Music Band's hits include, "Let's Study!" and "Our Dear Leader"
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South Korea may have global sensations like Psy and infectious pop stars like Girls' Generation, but its northern neighbor is now offering the steadfast rhythms of ... the Moranbong Music Band:

On July 7, 2012, Kim Jong Un created this new girl-pop quintet because he was reportedly "prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins," according to the North Korean news agency KCNA.

Moranbong looks almost normal -- certainly it's not as frightening as most videos coming from Pyongyang these days, like this propaganda video or even this children's band. But it still has a vaguely drab, 1980s sensibility: the glitzy, old-fashioned dresses, the tame-yet-hyper-choreographed dance moves, the accompaniment by electric violas?

Perhaps expectedly, the songs have titles like "Let's Study!", "Our Dear Leader!" and "Let's Go Together!"

It's temping to write this off as yet another quirky North Korea-ism, but there's actually something bigger at work here. Pop music plays a significant role in the regime's attempt to placate its citizens, even in times of starvation and strife. The Telegraph notes:

When things started to go belly up in the poverty-stricken 80s, the regime invented a couple of pop groups to keep people happy: the Pochonbo Electric ensemble and the Wangjaesan Light Music Band.

(Here's a look at one such past offering, the Wangjaesan Dancers):

These days, famine has abated, but the North Korean regime faces pressures of a different kind. Defectors talk of watching smuggled South Korean TV dramas and chatting on illicit Chinese cell phones -- just two of the ways North Koreans are increasingly gathering information about the outside world. It could be that Kim Jong Un is forming bands like Moranbong in order to give his public some of the modern culture it craves in a safe, non-Westernized package. Moranbong is apparently often praised by the regime for their ability to adapt North Korean music for the 21st century ("meeting the need of the times"). You can't have Girls' Generation, Kim seems to be saying, but you can have our version.

Or as one video on the DPRK's official YouTube music-video channel promises, "People are spontaneously enjoying Moranbong."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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