I’ve been in North Korea to see Laibach. A meta art project in itself – plus a story about overidentification, monumentalism and capitalism in Pyongyang.
The orginal German version of this text has been translated by Misha Anouk (Follow him on Twitter: @mishaanouk). Any mistakes you may find have been added by myself in the course of my revisions.
Ich war im August in Nordkorea um Laibach zu sehen. Meine Erlebnisse habe ich in diesem kleinen Reisebericht zusammengefasst. Die deutsche Version: “Back in the DPRK: Laibach erschließt Nordkorea” gibt’s auf derStandard.at
Saturday, August 22, Juche 104, 4.30 p.m. (Pyongyang standard time) the deadline for the ultimatum issued to South Korea passes. In Seoul it’s already 5 p. m. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially called, has its own calendar and its own timezone. Since August 15, the day that marks the end of the japanese occupation, Pyongyang is one hour behind Tokyo. Meanwhile, Laibach have just landed in Ljubljana. The Slovenian band is just returning from an intensive trip to North Korea, where they spent a week that ended with Kim Jong-un giving South Korea abovementioned ultimatum.
The two events are not linked.
Two months earlier in June after having worked on a project he called „cultural unification“ for nearly a year, Norwegian polyartist Morten Traavik decides to break the news that Laibach will be performing in Pyongyang. The pictures included in the press release resemble the orchestrated mass demonstrations and media are aware enough of the band that many take notice worldwide.
A journalistic approach to North Korea is difficult. It is far too easy to be cynical, especially when in the country for a while. Rumours and hear-say distort the hard-to-grasp reality of the DPRK. Myths are legion like this example from recent time: Kim Jong-Un supposedly has officials executed with an antiaircraft gun, to make sure „not a single atom is left of the traitor“.
More often than not it is only possible to expose the myths on the ground, which significantly impedes research. Gathering facts would be a simpler job with Laibach, but interpretation of the band and a journalistic approach have proved to be difficult for decades. So it is little wonder that misinterpretations abound when Laibach and North Korea meet. They wanted “to tap a new market”, is the answer Laibach gave when asked why they would want to perform in North Korea. Mainstream media has never been at ease with irony.
Pop in Pyongyang
Media coverage of Laibach’s concert on August 19 was marked by widespread bafflement. Even articles that stuck to merely describing the event succumbed to plain stereotypes of rock and North Korea, assuming a rock show in Pyongyang is the same as everywhere else and North Koreans had been eagerly awaiting the band. Far from it: Not only would normal citizens never have the chance of attending such a concert, nobody had ever heard of Laibach in the DPRK.
There is of course the odd journalist who knows his job like Christoph Giesen who had learned everything he needed to know about Laibach and had been to North Korea three times before, and subsequently writes an evidence-based piece (“Die dritte Sonne“) for German daily Süddeutsche. Georg Diez, however, who seems to have had a bone or two to pick with the band, goes for style over substance in a kneejerk article: „They had survived their own death which is particularly tragic for a band and were now strutting around like Zombies, in combat coats reaching down to their ankles which they mistook for their own act.“ A little research would’ve rendered most of this text obsolete. Of course Laibach had to retire the sledgehammer after the Eastern bloc had been dismantled, but they had since perfectioned the principle of overidentification. Every Laibach record is a concept album that leaves the listener happy, having listened to a sophisticated piece of art. No body of work of any band on this level is so well conceived like that of Laibach. Listen to the albums „Volk“, „Kunst der Fuge“ or the latest one, „Spectre“, the first electro album from the pioneers of electronic music.
But of course it’s easier to demonstrate moral superiority by using a simplistic rhetoric: Cooperation with the regime, provoking simple minds, and so on. Reducing Laibach to „hitlering“, as Diez did, is being politically overcorrect in a way that leads straight to self censorship. Streamlining morally correct thinking puts the PC community on an equal level with a regime that puts its citizens in boxes for the loyal “core class”, the “wavering class” and the “hostile class”.
North Korean Legends
So how much is true of what we know about North Korea? Is it true that the subway is just a show for tourists? Do hairdressers really just give you the „Kim Jong-un“ cut?
Wanting to see Laibach is maybe not the most reliable reason to visit North Korea. But it sure is a once in a lifetime opportunity to partake in an extraordinary event and – even better – witness North Korea interacting upon it with the rest oft he world.
Simon Cockerell, head of Koryo Tours, the biggest organizer of North Korea trips, broke it down a day before heading out: “Basically you ask before you take a picture and you don’t wander around.” There is a personalized itinerary that is compulsory. Guides make sure you stick to it.
The North Korean carrier Air Koryo takes us from Beijing to Pyongyang. Our guides welcome us at the airport and take our passports and visa.
“You Don’t Wander around”
On our way to the hotel, our first stop combines everything we will be seeing in the following days: a) a monumental building, in that case an arch of triumph surpassing its Parisian counterpart a few meters, and b) thousands of kids practicing their choreography for the upcoming torch march.
Contrary to popular opinion, we’re allowed to take pictures of everything in Pyongyang. In the rest of the country this is restricted. We were also allowed to bring notebooks and cells. Control is exercised differently: no-gos are your constant companion. The guides remind you of this through their presence. We are only allowed to leave our quarters in their accompaniment. Everything is done together. You don’t wander around.
Spare Views into Scarcity
But there would be plenty to discover in the vicinity of the hotel. In the streets without any displays there are one or two bars and spare views into the economy of scarcity. A lot stays in the dark, like the secret „German bar“ we visited on the first day. Wooden tables carry sausage and sauerkraut which is served with beer. We pay our tab consisting of western alcoholic brands with euros. The simulated and very much copied looking convenience of a karaoke bar, pool and very good North Korean craft beer would have loved to keep us in our hotel, but somehow we got spilled out into the streets of the invisible Pyongyang that foreshadows what future leader is slowly building momentum: capitalism.
This becomes evident during the next off-record part of our trip which takes us from one piece of architectural monumentalism to the next. We visit a supermarket where there is a bureau de change for Euros, Dollars and Chinese Yuan, offering an unofficial exchange rate that is 80 times higher as the official one (USD 1 = 100 Won). The supermarkt mainly features imported goods from the US, China and Europe, but nothing produced in South Korea. It’s difficult to find souvenirs not sporting Kraft or Nestlé logos which will fit in our luggage. We choose to buy some sugarcoated beans. Neatly packaged which cannot be taken for granted as the freezers contain loose poultry that not only suffers from freezer burn.
Generally speaking, food is a virtual reality: the quality of the ingredients, especially meat, is not what we’re used to. Rump or round for tourists who have paid quite a bit for their all-in-package. But this is as good as it gets considering what normally is served here, a mix of water and MSG. We don’t eat in normal restaurants. Rather, we have our meals in restaurants of our travel organizer KITC, the employers of our guides. But then again, we have coffee at Viennese Café at Kim Il-Sung Plaza.
The ways around Pyongyang are always the same. It’s like travelling around Vienna’s Ring boulevard for ages and ages, not to see the sites, just like that. The stories of the monumental buildings, like their portrayals of the suns (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) are always the same. Little wonder, as the protagonists and events portrayed are limited. As is North Korea’s calendar which officially begins with the birth of the “Eternal President of the Republic” Kim Il-sung in the year 1912 (Juche 1). Historical events are sparse and deal with the Korean war (1950-1953). There’s a detailed exhibition at the war museum. This makes it a museum of a state where history is mostly contemporary history. One of the exhibits is the American spy ship USS Pueblo, captured in 1968. A mandatory short film explains how this came about. In another movie we learn who were the real aggressors in the Korean war.
Through the Airlock
But no building illustrates the love for the details of their own history better than the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The Mausoleum of the two “Great Leaders” deals with the life and times of both heads of state. Photographs, medals, a couple of Mercedes Benz, the golf cart of the leader and his yacht can be viewed here. Also on display: the train carriage in which Kim Jong-il suffered a heart attack and died. It has been preserved the way it was found at the time of his death, including an opened MacBook Pro and yellow ethernet cable. Pictures are not allowed. One is not allowed to bring cameras or cells to the mausoleum. Dust is prohibited as well: One is cleaned in an airlock at the entrance.
Visiting State Security
Till the day of the event it is unclear whether our tour group will be allowed to see Laibach. Cockerell is in constant liason with organiser Traavik. The location has been changed a few times, but in the end band and fans are taken to the Theater of State Security. „Friends of the Band“ are allowed to witness the event together with some one thousand North Koreans and two hundred diplomats. There is solely seating, no stands, and we can choose any seat behind the ambassadors.
Traavik introduces the evening with a short speech he reads from a manuscript. His words are well-chosen and brief. A rhetoric blunder can have serious repercussions here. Not for him, but for his Korean partners, who he has wooed for over a year. Everyone knew what they were getting into, as far as this is possible with a band like Laibach not even people outside of North Korea really grasp.
No Journey to Mt. Peaktu
The censors had a hard time reviewing the visuals and lyrics they had received in advance. The band didn’t change anything, they just left bits out. The approved set had to shortened by another couple of songs, singer Mina Špiler told us. Among others: a version of the North Korean hit called „We Will Go to Mt. Paektu“. But it didn’t change that this was Laibach. There was no shortage of symbolism: „The Final Countdown“, „The Whistleblowers“, „Opus Die (Live is life)“ make it into the final setlist which ultimately consists of 9 songs, including „Edelweiß“ from the world famous film and musical „The Sound of Music“ no Austrian has ever heard of. Korean subtitles are projected via LED. The visuals include flowers and a sun, but not like the DPRK using them as symbols for the “Great Leaders”. Rumour has it the censors also wished to incorporate a North Korean rocket into the visuals of „Across the Universe“.
After an encore of „The Whistleblowers“, the most unusual and shortest Laibach show ends. Apart from the true fans, the audience leaves immediately. There are only about 20 of them. Only a handful don’t have personal connection to the band, and they are also invited to the aftershow dinner party at the Diplomatic Club.
Laibach were supposed to play a second show at a music college the next day. Špiler tells us they would like to do an acoustic version of „Across the Universe“ due to technical problems. Laibach unplugged? Creativity through scarcity available only in Pyongyang. That didn’t work either, so the band got to enjoy a concert themselves for a change.
Traavik, Director of the Hypertheatre
A project in North Korea wants patience and diligence. Morten Traavik has both. He has succeeded in projects of different genres and knows his way around difficult projects. He has given North Korea numerous tries and has been supported by the Norwegian Arts Council, which funded the Laibach show.
Is it appropriate to call such a project a buffoonery given its scope? Cheap provocation can be had cheaper. And there’s always the chance a regime will try to whitewash itself with culture and arts. But this begs the question: who instrumentalized whom? Everyone anybody else? All people involved faced the criticism art always has to deal with when crossing borders. But two things can be said for sure: Morten Traavik to the best of his abilities exposed the hidden narrative of North Korea a bit further. And once again Laibach have proven, that they master the art of overidentification like no one else. In this respect their trip to North Korea is nothing less than perfection.
Here is a bunch of good pictures from the show taken by Simon Cockerell and used with his kind permission.