Hands up, Pyongyang

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-30 19:38:02

Controversial band Laibach brings a different sound to North Korea

Members of Laibach stand in Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang, in August. Photo: Courtesy of Jørund F Pedersen

Laibach, an avant-garde rock'n'roll band from Slovenia, flew to the capital of North Korea to perform at a special event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Korean Peninsula's liberation from Japanese colonization recently.

It may be hard to believe, yet it's true. On August 19 and 20, the band held concerts at the Ponghwa Theatre and Kum Song Music School. A total of 2,000 people were in attendance: officials, diplomats, foreign embassy staff, students, teachers and Laibach fans from the West.

A band that has been criticized by many for their "fascist" themes and use of Nazi imagery, Laibach shared their experiences in North Korea with the Global Times.

First date

"We understood that they did not know much about Laibach - if anything at all - before we went to North Korea, so we decided to adapt our program and move it closer to their understanding by performing something that makes sense to them," the band explained in an e-mail.

"Closer to their understanding" meant changing up the band's usual repertoire. In addition to some of the band's usual numbers, they also performed songs from The Sound of Music and a local song, albeit with a Laibach twist.

The band explained that they had originally decided to perform three local songs, but because the two of the songs had been changed too much, the band was only permitted to perform the folk song "Arirang."

"They are extremely sensitive about their own culture," the band commented.

And what was the response from the audience?

"Most [North] Koreans never heard such music before, so they didn't really know what to think about it. But they reacted politely, applauding after every song, and at the end of the show they gave us a standing ovation," Laibach wrote, adding that they felt the audience may have just been happy because the concert was finally over. According to the band, a Syrian ambassador later told them he thought the concert was "too loud - almost like torture."

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II is a special anniversary for most of the world, including North Korea. Yet the band said they were very impressed with the low-key way the North Koreans celebrated.

"There was no military parade whatsoever to mark the anniversary, only fireworks and people dancing gracefully on the streets and in the parks of Pyongyang," Laibach wrote.

Arriving in Pyongyang on August 14 and leaving a week later, Laibach's time in North Korea was short. Yet the band has still spent more time in the country than most people around the world who are only able to judge the nation through second-hand media reports.

Having read such reports before, the band discovered that while North Korea was basically as described in Western media, the nation had far more to offer than what is usually described in the papers.  

The band explained that they had a hard time finding so-called "Western characteristics" such as cynicism, irony, and vulgarity in the behavior of the people they met. Instead there was "only sincere modesty, kindness, pride and respect."

Additionally, the capital, which had been almost destroyed during the Korean War in the 1950s, was now a clean, modern and colorful city.

"It definitely is a 'pop art' city...it looks like it has been entirely designed by Jeff Koons," the band wrote.

Association with fascism

Formed in the beginning of the 1980s, Laibach has long stirred controversy with the military uniforms and Nazi imagery that can be seen on some of their album covers or at performances. 

"We are fascists as much as Hitler was an artist" is how the band often responds to such criticism. 

Laibach admitted that they once wore Nazi uniforms for a short avant-garde film.

"We did it only because everybody was saying that we are [always] wearing Nazi uniforms," they explained, adding that the military uniforms they wore for their Occupied Europe Tour were actually early 1980s Yugoslav Army uniforms. 

The man behind the curtain

Though Laibach had long wished to perform in North Korea, it was Morten Traavik, a Norwegian artist, that made the trip possible.

Having previously traveled to North Korea as a tourist, in 2008 Traavik decided return to the country to carry out an art project. Traveling around, he posed at several famous locations with a disco ball as a test to see if Western culture was really banned as many people in the West say. Since then the artist has acted as a constant line of communication between Norway and North Korea.

Years of cooperation has built a foundation of trust between him and North Korean officials.

He even joked that he is now seen as a "golden goose" there, since he is able to bring so many foreigners into the country, while also taking North Koreans to visit the outside world. 

"I think the community is happy to work with me. They don't want to share me with other organizations or communities," Traavik told the Global Times.

Seeing himself a person who "worked internationally off the main road," Traavik said that what he finds the most interesting about going to North Korea is the difference "between what the stereotype is and what is actually happening on the ground."

"There are also other countries like North Korea, which have military dictatorship, more or less like a third world economy. But there are no other countries that get the same kind of really hateful or negative press like North Korea does," he explained. 

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