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Ask a North Korean: What is It Like to Be a Musician in North Korea?

Today’s question asks what is it like to be a musician in North Korea.

Jin — who was born and raised in North Korea and lived there until she defected in 2014 — writes about her experiences as a musician and the sacrifices that artists must make in the DPRK to create music while trying to survive day to day.

Got a question for Jin? Email it to with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

No matter what you’re looking at, if you’re too close to it, you can’t see it well. 

The realities of North Korea didn’t seem so stark when I was living there, but having escaped, I see everything relating to the country much more clearly. The more I look, the harder it becomes to get rid of the idea that the DPRK regime is a truly pathetic system.

Nowadays the whole world is freely moving and communicating across borders. In particular, cultural ties are expanding at an unbelievable speed. The South Korean boy band BTS, for example, now enjoys millions of fans all over the world, and its influence is truly impressive.

Artists who have become well-known and recognized by the public receive the honor and wealth they deserve, which is only natural. But the reality in the DPRK is much different.

In North Korea, musicians are known as “trumpeters” and represent the voice of the government. They convey the intentions of the North Korean government to citizens through music.

However, this does not mean such music is an effective propaganda tool. Singers cannot create melodies as they wish, and dancers cannot move freely. This means there is little space to create new or diverse music.

While regular citizens take part in so-called self-criticism sessions every Saturday, professional artists have to do so three times a week. The reason is that musicians have a public-facing job, and so their work must reflect the aims of the North Korean authorities.

It’s difficult to understand how tough this life is if you haven’t experienced it. I think it’s harder to come up with things to say at these regular self-criticism sessions than to create beautiful music.

What’s more, a musician’s monthly salary is barely enough to buy a couple pounds (1 kilogram) of rice, and this makes it difficult to continue making music.

North Korean young pioneers performing during a celebration for the 60th anniversary of the regime | Image: Eric Lafforgue (Sept. 2008)


I started studying music at an early age, learning to sing and play the piano. But until I became a professional, I was considered nothing more than a thankless child sponging off my widowed mother. 

In reality, I had no choice but to be such an undutiful child. I wanted to drop my student status and work as a musician to pay back my mother, who paid for my education. But I did not receive any income from working as a musician.

Instead, I once received some cabbages and radishes to make kimchi in autumn, but the quality of the vegetables was so poor that my mother told me to just give them to someone who needed them more. I didn’t even take them home.

Another time I received 15 kg of corn, and laughing, my mother said we should make popcorn. I was so happy at that moment, but now that I think about it, my mother must have just been saying that for my benefit.

Most musicians end up giving up in order to do business in the market or make the most of their majors by teaching private lessons, even though this is considered illegal. 

If you hide from the watchful gaze of the government to teach privately but end up getting caught in a crackdown, you will either be punished or have to bribe the officials to get away with it.

Despite these difficulties, there are people who truly love being musicians. Such people sacrifice everything to keep making music. They go to work, even if it means they have to go hungry because they cannot afford adequate food on their meager salaries.  

They are conscious of the eyes of the audience members and wear makeup and the best clothes they can find for their performances.

But you would be left speechless if you visited their homes. Their pajamas are so worn that they have holes, and they don’t even have the money to buy a belt, instead tying pieces of cloth around their waists. Their shoes have so many signs of repair that it’s impossible to tell how long they’ve been wearing them.  

Yet they can’t seem to let go of music. Whenever I saw musicians like that, I felt so much respect for them, while at the same time, my heart broke. If the government allowed their true love of art to blossom, they would surely perform so much more wonderfully and have happy musical careers.

However, they had no choice but to perform on holidays and other special occasions when authorities ordered them to, and only played didactic propaganda tunes in accordance with predetermined programs. 

A North Korean boy playing clarinet in Sept. 2018 | Image: NK News


Everyone has their own strengths. A country can develop when it makes good use of people’s individual strengths, and countries that do not will only regress. 

North Korea is an underdeveloped country. If citizens cannot even make a living, how can they ever get jobs that make the most of our strengths? This is the biggest concern of North Koreans. 

As a result, many people go their whole lives without ever knowing what they are good at. People are relieved to just get through the day without starving and consider eating or dressing a little better than others a success. The government is to blame for putting people in this position.

I cannot help but hope that the day will come when countless North Korean artists who are holding out with pure love for music in this dreadful situation can escape that hell and create and play music freely in harmony with the rest of the world.

Source : NKNews