MuWi Aktuell

Songs for "Great Leaders": Ideology and Political Agitation in the Music of North Korea

Prof. Keith Howard

SOAS, University of London


January 25, 2023, 14:00, Reiterkaserne, Room 150


Songs have, for more than 70 years, taken a central role in North Korean cultural production. Arguably, North Korea has gone further than anywhere else in embedding songs into the fabric of daily life. Songs form a dominant soundscape, reflecting ideology, whether in Soviet-inspired revolutionary songs of the first decade of North Korea’s existence, in the Chinese-inspired incorporation of folksongs into nationalist discourse in the second decade, or in more recent state-sanctioned pop. Songs mark political transitions. They function as newpaper editorials, promoting new policies and underpinning the monolithic unity of the leaders, the party and the people. Under North Korea’s juche ideology, "seeds" are implanted in the lyrics and in the leitmotifs of songs. Songs are then recast in multiple forms to increase the penetration of the "seeds". They become background music, festival music, and the music of mass games, but the message remains the same even when lyrics are replaced by instrumental or orchestral arrangements. This seminar takes a deep dive, providing an overview, zooming in on two periods of leadership transition – from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il in 1994-1997, and from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un in 2009-2011 – and finally looking at contemporary song production.


Prof. Keith Howard

Keith Howard is Professor Emeritus, SOAS, University of London. He was formerly Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Sydney and has held visiting professorships at Monash University, Ewha Women’s University, the University of Sydney, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, and Texas Tech University. He has also been a fellow of the National Humanities Center, North Carolina. He has written or edited 23 books, including Songs for “Great Leaders”: Ideology and Creativity in North Korean Music and Dance (2020), Presence Through Sound: Music and Place in East Asia (2020), and Transcultural Fandom and the Globalization of Hallyu (2019), as well as 170 academic articles and 209 book/music reviews. He was editorial chair of the SOAS Musicology Series (Ashgate/Routledge) for nine years (2008–2017) and founded and managed the SOASIS CD and DVD series as well as OpenAir Radio.