How are performing arts produced and distributed in North Korea?

2015.01.02

How are performing arts produced and distributed in North Korea?
[Trends] North Korean performing arts and North-South exchange


North Korean performing arts groups and production conditions

The North Korean performing arts scene encompasses numerous multi-genre, sizable projects, including large-scale group gymnastics, performance art and multi-faceted shows that comprise multiple genres such as opera, theater, dance, music, puppet theater, and popular music, with all forms combining art, music, and dance. Most of the performances fall under the jurisdiction of approximately 20 centralized troupes and about 10 regional troupes. (Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 2010) The centralized ones, including the Mansudae Art Troup, Pibada Opera Troupe, State National Art Troupe, National Theater Troupe, Pyongyang Puppet Theater Troupe, State Symphony Orchestra of the DPRK, National Circus Troupe, Film and Broadcast Music Group, Korean People’s Army Ensemble, and Korean People’s Army Ground Force Ensemble—each have an exclusive venue in Pyongyang. Regional troupes such as the Hamgyeongnam-do Art Troupe and Kaesong City Art Troupe also have exclusive regional venues that serve as their base. (Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 2011) For example, the all-female musical group the Moranbong Band, which emerged with the rise of Kim Jong-un, has sparked a certain craze for popular music.

Moranbong Band performance ⓒ Rodong Sinmun screenshot

Opening scene of <Sanullim>(2010), a light comedy ⓒ Tongil Sinbo screenshot

Moranbong Band performance ⓒ Rodong Sinmun screenshot Opening scene of <Sanullim>(2010), a light comedy ⓒ Tongil Sinbo screenshot

North Korean performance troupes, however, have a distinctly state-controlled character, and are enabled through government organizations controlled entirely by the state. There are no private performance troupes, and therefore there is no "performance market" as there is in South Korea. This is perhaps inevitable, given that the overall nature of North Korea’s performing arts world prohibits the free movement of individuals or troupes, from production all the way to audience reception . Thus, concepts that have begun to find a place in South Korea, such as theater management or arts management, do not exist in North Korea. (Lee Seung-yeop, 2001)

Regardless, the performing arts are recognized as an important national asset in North Korea, and through the active support of the state, production and distribution are thriving. Performances such as the Moranbong Band’s Pyongyang concert of April 2014, held at the 4.25 Cultural Hall, or the nationwide tours of the comedy show <Sanullim>(2010) and the play <Remember Today>(2011) by the National Theater Troupe are all examples of how, through active publicity campaigns and marketing to tourists, such shows managed to provoke an "audience craze." For example, the comedy show <Sanullim>, attracted audiences totaling 210,000 for 180 shows in 2010 alone, and for its 500th show in December 2012, it set a record with 400,000. (Choson Sinbo, 2012) This was possible because Kim Jong-il, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, saw the show a whopping four times, thus enabling the aforementioned record. Of course, in North Korea, the production and distribution of the performing arts happens under strict guidance and regulation. Thus, an "audience craze" in North Korea is characteristically very different from the commercial success we have in South Korea. North Korea’s performance art is regulated throughout the entire process, from creation to consumption and thus can be categorized as a political activity.

The creation of performance pieces and the process of putting them on stage

North Korean performance art goes through the following process: the piece is written, and under the director’s direction, actors perform their respective roles to complete it. What’s worth nothing, however, is that production and distribution happen separately. Production happens within the troupe itself and in the venue, while distribution occurs separately through an organization called the National Arts Performance Operations Agency Considered in the context of the film industry, it’s a structure where there are multiple production companies, but there is a monopoly on distribution―one organization handling everything.

In the North Korean performing arts, not only are production and distribution kept strictly separate, but the creative and production processes are also divided. In theater, for example, the writer takes care of writing the actual script first, and the directors and staff take the completed play for the staging process. This kind of "drama-centered" approach is also apparent in the structure of 「About the Art of Theater」(1988), written by Kim Jong-il, where Chapter 2, "Theater Art," is followed by Chapter 3, "The Form of a Theater Stage." (Park Yeong-jeong, 2007) After the creative process, with the written piece serving as a foundation, production is brought to the stage, and the process of creating a performance production is complete.

2012년 중앙예술보급사가 국가예술공연운영국으로 개명 ⓒ조선중앙텔레비전 캡처

It was in such a way that ta "principle of precedence” in creativity was institutionalized in the North Korean performance arts scene through a process of deliberation and structural review in the early 1970s. In February 1971, under orders from Kim Jong-il, the National Board for the Review of Performance Pieces was established within the culture ministry, and from then on North Korean movies and theater pieces all had to undergo inspection by the board to be eligible for production.(Moonye Publishing, 1989) The ultimate goal of establishing and running this national board is to ensure that the creative process properly aligns with the policies and directions of the state. In its method, the board isn’t simply playing the part of the jury with a stamp of approval. Rather, under the name of "collective wisdom," the regulations enable the board to actively intervene in the creative process of the artist. Ultimately, what this signifies is centralization, confirming that the establishment and operation of the National Board for the Review of Performance Pieces enables the Party to regulate, through policy, North Korean performance arts.

When a piece is selected for the stage, the piece is then prepared by every art troupe, with directors leading the process, at a rapid pace. Because most troupes have their own venue, which usually runs like a production theater and has the architectural ability to fit a number of genres, one can imagine how it’s possible to race through the process of adapting the piece for the stage. Besides the pieces of special individual troupes, such as foreign troupes invited to North Korea, or outbound performances of North Korean troupes, everything is under the jurisdiction of the Korean People’s Arts Exchange Society(President Dong Gyeong-su). Large-scale gymnastics exercises or special performances such as <Arirang> fall under the authority of a separate organization called the Arirang National Preparatory Board (Managing Director, Kim Geum-ryong).

The distribution of performance pieces and audience structure

While the performance pieces are written and prepared for the stage at the respective venue of an individual art troupe, a separate organization takes care of publicity and marketing. Even up until the early 1970s, production and distribution in the performing arts in North Korea, much like South Korea, happened at the level of individual troupes and venues. But since the establishment of the Central Art Propagation Organization by Kim Jong-il in November 1972, this organization has been responsible for marketing and ticket sales.. In June 2012, Kim Jong-il renamed the Central Art Propagation Organization the National Arts Performance Operations Agency, thereby raising the status of the organization (Korean Central Television, 2012). In North Korea, the distribution of performances happens under Juche thought (North Korea’s ideology of “self-reliance”)and the comprehensive regulation of the state. The organization that corresponds to the National Board for the Review of Performance Pieces in the area of content creation can be said to be the National Arts Performance Operations Agency.

2012, The Central Art Propagation Organization is renamed the National Arts Performance Operations Agency ⓒ Korean Central Television screen capture

2012, The Central Art Propagation Organization is renamed the National Arts Performance Operations Agency ⓒ Korean Central Television screen capture

2012, The Central Art Propagation Organization is renamed the National Arts Performance Operations Agency ⓒ Korean Central Television screen capture

The National Arts Performance Operations Agency is responsible not just for the programming at the various venues, performance publicity , and ticket sales, but also for managing data related to the performance. The Programming Department in the Agency collaborates with central and regional art troupes to create daily, weekly, and monthly schedules for policy implementation. In other words, the agency oversees even venues’ individual programming. Performances are advertised through posters, newspapers, and broadcasting, but because the performances lack a competitive market or a truly commercial nature, advertisements mostly serve the purpose of conveying basic information about the performance.

The Area Distribution Center in the National Arts Performance Operations Agency is responsible for ticket sales. There are distribution centers all over the country, with about 10 locations in Pyongyang, including Junggu, Dongdaewon, Seoseong, Seongyo, Pyeongcheon, Moranbong, Botonggang, Mangyeongdae, and Nakranggu. Thus, because North Korean performance venues don’t have their own ticket booths, without a ticket for admission purchased in advance, attempting to purchase on the spot might mean that you will not be able to see the show. In this way, whether the performance is free or has an admission fee, because tickets are sold in advance by the Central Art Propagation Organization, when it’s time for a performance, audience members rush in as though mobilized in a group, and seats fill up. The tickets, as befitting a socialist society, are mostly sold in batches to large groups (a way to mobilize audiences), but there are also individual sales. Recent "popular" performances such as the Moranbong Band live concerts provoked intense competition for tickets, and the percentage of individual sales is surmised to have been considerably large (Rodong Sinmun, March 25–27, 2014). The National Arts Performance Operation Agency is also responsible for designing and printing the tickets as well as the "performance list" (a leaflet with information about the performance).

The task of managing performance-related data consists of collecting, recording, storing and managing scripts, musical scores, dance performance records and stage art. Moreover, the National Arts Performance Operations Agency also preserves and manages the pamphlets used for a performance, major costume pieces, and accessories. Performance data stored at the National Arts Performance Operations Agency’s archives is reported to have played a major role in recent reincarnations of pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Pibada Operate Troupe’s opera <Hongrumong> and the National Theater Troupe’s comedy <Sanullim>. (Korea Central Television, 2012)

Performance scripts archived at the National Arts Performance Operations Agency ⓒ Korea Central Television screen capture

Script of opera <Hongrumong> ⓒ Korea Central Television screen capture

Performance scripts archived at the National Arts Performance Operations Agency ⓒ Korea Central Television screen capture Script of opera <Hongrumong> ⓒ Korea Central Television screen capture
 

Performance leaflets archived at the National Arts Performance Operations Agency

Performance leaflets archived at the costume preservation room (Right) ⓒKorea Central Television screen capture

Performance leaflets archived at the National Arts Performance Operations Agency (left) and the costume preservation room (Right) ⓒKorea Central Television screen capture

Taking the above into consideration, it’s possible to claim that in North Korea, the production and distribution of performance art happens under a comprehensive national system. If individual troupes are responsible for the creation of apiece and its direction on stage, the National Arts Performance Operations Agency is responsible for compiling the program, for marketing ticket sales and distribution, and for the management of all related material and data. The responsibilities of the National Arts Performance Operations Agency can be said to cover the functions of both the performance planning agencies and art data centers of South Korea. This comprehensive system enables "focused support" for pieces that have already been selected (a North Korean-style selection and focus), and makes it easy for the state to manage the performance arts, but at the price of sacrificing the creative variety of individual troupes. It is therefore reasonable to claim that the system is fundamentally limited.

ⓒPark Yeong-jeong





◈ References

- 「The 500th showing of light comedy <Sanullim> with about 400,000 audience members」 (Choson Sinbo, October 5, 2012)
- 「Capital Pyongyang prospers through the audience craze over Moranbong Band shows」 (Rodong Sinmun, March 25, 2014)
- 「Moranbong Band shows successful day by day, with audience craze intensifying」 (Rodong Sinmun, March 27, 2014]
- Moonye Publishing, 『The Genius of Art 14-The Enlightenment of Art』 (Pyongyang: Moonye Publishing, 1989)
- Park Yeong-jeong, 『Survey and Analysis of North Korean Theater/Drama』 (Seoul: Theater and Humanity, 2007)
- Broadcasting program, 「The Immortal Leadership Embedded in Our System of Arts Distribution: National Arts Performance Operations Agency」 (Korea Central Television, November 7, 2012)
- Lee Seung-yeop, 『Theater Management and Performance Production』, (Seoul: Yeoksanet , 2001)
- Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 『Comprehensive Survey of North Korean Culture and Physical Training Facilities』, (Seoul: Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 2010)
- Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 『Comprehensive Survey of North Korean Art Troupes』, (Seoul: Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, 2011)
 

Author

Park Yeong-jeong_Researcher, Korea Culture and Tourism Institute
Park Yeong-jeong_Researcher, Korea Culture and Tourism Institute

Park Yeong-jeong researches culture policy at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute. He received his doctorate in 1997 at Konkuk University with his dissertation, "Research on the Theater Criticism of Yu Chi-jin." He has published various books and papers on 20th century Korean theater history, and has also conducted research on North Korean theater. Published titles include 『The Historic Expansion of Yu Chi-jin’s Theory of Theater』 (Thaehaksa) and 『Survey and Analysis of North Korean Theater/Drama』 (Theater and Humanity).