When the Moranbong Band was first introduced in summer 2012, all we knew about it’s leader was one sentence in the announcement that KCNA gave in 2012.07.07 after the first concert of the band: Kim Jong-un praised “Sonu Hyang Hui, leader of the band, for her splendid directing”.
What she did was that she acted as the Concert Master of the orchestra and directed it on stage. She also had the military rank of tewi (captain). The last full concert where we have seen her took place in 2014.09.04, though she briefly appeared on stage also in a news reel about a concert given by the State Merited Orchestra on the occasion of a visit of a diplomatic delegation from Cuba in 2015.09.07. After that there have been no news about her. There is only a non-confirmed rumour that she has married a military officer and if she is still playing, it takes place in an unknown orchestra, whose concerts are not published in the media. Since her departure, MBB has not had a concert master.
MBB is more than we see on stage. It is part of the state ideological administrative structure. It is an entity under the joint control of the North Korean Ministry of Culture and the Party’s Publicity and Information Department. The latter is known in practically all English language writing as the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which together with the Administration and Guidance department forms the two central towers through which power from the top flows downwards through the party, state and military bureaucracies.
Thus the supreme leader Kim Jong-un is in a structural sense also part of the administrative leadership of the band. At least in the early stages he also seems to have been very closely involved with the band. MBB is supposed to have been established by him in spring 2012, and he took deep personal interest in the style, rehearsals, and programme of the band. In a rather speculative Japanese blog Ookita Shoori reports how KJU’s personal guidance could take place in the middle of the night, at dawn, in Sundays and public holidays, in addition to ordinary week day guidance. KJU did not sleep until the programme for the next practicing session was ready, and if an idea for a new song was slow in coming, he was not able to eat properly. Rehearsals tended to take place every day, even during trips in out of the way places in mountains, and the Marshal watched closely also personal voice and instrument training of individual musicians, the training happening right in front of him. It is said that Ryu Jina once was forced to take a leave because of exhaustion. Whether this is true or not we do not know. My guess is that this could have been the situation in 2012, when MBB was Kim Jong-un’s new creation, but he has since been busy elsewhere. My guess is based on changes in the style and stage behaviour of the band. In the beginning the style was very fresh, innovative, and creative. From 2013 onwards there has appeared increased formalization of the band, which pointed towards deepening bureaucratic management, increased discipline, and moving of musicians and singers to other locations. Definite changes appear to have taken place in winter 2013-2014, when the band was absent from publicity for 6 months, and in summer 2014, during which the creativity of the band became visibly stifled, as seen in the 20140904 concert. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un has continuously supported the band, attested by photos in many occasions.
The highest art related bureaucrat in the North Korean administrative structure is without doubt 김기남 Kim Ki-nam 金起南. By now (March 2017) it is doubful to what extent he is retired, because his age is now 88 or 89 years old, but he has been the North Korean propaganda chief in the position of Korean Workers’ Party Secretary of Publicity and Information. He was born in 1929, has received education in the Soviet Union in his youth, and since 1966 became associated with Kim Jong-il in propaganda, film industry and general art management. He has presided over all media, press and culture in the country for several decades by now. North Korea Leadership Watch has a short biography of him.
Kim Ki-nam still regularly participates in the audience of the concerts of important ensembles, and he can also be glimpsed in news videos when something diplomatically important takes place; either the state receives foreign guests, or it sends emissaries abroad. Thus, he still seems to take active part in the administration, though to what extent it is concrete guidance is now known. It is said that during 2014-2015 Kim Jong-un’s younger sister 김여정 Kim Yo-jong 金與正 has gradually become the de facto head of the Publicity and Information Department. She was born in September 1987, meaning that she will turn 30 in 2017. 38North has a good story about this change of leadership. There is no knowledge whether she has anything practical to do with MBB, or any personal interest in the music scene. However, at least indirectly she, and the younger staff under her, are supposed to be ultimately responsible for the development of the musical scene in North Korea, as well as the publishing activities in the internet. They might be well advised to increase the quality of concert videos placed in YouTube and Youku.
No good portrait photos of sister Kim exist, only obscure screengrabs from news videos. Apparently she shuns the front stage and lime light.
Somewhere far down the administrative hierarchy exists the Moranbong Band as an organization. Here we get back to the level of artists. The organization is responsible for creating new productions, arranging logistical questions, marketing, politicking with other North Korean actors, etc. There probably are personnel taking care of sound and lightning. Clothing and other equipment have to be arranged and maintained. There are technical engineers, car drivers, security personnel, and probably also someone who makes tea and runs errands. We do not know how large the whole organization actually is, but it certainly is much larger than the 11-12 musicians and 6-9 singers. 현송월 Hyon Song-wol 玄松月 is the leader of this larger unit.
Who is Hyon Song-wol? She is one of the most popular singers in the history of the North Korean musical scene, famous for her hits during the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as 장군님과해병들 将軍与水兵 General and sailors with Wangjaesan Light Music Band in this video.
Chinese Wikipedia tells that she is a graduate of Pyongyang University of Music and Dance and that she was born in 1972, which would make her 23 years old during the time of the video above; the English Wiki used to give her birth year as 1983, which would have made her 12 years old in 1995. That apparently false information has disappeared by now (March 2017), but the article there is still full of unnecessary rumours picked from sensational news paper stories from the past years.
Another well-known hit was 준마처녀 / A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed, here an early version with Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, and here a version with Unasu Orchestra, dating from the International Women’s Day in 2012.03.08. She was clearly pregnant at the time.
She has also several other songs in Youtube, found best when searched with all the different ways of writing her name.
Four months after the International Women’s Day concert Hyon again appears on a video. This is a news clip about MB’s first concert in 2012.07.07. She was among the audience, seated just behind KJU, and can be glimpsed on a few occasions, especially at 00:54, 08:48, 08:54, 09:16, and 09:56.
She appeared also at the end of the performance, when KJU gave his congratulations and guidance to people related with it.
It thus appears that Hyon was closely associated with the Moranbong Band from the beginning, not as a performer, but rather in a managerial post, and probably already at this time as the leader of the whole project. She knew the North Korean musical business thoroughly, and was a perfect expert in guiding the new group of young female musicians. I do not know what is the North Korean policy on maternity leaves, but she apparently was too important to stay at home for long. Nevertheless, these are only reasoned guesses; no confirmation anywhere. The bespectacled colonel standing beside her answered something to KJU, and was probably also somehow connected with the band. The tall white-haired figure in grey civilian suit in the extreme left is Kim Ki-nam, always present when something important related with art happens.
Hyon’s status as the leader of Moranbong Band was confirmed in a news video about the national meeting of artists in 2014.05.17, where at 20:47 you can hear the announcer presenting her as “모란봉악단 단장 현송월 Moranbong Aktan tanjang Hyon Song-wol”. Rodong Sinmun also uses the same title. In the meeting she gave a presentation immediately after Kim Ki-nam, and sat at the stage with other art directors, in the front row. She had the military rank of taejwa 대좌 大佐 (senior colonel), above which there are only the various ranks of generals. In the picture below she sits at the extreme left. Beside her there is an unknown gentleman, and beside him the empty chair of Kim Ki-nam while he was giving his opening address. Hyon thus sat at a fairly central place.
Right behind Hyon sits Ryu Jina, who already held the title of Merited Artiste 공훈배우 konghun peu. She gave a speech in the second day of the meeting, in 2014.05.17.
Beside Ryu sits 황진영 Hwang Jin-yong, who in 2014 was announced as a vice director of MBB (모란봉악단 부단장).
His military rank is also taejwa. Rodong Sinmun had a page on him in 2014.04.13, on the occasion when he with two other MB leaders was awarded the title of Labor Hero (로력영응 / 労力英雄) in 2014.04.12. He already held the title of People’s Artist. Born in 1959, he graduated from the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, with composition as his major. He worked as a musician at the National Symphony Orchestra, and has created music for instance for the Pochonbo Electonic Ensemble before joining the Moranbong Band. For instance Tangiyŏ yŏngwŏni kŭdewa hamge We’ll be forever with you, Party flag in the 2014.03.17 concert is his creation, as well as Urinŭn tangsinbagge morŭnda We will follow you only and Widehan kŭ irŭmŭn sŭngriye kichi His great name is a flag of victory. Early MBB played lots of his compositions, but during 2015 his compositions became sparse in the concerts of the band, and he may no more be employed there.
Another leader is 우정희 / U Jong-hui, who also was nominated Labor Hero. Her earlier title is Merited Artiste (공훈예술가 / 功勲芸術家). She does not appear to be at the stage during the meeting, but Rodong Sinmun’s introduction is here. In 2014 she was introduced as the director of the Creative Section (창작실 실장 / 創作室室長) of MB (whatever it then meant; the whole ensemble is supposed to be creative). Born in 1954, and also her military rank is taejwa 대좌 大佐. After graduating from the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, she created music for the Mansudae Art Group, Wangjesan LMO, and Pochonbo EE, before joining MB. For instance Inminŭn ilphyŏn dansim Single-minded people, played often during spring 2014, is her creation, as well as Kŭdenŭn ŏmŏni You are mother, Chosŏnye him Might of Korea, and Insengye yŏngkwang Glory of life. In 2016 U was still active with the band.
U’s vice director was in spring 2014 announced to be 안정호 An Jong-ho, with the same military rank, born in 1958. He is the third MB leader receiving the title of Labor Hero; being already a People’s Artist, and Rodong Sinmun’s page on him is here. It is curious that he was placed under U, because he has composed as many very famous songs as Hwang Jin-yong, and clearly more than U, who herself is a heavy weight on her own right. It may only indicate that he was not as closely associated with MBB as U and Hwang. An studied in the same university as U and Hwang, and travelled through all the same orchestras as U. For instance another spring 2014 hit, Inminye hwanwe People’s joy was made by him, as well as Janakena wŏnsunim senggak We think of the marshal day and night and Uri ŏpŏi Our father. MBB performed many of his songs in practically all of its concerts during 2012-2014, but after 2014 his songs evaporated from the repertoire. I suspect that like Hwang, also An has been phased out of MBB.
Much of the creation and arrangement of Moranbong Band songs was in 2012-2015 in the hands of people, who started their musical careers well in the Kim Il-song era in the 1980s. New people have been brought in gradually as composers and lyricists, though it cannot be said that they are better than Hwang, U and An.
Rodong Sinmun named in 2014 still two additional vice directors for MB, without giving any special information on them. One of them is 김운룡 Kim Un-ryong. He is a composer who also arranges a lot of songs of the Band. I have no verified photo of him, but I suspect that the following ones are his pictures, taken from a news video in 20151026.
Another vice director mentioned by Rodong Sinmun is 장정애 Jang Jonge. Very little is known about her. We only have her photo from the May 2014 National Meeting of Artists. Her responsibility may be in guiding the singing practices of MB. Her military rank is 상좌 sangjwa 上佐 = colonel.
It may be necessary to add here another lady, namely 리옥화 Ri Ok-hua 李玉花. Her military rank is 중좌 jungjwa 中佐 = lieutenant colonel, and she has the title of 공훈배우 konghun peu = Merited Artiste. She has made a long career, starting perhaps in 2005 or earlier in the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, Pochonbo “Moranbong”, Moranbong Chorus, and Unhasu Orchestra. In the Moranbong Band she has performed on stage only twice, in 20140904 and 20161228, but she has been sighted twice in 2013 videos, travelling with the Band, wearing the same outfit, and participating in the same activities. This was noticed by one keen observer, and reported at the Moranbong Band Fan Page in Facebook in 2016.03.16. There is also the false rumour that I reported in the Forum Page in 2016.07.14 that sometime in winter 2015-2016 there had been a traffic accident involving the Band, Ri Ok-hua included. Even though the information turned out to be false, I find it intriguing that Ri’s name was mentioned; the rumour originates in North Korea. The impression is that she works permanently in the MBB organization, even though she has made only two stage appearances. Being occupied in some kind of training or guiding role, related with singing, would be a logical conclusion, especially in light of the large numbers of young short term singers to the band. Considering Ri is thus based on indirect evidence, but I think it is sufficiently strong to add her here as a quite probable member of the administrative hierarchy.
In 26 October 2015 after the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Korean Worker’s Party were over, various honours were bestowed on the State Merited Chorus and Moranbong Band. In a video from the event a few leading personnel can be spotted.
The ladies in the front row are Director Hyon Song-wol (left) and vice director/composer U Jong-hui (right). The gentleman in the middle is probably 김운룡 Kim Un-ryong. That would be logical, as he is not only officially announced in 2014 as a vice director, but also his compositions and arrangements are constant elements in the Band’s repertoire. Kim is supposed to be somewhere in his 40s, which would also fit. The veteran composers Hwang Jin-yong and An Jong-ho were not present in the event, which also indicates that they were gone by 2015.
The young gentlemen in the next row could be composers. For reasons I do not know, North Korean poets often appear in civilian dress, while composers in military one. The rule may not apply here, but I use it nevertheless, as I have nothing else. Thus they could have names like Sin Il-je 신일재 and Hyong Kyong-il 현경일, who both debuted as composers in this specific KWP birthday concert, or Sol The-song 설태성, who has written several songs for MBB in 2013-2014, and is thus supposed to be a little older. The civilian in the next row could be Ri Ji-song 리지성, who also made his debut in 2015, and altogether four songs with his lyrics were performed in this 20151011 concert.
With certainty we can see that beside him we have the fresh Merited Artiste, Captain Kim Yu-kyong, and beside her Captain Ri Hui-kyong. Behind them, if I am not mistaken, we have Jon He-ryon, Yu Un-jong and Choe Jong-im. Pictures from this event of the other MBB ladies are in the Band Members page.