Like the Band itself, also its leadership seems to change markedly over the years.
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 대위 tewi 大尉 (captain). She worked systematically with the band up to the 2014.09.04 concert, which brought many organizational changes into the band. Later 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 was a non-confirmed rumour that she has married a military officer. She returned to the band in the 2017.07.09 concert, but like all other band members, demoted to the 소위 sowi 少尉 (junior lieutenant) rank. MBB does no more have a concert master, and it appears to be only a section of the State Merited Chorus.
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. This evaluation is based on changes in the style and stage behaviour of the band. In the beginning the style was 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 watershed 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. To some extent he is likely to be 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 for so long that he remains a de facto influential figure as long as he is able to stay active. 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.
Until winter 2017 Kim Ki-nam regularly participated in the audience of concerts of important ensembles, and he could also be glimpsed in news videos when something diplomatically important takes place; either the state receives foreign guests, or it sends emissaries abroad. In December 2017 his presence was no longer noticed.
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 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. There are not many good photos of her. Apparently she shuns the front stage and lime light. Only her brother is constantly in front of cameras.
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 organizations, 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 was in 2014 announced as 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 and false rumours picked from sensational news paper stories from the past years.
Her greatest hit was 준마처녀 / A girl like a good horse [= works a lot], here an early version with Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. During the International Women’s Day in 2012.03.08 she performed the song with the Unhasu Orchestra. She was clearly pregnant at the time. The video appears to be currently absent from social media.
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 2012.07.06. 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 is vice director Kim Ryong-un. 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 (gone by now) about the national meeting of artists in 2014.05.17, when the announcer presented her as “모란봉악단 단장 현송월 Moranbong Aktan tanjang Hyon Song-wol”. Rodong Sinmun also uses the same title, leader. In the meeting she gave a presentation immediately after Kim Ki-nam, available here, and sat at the stage with other art directors, in the front row. She had the military rank of 대좌 taejwa 大佐 (senior colonel), above which there are only the various ranks of generals. In the picture below she sits at the left in the front row. 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 very important 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 at this occasion was announced as a vice director of MBB (모란봉악단 부단장), and beside him another vice director, 장정애 Jang Jonge.
Hwang Jin-yong’s military rank is also taejwa, senior colonel. Rodong Sinmun had a page on him in 2014.04.13 (gone by now), on the occasion when he with two other MBB 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 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. In 2014 she was introduced as the director of the Creative Section (창작실 실장 / 創作室室長) of MBB (whatever it then meant; the whole ensemble is supposed to be creative). Born in 1954. 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, but since then there have not been signs of her either as a composer or as an arranger of songs.
U’s vice director was in spring 2014 announced to be 안정호 An Jong-ho 安正浩, 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. 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 indicate that he was not as closely associated with MBB as U and Hwang, or that there was affirmative action elevating females as leaders. 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 was phased out of MBB after the watershed 2014.09.04 concert.
Photos of 안정호 An Jong-ho 安正浩 during the inspection trip to Seoul and Gangneung in 2018.01.21-22 regarding the possible concert of the Samjiyon Orchestra during the PyongChang Winter Olympics.
Rodong Sinmun named in 2014 still two additional vice directors for MB, without giving any special information on them. 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 have been in guiding the singing practices of MBB; her duties were never specified. Her military rank is 상좌 sangjwa 上佐 = colonel.
A number of leaders and creators were displayed briefly in the beginning of the 20140519 concert video:
From left to right:
우정희 U Jong-hui (composer, arranger)
안정호 An Jong-ho (composer, arranger)
차호군 Cha Ho-gun (poet)
김해성 Kim He-song (composer)
리명남 Ri Myong-nam (arranger).
This information, which is not necessarily 100% verified, from Arthur Yabe.
Another vice director named in May 2014 was 김운룡 Kim Un-ryong 金雲龍 (his name is interesting: “Golden Cloud-Dragon”). He is a composer who also has arranged a lot of songs for the Band. He has a long professional relationship with Hyon Song-wol, because a large part of the songs performed by Hyon during her singing career were composed by Kim Un-ryong. There exists a photo of him from that period, kindly provided by Arthur Yabe together with other of useful information:
He appeared also beside Hyon Song-wol in the video shot after the first Moranbong Band concert in 2012.07.06, laughing with and talking to Kim Jong-un. He thus appears to have been very closely connected with MBB in its very beginning. He is also supposed to be in a sort of old teacher’s or mentor’s position in regard to Hyon Song-wol, considering their association over two decades.
He likewise appeared during the fateful 9th national meeting of artistes in 2014.05.16 both as a speaker and as a member of the audience, sitting beside Cha Yong-mi:
Next he could be seen after the 2014.05.19 concert squeezing the hand of KJU
After the watershed 2014.09.04 concert Kim Un-ryong’s work disappeared for over a year from MBB repertoire. There are no known compositions or arrangements by him until the Worker’s Party of Korea 70th anniversary celebrations in 2015.10.11, where two new compositions by him were performed. Following this concert military promotions and various honorary titles were bestowed to the State Merited Chorus and the Moranbong Band.
Judging from photos and videos published in October 2015 the MBB leadership structure was much smaller than what was announced in May 2014. The composers / vice directors Hwang Jin-yong, An Jong-hui ja Kim Un-ryong were gone, likewise Jang Jonge. Only the leader Hyon Song-wol, composer / vice director U Jong-hui, and Cha Ho-gun were left with four young people suspected of being composers and poets.
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 the poet Cha Ho-gun 차호근.
The young gentlemen in the next row are likely to be composers. For reasons I do not know, North Korean poets sometimes appear in civilian dress, while composers usually in military one. The rule may not apply here, but I use it nevertheless, as I have nothing else to base logic on. To the extreme left we have Hyon Kyong-il 현경일, a composer of rather sweet melodies, such as 천리라도 만리라도 Chŏllirado mallirado Whether 1000 li or 10 000 li, and 우리는 만리마기수 Urinŭn mallimakisu We are mallima riders!
The other two gentlemen in the same row are not known for sure, but as Hyon Kyong-il and Sin Il-je 신일재 both debuted as composers in this specific KWP 70 anniversary concert, it would not be illogical to think of Sin Il-je sitting beside Hyon Kyong-il. The third person at the lower right hand corner is supposed to be 리명남 Ri Myong-nam, who works as an arranger of various melodies to the MBB. 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. However, excepting Hyong Kyong-il and Ri Myong-nam, whose info comes from Arthur Yabe, these other names are my guesses.
With certainty we can see that beside this civilian we have the fresh Merited Artiste, Captain Kim Yu-kyong, and beside her Ri Hui-kyong, promoted for the second time, and for a short time only, to the rank of captain. 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.
The interesting point anyway in these photos was that Kim Un-ryong was not sitting in the row of directors. Apparently also he was out of the organization of MBB by this time. The next time we meet him is not in connection with the MBB but on the inspection trip to Seoul and Gangneung in 2018.01.21-22 regarding the possible concert of the Samjiyon Orchestra during the PyongChang Winter Olympics. In the same tour were also Hyong Song-wol, now carrying the title of the leader of Samjiyon Orchestra, and the composer An Jong-ho. All these three, or at least Hyon Song-wol and Kim Un-ryong were instrumental in setting up the Moranbong Band in 2012. These three could have been moved in 2018 to a different nationally important task of creating an international spectacle with a new orchestra. A couple of recent photos of Kim Un-ryong in 2018.01.21-22 in South Korea.
A collection of Hyon Song-wol pictures taken in South Korea in January 2018 during two trips. She may be a former leader of the Moranbong Band, now something else, but the connection is still there. South Korean media focused only on her, not being much interested in the gentlemen in her company.
Here we see three very important artistic creators, who used to be responsible for arranging for the greatest performances of the Moranbong Band, now discussing with South Korean colleagues about something new.
What is left of the leadership by early 2018? We do not know. The following is pure speculation, but based on the fact that the last published independent concert by the Moranbong Band took place in 2016.02.13, i.e., two years ago by the time of writing this section. After that date MBB has performed well over 200 concerts, nearly all of them as a section of the State Merited Chorus. Occasionally also other groups have been thrown into the combination, such as the Chongbong Band, or dancers from the Wangjaesan Art Troupe, but usually it is SMC with MBB within it, practically always in the middle. There was in 2017.05.20 a concert in the Mokran House where the SMC was absent, but it was never published.
In the 2016.12.28 concert there was mixing of personnel, with SMC male musicians joining MBB for this concert. Jon He-ryon has moved to the SMC, back to MBB, always staying on the same stage, only changing her uniform and location. During the Grand Provincial Tour in autumn 2017 she played bass both for the MBB and SMC. Thus the idea that MBB has become a section of the SMC is not necessarily farfetched, and consequently it would not need a heavy leadership structure any more. Anyway, Hyon Song-wol was observed to be travelling with the Band still in autumn 2017 during the Grand Provincial Tour, so she clearly remained with the Band until she was nominated as the leader of the Samjiyon Orchestra in January 2018.
If the old leadership little by little is taken out of the Moranbong Band, what do we have left there, in addition to Hyon? We could discuss two lady singers. One of them is 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, moving then to 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 was that she worked 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’s status 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 September 2017 another veteran singer with a history in the same ensembles as Ri Ok-hua entered the MBB. 김옥주 Kim Ok-ju; 소좌 sojwa (major), moved in from the Chongbong Band for the Grand Provincial Tour that started in 2017.09.13 in Wonsan. This is while Ri Ok-hua has not been seen, while the military rank of all MBB members has been demoted down to junior lieutenant, the lowest officer rank. Thus Kim Ok-ju’s one task, in addition to being a singer, would be to serve as a senior high ranking officer helping to lead the whole light music section. This is a guess, nothing more.
We can see in these photos of Ri Ok-hua and Kim Ok-ju a clear cultural change in the ideals of beauty among elite Pyongyang ladies. In the 2009 photos both ladies displayed much rounder figures than 9 years later. They were a bit fat, and in the post- Arduous March situation it has to be seen as an element of beauty, because it implied above average luxurious life style including lot of nutrients with high energy concentrations. In all societies indications of high status and luxury in the body are considered beautiful. The fact that the current supreme leader is considered “handsome” in North Korea displays the same idea. However, among the elite ladies the ideal clearly is different nowadays, seen not only in Ri and Kim, but in all Moranbong Band members. The current ideal of beauty absolutely demands thinness, which implies that it is the same or similar as in South Korea, Japan, or Euro-America nowadays. Females appear to be leading this cultural change.
The conductor of the SMC would also be a leader of MBB, if it is the light music section of the SMC. The Band is situated in the middle, the conductor also stands in the middle, and he conducts the MBB simultaneously with the SMC.
Thus the SMC conductor is one of the leaders of the MBB. That changes occasionally, but because Ryu Hyon Ho 류현호 was the conductor during the Grand Provincial Tour, he most systematically has been leading the MBB.