When one thinks of apocalyptic industrial electronic rock grunted in German while the performers march around in pseudo-fascist uniforms, North Korea is probably the last thing that comes to mind. But in 2015, the Slovenian band Laibach became the first western rock act to play North Korea.
Previous western musical acts to perform in Pyongyang include Maestro Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic in 2008 and Roger Clinton (Bill’s younger brother) who subjected a North Korean audience to his attempts at blues rock in 1999.
The Laibach concert is the only such event to take place under current North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and is notable as Laibach is an anti-establishment act even in the west.
Formed in 1980s Yugoslavia, the band’s fascistic imagery did not prove popular even in the highly diverse and open Yugoslavian music scene of the day. After relocating to the UK and touring throughout Europe, Laibach achieved cult-status but never became mainstream as their 1990s German clone Rammstein later did.
Whereas the New York Philharmonic and Roger Clinton visits were organised via high channels of government, the Laibach performance was organised by independent Norwegian film maker Morten Traavik as more of an artistic and inter-communal statement than an overt geo-political one.
Laibach’s performance in North Korea was slightly more restrained than their European performances. The concert featured cover versions of everything from The Beatles song ‘Across The Universe’ to songs from The Sound of Music, in addition to some original material.
The concert elicited many more questions than answers about the mysterious nature of North Korea. Why would a rock band that is one part anti-establishment, another part radically individualistic and one part perversely pseudo-fascistic be welcomed in a tightly controlled communist society that maintains little artistic contact with the outside world?
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek hypothesises that North Korea and Liabach both presented each other with un-conscious contradictions. North Korea is considered to be an ultra-communist society. However, Žižek correctly points out that unlike Stalin and Mao who were ultra-atheists, North Korea has embraced a kind of super-natural interpretation of state leadership, where the Kim dynasty is one part secular but one part divine.
Likewise, he postulated that Laibach presents a contradiction to left-wing European libertarians who on the one hand support their free speech but on the other, are embarrassed by Laibach’s neo-Nazi imagery.
To be fair, Žižek understands that Laibach is being ironic and mocking about fascist imagery and in doing so, exposes suppressed totalitarian tendencies within liberal Europe. He makes an accurate point, but at the same time, one must also acknowledge that many people whose families died in the fight against fascism, would feel uncomfortable with the imagery the band employs.
Still though, ultra-libertarian or neo-fascism (ironic or otherwise) are neither ideologies that have any presence in North Korea.
Laibach’s members spoke highly of their reception in North Korea in spite of the fact that the style of music was literally completely foreign to North Korean ears.
The 2015 concert remains one of the most curious anomalies in a country that is something of a global anomaly. The phrase ‘stranger things have happened’ may well have been designed to describe such an occasion.