[Viewpoint] ‘Arirang’ unites and divides a nation

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

[Viewpoint] ‘Arirang’ unites and divides a nation

Though Korea’s separation has continued for 60 years, the national song connecting both Koreas - unofficially and officially - is “Arirang.” In 1991, the two Koreas formed a unified team for the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. The Korean Peninsula flag and Arirang were used as the national flag and anthem to represent the two Koreas.

The unified Korean female team - Hyun Jung-hwa of the South and Li Bun-hui of the North - won the competition, and Arirang was played at the award ceremony.

The tradition of using Arirang as the song that represents both the North and the South goes back even further. The two Koreas held talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, in January 1963 to field a unified team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. At the time, the South and the North agreed to use Arirang. The plan, however, was never realized because the two Koreas failed to strike a deal to form a unified team.

Arirang and the Korean Peninsula flag were used not only at an international event, but also during friendly matches between the two Koreas.

But by 2002, Arirang was played differently in the two Koreas.

In the South, the song was reinvented amid the excitement and emotions of the World Cup soccer games. The slow, sad melody was reinterpreted by the Yoon Do Hyun Band as a rock tune. Its strong and throbbing beats made Arirang a new song for Korea’s hope and achievements.

South Koreans shouted “Daehanminguk!” and sang Arirang dozens of times a day. Many held so much welled-up pride that they felt as if they could explode.

While “Oh! Pilseung Korea” was sung to cheer on South Korea’s victories during the World Cup games, Arirang was a paean, confirming Koreans’ power and expressing faith in the amazing leap into the future that the once-poor country was making. In short, Arirang was a song for the future and for hope.

At the same time Arirang was getting a tune-up in the South, it was being reborn in Pyongyang. On April 29, 2002, a rendition of Arirang inaugurated a performance in one of the world’s largest stadiums - the May 1 Stadium. The official name for the event was “Arirang - Mass Gymnastic and Art Performance Show.” As its name might suggest, the show featured giant displays of people flashing cards and huge gymnastic performances.

About 100,000 youngsters, including kindergartners, mobilized for the show. The performance continued for four months. To get ready, students had to endure months of vigorous training. During performance periods, they only attended morning classes and rehearsed at the stadium for the show throughout the afternoon. The performance began at sunset to increase the effects of lighting.

Due to the long duration of practices and performances, more and more participants were injured. The youngsters were poorly fed while being exposed to the summer sun all day. Many suffered from malnutrition.

When I asked a North Korean escort what the students were fed during the performance, he replied, “They were at least fed bread and milk.”

It was lamentable that the children were on such meager rations while performing such a labor-intensive show, but it was even more deplorable to think about the nuance of the words “at least.”

Pyongyang’s Arirang, listed as the world’s largest mass gymnastic games in the Guinness Book of Records, is an Arirang of rage. Although the North promoted it as a can’t-miss event, it was a heartbreaking show. The UNCRC even recommended that North Korea stop violating the human rights of the children.

In 2002, the North faced a serious economic crisis. Regardless, the country still prepared for the show in order to celebrate the 90th birthday of the North’s late founder, Kim Il Sung.

During the initial preparation period, the show was first named as the “First Song of the Sun” to symbolize Kim Il Sung. Later, Kim Jong-il ordered the performance to be renamed Arirang.

“The show must demonstrate how North Korea has become the owner of its fate through a history of ordeals and turmoil and how the Korean people have achieved their dignity today,” Kim said at the time.

Arirang was a symbol of Korea’s ordeals during the Japanese colonization period, and Kim wanted to use this code to portray the problems of the regime as that of the nation.

With the extravagant performance, Kim planned to disguise present sufferings as tomorrow’s joy. The regime used the show as a narcotic to deceive its people.

Such a policy, however, can never maintain the regime and unite the people. The issue is food, not dance and song. Since the North Korean government is incapable of feeding its own people, it has to perform the shows more frequently in order to hide public complaints.

The Arirang festival returned in 2005, and after a year’s recess, it resumed in 2007 and 2008. And Monday, the North began a two-month-long Arirang festival. It is deplorable to see North Korea continuing to choose a regressive path, instead of walking on the path of hope, the path of opening up its country and reform.


*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.


by Jo Dong-ho

More in Columns

A new epicenter of social conflict

Lessons from a president

Tales of Chairman Lee

Chinese way of tackling challenges

Time to step up climate action

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now