Despite a general mistaken belief, North Korea has not banned karaoke. Quite the contrary, people from every walk of life enjoy karaoke – it is now firmly embedded in the local culture and gained unique local traditions. Following up our stories about karaoke in Asia, today, we are going to “visit” the most isolated country – North Korea.
Karaoke bars are often subject to bans and restrictions in North Korea as the government believes this entertainment is antisocial and ulcerating. However, it largely concerns “illegal” bars in the country’s capital – Pyongyang. Restaurants, hotels, and other places of this sort hardly ever have appropriate karaoke equipment so they often avoid the sanctions. The reason for closing down such clubs is quite simple – there are too many “loud” foreigners and lavish drinking that disrepute the bars.
Meanwhile, the problem of alcohol abuse goes far beyond the ideological crusade for the morality of the NK’s citizens. It is associated with Asian ideas about spending time in karaoke as it is. The Asians, being emotionally restrained during the weekdays, can and know how to vent themselves on Friday at the scale that goes into legends. It is a good thing that karaoke boxes, so typical for Asia, are safely hidden from the others’ eyes, so nobody is embarrassed about customers’ behaviour.
The abnormal behaviour of the hammered visitors was the reason why the Philippines banned Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” at karaoke bars. Somehow this song evokes aggression in the customers at such places and has many times led to knife-fights. When yet another clash ended up with a tragedy, the song was removed from the catalogues. Vietnamese authorities stepped even further and prohibited serving alcohol in karaoke bars because of the abusive guests’ actions.
The place where karaoke was completely banned from the early 1990s till mid-2000s was Malaysia, specifically its several most conservative states. Only in 2005, this ban was partially lifted. “Partially” implies that only the clubs that guaranteed all their customers would be married couples were licensed so that the visitors were not led into possible temptations. The repertoire, respectively, was severally censored – the visitors were expected to sing only good songs that enhance marriages and morality.
Getting back to North Korea, we must admit that karaoke here enjoys more freedom than most people imagine. At least, in terms of home-based karaoke that has almost no restrictions, so most North Koreans have karaoke players and machines at home. The credit should be given to China that first smuggled karaoke devices since the early 1990s to the country and then flooded the North Korean market with them quite officially.
The Chinese equipment, supplied to North Korea, are localized and re-flashed for the local market. Such improvements mainly concern the catalogues with songs and video footage. Doubt that not that politically unreliable content is deleted immediately and then the ideologically appropriate Korean songs are uploaded to the device. As long as the Internet connection is an unavailable luxury in North Korea, all the devices work in an autonomous mode, using downloaded databases and VideoCD.
The distinguishing feature of the karaoke rooms at the hotels and restaurants is the dedicated staff that makes sure you are enjoying your time – at any moment, they will happily join you and make a karaoke show. As a rule, these are the young girls with excellent singing skills who will sing with you as back singers. They can also sing solo when you are tired and want to take a break.
The repertoire at the hotels where the overseas guests are staying is under a more relaxed control, so there, you can enjoy Western music, including the creative heritage of such extraordinary groups as Rage Against the Machine and Sex Pistols. Another way to tap into the overseas music in North Korea is non-reflashed semi-legal Chinese consoles with dozens of thousands of world hits on their hard drives. The karaoke rooms in the restaurant basements are often equipped with such devices. These are the facilities the North Korean authorities are fighting against, as the foreigners are keen on taking photos of the drunken Koreans and then defame Juche testaments on social media.
Karaoke is so popular in North Korea that in 2017 on “My Companion”, the local Netflix analogue, where one can watch movies, TV shows, read books, and even play games, the karaoke option was added. Of course, the catalogues hold not a single suspicious or riotous song and is updated literally once a year. However, the songs “exported” by North Korea to neighbouring South Korea have quite an ambiguous message.
As long as these two countries have had a fragile truce and at the edge of defence emergency for over 70 years now any cultural contacts are restricted for both sides. For instance, a CD by a South Korean singer in the backpack of the North Korean national can lead to severe punishment for propaganda dissemination. In South Korea, NK propaganda won’t put you in prison, but it is also illegal. Meanwhile, in recent years, the Seoul karaoke clubs play North-Korean songs, celebrating the leader and the party. They are often performed by the Chinese citizens, who play their tracks from a USB drive. The South Korean authorities are sure that this a part of the information war, waged by Pyongyang.
That’s all for today. Enjoy your karaoke!
Read also: EvoSound Sphere home audio system
What should the modern home-based karaoke system be like? Sleek, powerful, the one that perfectly presents the special sounding of both your favourite TV shows and music, and live vocal in karaoke. It should be as perfect as the stereo system EvoSound Sphere – a novelty by Studio Evolution Company.