Unhasu Orchestra is reported to have been established in 30 May 2009.

Nothing comes from nowhere, and also UO is supposed to have some roots in history. In the Korean Wikipedia there is a brief mention that during the early half of the past decade there was for a while a grouping called 국가중주단 National ensemble。It is supposed to have had an unknown number of singers, some of whom later appeared in UO. From another source we know that at least the female singers Ri Hyang-suk and Pek Mi-yong 백미영 performed with it; Ri was a star singer in early UO, and Pek performed three times in its concerts. Stanford University library has some recordings of these ladies. From the music collections of the Information Centre for North Korea run by the South Korean National Library  we learn that also male singers Sok Ji Min 석지민, Kim Ki Yong 김기영 and Ri Song Chol 리성철 sang in it; of these three only Kim appeared briefly in UO, but his son was a regular singer there. The National Library lists also the name Hong Kyong Hun 홍경훈, of whom I know nothing. They appear to have been the top classical music singers of North Korea during the first decade of this millennium, with successful participation also in international singing contests.

Considering the name Unhasu, already in 2007 there existed a group of singers performing under that name.  We do not know very much about it, but definitely more than about the National Chamber Orchestra. it was mentioned by the KCNA in  7 February 2008, Kuwolsan possessing the quote: “A music concert celebrating the lunar New Year’s Day, 2008 was held at the Moranbong Theatre Wednesday. … It was performed by female soloists of Pochonbo “Unhasu” (yForum). The existence of this mysterious Pochonbo “Unhasu” had been discussed already in 2012 also in the Japanese 朝鮮労働当番歳!site.

The video evidence that we have of this group comes from the YouTube publications of soffkj4y, who was active during 2007-2010, publishing then 172 short music pieces. They appeared to be recordings from North Korean TV programmes, such as 요청무대 (Yuchong Mude = Request Stage), where popular older or newer songs were introduced and performed. The artists were usually not shown; the videos simply displayed the usual North Korea scenes: sceneries, factories, and military sights. I do not know who he was; the information he presented apparently came from the TV. Most of soffkj4y’s videos were of rather bad quality, but they form nowadays important historical material for North Korean music life almost a decade ago. He mostly published light music, typically Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble recordings, and the most extensively published singer was Hyon Song Wol. He also provided important creator and performer information in many of his videos, but not publishing dates in KCTV. We only have the dates of his own YouTube uploads.

He arrived at YouTube in 23 December 2007, uploading during that single day 63 different videos. It apparently was the beginning of an operation of cultural diplomacy. One of them, number 61, was music from Pochonbo “Unhasu”. https://youtu.be/HBlI1SMgmzQ. We do not know when in 2007 the song was broadcast in TV; thinking that number 61 must be near the end of the list of soffk4y’s recordings and thus near the end of the year 2007 could be either right or wrong; no rational way to tell. Anyway, 2007 is the year. The song was 강선의 노을 Kangson sunset, performed later also by UO. The name “Unhasu” referred to singers; PEE took care of the playing of instruments. The singers were named as 장영옥 Jang Yong-ok, 서은향 So Un-hyang, 박금희 Pak Kum-hui. It is important to know that Jang and So, two UO star singers, already in 2007 were performing under the name Unhasu. Pak is also an interesting singer here, because in spring 2010 she was introduced as a student of Kim Won Gyun University of Music, which makes one suspect that the university might have been somehow involved in the setting up of this new group.

There is also a rumour, seen in blog comments whose addresses I do not have here, that UO star singers like So and Jang had received part of their vocalist education in Italy, though I have not yet seen evidence for that. As they also quite likely were graduates of KWGU, it might be possible to speculate that attaching a group of opera singers to PEE could be a way for finding employment for KWGU alumni in an important popular band, and simultaneously try something new in the North Korean music scene. Lots of unfounded speculations.

Anyway, I’ll go on. One has to say that PEE played well, and Unhasu singers sang well, but the resulting combination was not perhaps the most ideal one. PEE sounds best at the back of light music singers like Hyon Song Wol, Ri Kyong Suk, or Ri Pun Hui. The opera singers of Unhasu would have needed something heavier at the back of their voices.

The next Pochonbo “Unhasu” upload came in 17 February 2008.
The song was 못 잊을 삼일포의 메아리 Unforgettable echo at the Three Day Bay, and the singers were 김금주 Kim Kum-ju, 리향숙 Ri Hyang-suk, 장영옥 Jang Yong-ok, 백미영 Pek Mi-yong. Except Jang, all singers had changed, implying that the group was not necessarily very stable at this time. Kim did not participate in UO, but performed later once more in Unhasu. Ri became another UO star singer. Pek was a bit older singer; she performed in the UO debut concert and twice in 2010. Considering the music, the same comment  applies. PEE and Unhasu opera singers were not a perfect match.

We can hear Kim Kum Ju in another Youtube video of a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with the Japanese conductor Inoue Michiyoshi in Pyongyang in 2013, singing part of the ninth symphony of Beethoven. At the end of the video there is also her interview.

Kim Kum-ju 2013

김금주 Kim Kum-ju 2013

Kim is important in the development of the singing art in North Korea in the sense that in April 2007 in the 15th “Bella Voce” singing competition in Moscow she won the first prize, together with a North Korean mezzosoprano Shin Hye Yong 신혜영. Kim was at that time 21  years old, and was studying singing at the Tchaikovsky Music Conservatory in Moscow Московская Государственная Консерватория им. П. И. Чайковского. Shin was at that time 20 years old, and was also studying in Moscow, in the Gnessin Music Academy Российская академия музыки имени Гнесиных. She later became a singer in the State Merited Chorus, where her voice can be heard in a 2013 concert.

Shin Hye Yong 신혜영 2013

Shin Hye Yong 신혜영 2013

Even though neither Shin Hye-yong nor Kim Kum-ju made their way to Unhasu Orchestra, they represent the kind of basis on which UO was formed. The North Korean music scene was becoming more international and proud of its quality, with success in foreign music competitions and experience of studying and living abroad.

The last Pochonbo “Unhasu” upload came in 18 July 2008.
The name of the song was given as 기악 《너를 보며 생각하네》 = Instrumental “Thinking when will I see you”. The melody has been performed by PEE as well as by Wangjaesan Light Music Band, but not by UO. The interesting thing in this video is that there are no singers, but still the name “Unhasu” applies. Instead of singers, PEE sounds like it was this time strengthened by strings and horns. “Unhasu” thus started to include also instruments.

The next relevant upload came in 29 November 2008. This time the performer was named simply Unhasu. https://youtu.be/dpBjBizLNio
The song was 광복의 길 찾는다 In Search of the Way to National Liberation, performed also by UO. The fact that PEE was dropped off implies that Unhasu started to stand on its own, including both musicians and singers. The background music does not exactly sound UO; there probably was also a synthesizer involved, though it is hard to say as the sound quality is not too high.

The next Unhasu uploads came in 14 February 2009. One song was 흰눈덮인 고향집 Home in home town covered by white snow, performed also by UO. https://youtu.be/u9TO4cwyDAI
This time names of singers were given: 김금주 Kim Kum-ju, 장영옥 Jang Yong-ok, 백미영 Pek Mi-yong. The same singers had performed also in the upload a year before, so that now Unhasu clearly had acquired both permanence and continuity.

The other song was 천리마선구자의 노래 Song of Chollima Pioneers. https://youtu.be/pLYDp2kQl34. In Korean the name of the performer was simply given as 《은하수》 , but this time soffkj4y also presented information in English – for the first time – writing ‘Female solo by ”Unhasu”’, though giving no names. Judging by the singing, Jang Yong-ok was the one performing the solo. The English text would imply that Unhasu did only singing, while music was done by some other group. Yet, the style of playing is the same as before, strings and horns dominating. As soffkj4y apparently was not very expert in using English, perhaps we should not analyze too deeply the nuances in that language. In Korean this simply was one more Unhasu recording.

The final upload came in 6 October 2009, i.e. after the debut concert of UO in 8 September 2009. The song was 기악 《강선의 노을》 = an instrumental version of Kangson sunset, which was the first published song of Pochonbo “Unhasu” in 2007, and also performed by UO in the debut concert (51.36). The difference is that in the concert the song was only about 4 minutes, but this version is over twice longer, 9 min 23 s. While UO already was formally established with its name complete, soffkj4y continues to call it only 《은하수》. In his publishing line there thus was no special change, or he did not notice one. Anyway, there is no doubt that the orchestra playing is a large chamber or small symphony orchestra.

We can thus say with fairly high probability that the concept of “Unhasu” began to be formulated already in 2007, at first by attaching highly educated opera singers with the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, and later collecting concert musicians with classical education behind the opera singers.

I would like to call it a concept, because there is a difference in the naming. Usually North Korean ensembles were given names either related with the state (National Symphony Orchestra, State Merited Chorus), military (ensembles of the various military units), or some Korean geographic and historical location. Wangjaesan (King’s Residence Mountain 王在山) is at the northernmost part of North Korea near the Manchurian border. No known battle is connected with it, only a meeting for planning anti-Japanese activities organized by a man named Kim Il Song in 1933. Whether he is the same man who later became the founder of the North Korean leading dynasty is not known for sure. Pochonbo refers to a location downstream the Yalu river from the Paektu Mountain where a group of guerrillas lead by a man called Kim Il Song attacked a Japanese police station in 4 June 1937. Chongbong 청봉/青峰, Blue Peak, belongs to the same category. It is situated 30 km south of the Paektu Mountain. Division Number Two of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army (東北抗日聯軍, 동북항일연군/동북항일련군), later renamed the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army, though in reality it was organized by the Chinese Communist Party in Manchuria, camped there for a while in May 1939 during a Japanese army offensive to eradicate the guerrillas from the area. Moranbong is the historical hill and park within Pyongyang where Kim Il Song – now a definitely known historical person – is said to have given his first speech after returning to the city in 1945. Unhasu, Milky Way, is different. It is a beautiful name, even grandiose, but it is difficult to find in it any direct connotations of history politics. It looks like an artistic name.

Which again leads me to speculate that both the conceptual and physical origins of the ensemble were in the musical departments of KWGUniversity. Unhasu Orchestra was an elite class package of international level musical skills embodied in a growing number of young conductors, singers and musicians with years of foreign education, and this package was then sold to Kim Jong Il in a persuasive manner. Rather than the other way round, as usually presented in North Korean rhetoric, namely that the initiative and a ready conceptual form comes from the leading Kim. There was always something independent and artistically free in the style and behavior of Unhasu Orchestra that hints towards an autonomous origin. Also the sudden demise of Unhasu Orchestra in August 2013 in an apparently highly emotional manner would fit this kind of interpretation.

But all this is of course only speculation, on the thin basis of a small number of historical videos published in YouTube.

Also two other groups appeared on the Pyongyang musical scene by way of PEE. Both of them were groups of female singers specialized in light songs. One was called 보천보 《소백수》 Pochonbo “Sobeksu” 小白水 (Small White Water), named after the brook that ran in front of the log cabin where Kim Jong Il was supposed to have been born in the Pektu Mountain. The first sight of it is by KCTV in 18 January 2008 (mentioned by Kuwolsan at yForum), when they performed 고향에 봄 Spring in my home town. It is a song of the 1930s. The group was a quartet, and names of the singers were 리봄순 Ri Pom-sun, 우순희 U Sun-hui, 강윤희  Kang Yun-hui, 한설향 Han Sol-hyang.

The first YouTube sign of the group is a song uploaded by soffkj4y in 17 February 2008, 반월가 Song of half moon 半月歌 at https://youtu.be/sxEzboYLDic. Uriminzokkiri informs that this song dates from 1924. Singers were the same quartet.

The third thus far the last sight of the group is soffkj4y’s upload in 23 March 2008, 나그네 설음 (perhaps Loneliness of a wanderer 旅人の悲しみ) at https://youtu.be/Bojdt-7q5Ww. This song dates from 1939. The group was now a quintet: 리봄순 Ri Pom-sun, 한은정 Han Un-jong, 우순희 U Sun-hui, 김성심 Kim Song-sim, 한설향 Han Sol-hyang.

The last two singers, Kim and Han, performed later in the Moranbong sextet in UO concerts; the other three were not seen there. All known appearances of the group seem to be located in winter 2008, and all songs were those of the Japanese colonial period. This group remains a curious mystery.

At the same time there appeared also another group, which sounded similar, sang similar songs, and was similarly connected with the PEE. 보천보 《모란봉》 Pochonbo “Moranbong” appears in soffkj4y’s uploads for the first time in 17 February 2008, performing 외로운 가로등 Lonely street lamp 孤独な街灯, a song from 1936, https://youtu.be/SKjwDSSbwR0. This group was a quartet: 권미화 Kwon Mi-hua, 강윤희 Kang Yun-hui, 한옥희 Han Ok-hui, 리옥화 Ri Ok-hua. Kang performed at this time also in the Sobeksu quartet, so that the two groups seem to have been related also in terms of personnel. Ri Ok-hua sang later in the Moranbong performing with UO. Han Ok-hui moved later to classical music, and she can be seen in a Youtube video singing together with Kim Kum Ju (whose photo is on this page some paragraphs above) in a concert by the National Symphony Orchestra with the Japanese conductor Inoue Michiyoshi in Pyongyang in 2013, singing part of the ninth symphony of Beethoven.

Kim Kum Ju ja Han Ok-hui 2013

Kim Kum Ju (left, in blue) and 한옥희 Han Ok-hui (right, in red), 2013.

The next uploads were in 18 July 2008, one song being 목포의 눈물 Tears of Mokpo 木浦の涙, created in 1927, https://youtu.be/InQdyxw97H8. The other song was 번지없는 주막 A bar without house number 番地のない居酒屋, https://youtu.be/sz7NGlQ_tEQ. Even though the creation year is not known, this also is a colonial era song in the Japanese enka style. Names of singers were not mentioned in either upload. Why were two groups in the early part of 2008 specialized on colonial era songs remains a mystery.

What seems to be clear is that the Moranbong sextet that performed with UO during 2009-2011 was based on these two earlier groups. Ri Ok-hua, Kim Song-sim and Han Sol-hyang were active already in 2008, but may be much earlier. We lack empirical signs of anything before 2007, though.