What happened to Unhasu Orchestra in August 2013? Nobody knows outside of small circles in North Korea, but there are lots of rumours, started by Chosun Ilbo in 2013.08.29 and much of it documented in English Wikipedia. The dates usually gives are 17 August, when a number of UO personnel was arrested, and 20 August, when some of them were executed in Pyongyang. The rumoured number of people executed varies wildly; “dozens” and “a dozen” are both probably exaggerations. The rumours also spread rapidly outside of UO, involving also the Wangjaesan Light Music Band, Moranbong Band and the former singer Hyon Song-wol of the Pochonbo Electric Ensemble. Most of the reporting in the international media actually concentrated on Hyon Song-wol. Examples of the lowest journalistic standards is The Telegraph Tokyo correspondent Julian Ryall’s reporting a and b, where the results of the South Korean rumour mill are multiplied in the Japanese rumour mill and then presented in the British sensational tabloid style, so that unfounded stories of unrelated people and events are piled on a practically nonexistent factual basis.
It is usually wisest to dismiss much that is presented in the international news about North Korea, especially if the contents are sensational, while all numbers should usually be divided by ten. “A dozen executed” would thus imply “1.2 people out of media sight”. Yet, unfortunately in this case, there probably were real executions, and their number may be above one. In a by now deleted blog post in Slipped Disk in 2013.08.29 the British music journalist Norman Lebrecht, based on South Korean sources, made a more factual announcement of the event, where he mentioned two names: “two concertmasters of the Unhasu Orchestra.They were named as Moon, Gyeong-Jin, Jung, Sun-Young”. According to a Chinese piece of information in 2014.11.30, whose link likewise has by now disappeared, three Unhasu Orchestra personnel were executed, namely the “lead violin and second violin”, as well as the “son of the State Merited Chorus singer, People’s Artiste Kim Ki-yong, who himself has disappeared from the Chorus”. The concert master/lead violin of UO is without doubt Mun Kyong-jin, and the SMC singer’s son is clearly the young UO baritone Kim Kyong-ho. The second concert master/violin is more difficult; the only deputy concert master ever observed in the concert videos was Kim Su-myong briefly during the Paris concert, but he has been sighted several times alive afterwards. The other possibility is the female violinist Jong Son-yong, who performed several times front stage, and in those occasions played the first violin. The whole debacle about Hyon Song-wol’s execution may have been caused by confusing these two females, as their names sound a bit similar, and none of the journalists probably knew the name of Jong, while Hyon was very famous. The deceased ones could thus be these three persons. I’ll place here photos just in case they would be sighted somewhere, which would help to dispel these rumours.
An important question is the reasons why this kind of event possibly happened. The Japan based but often sensible Rimjin-gang made an investigation of the event during autumn 2013, publishing the results in two parts (20131117 and 20131118). Their argument that the case most likely involved smuggled South Korean and Japanese critical documentaries and blasphemous videos of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un appears rather plausible. In North Korean religious politics such material would be “lewed” enough to cause problems for people involved. Defiant behavior during interrogations would cause more.
Another question is the relationship between Unhasu Orchestra and the religious leadership during the final year of the ensemble. As seen in the concert video material, from the 10 October 2012 concert onwards there appeared to be personnel, resource and probable funding cuts in UO. Kim Jong Un no more attended the concerts, although many other officials and large audiences did. On its part Unhasu Orchestra cut down its musical eulogies for KJU, or in some concerts did not present them at all, and instead concentrated on singing praise only for Kim Jong Il, its deceased creator and always supporting mentor. This could have caused a tension, which in August 2013 broke out in a violent manner, the artists naturally being on the weaker side.
I do no know. Few people do. The only observable facts are that Unhasu Orchestra was disbanded, many of its singers and musicians were distributed to other orchestras, and some have not been seen since – which in itself is not a proof of anything else but absence from places where cameras focus in published videos.
There was also an awakening of rumours about new executions of four UO personnel reported in March 2015, started by Korea Herald, though in this time the international attention was not as big as in 2013. I suppose that this round can be dismissed as a simple rerun of the earlier sensational news. On one hand, by that time UO was supposed to have been out of existence for almost two years, and on the other, 4 divided by 10 makes 0.4, which logically constitutes zero persons.
To be continued one day with a list of former UO personnel sighted alive in various occasions after 2013.