Music by Kim Jong Il's favorite South Korean singer is now banned

The ban on Kim Yeon-ja’s music will be nearly impossible to enforce because she’s so popular, residents say.
By Kim Jieun for RFA Korean
2024.05.28
Music by Kim Jong Il's favorite South Korean singer is now banned Kim Yeon-ja (left) appears with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea in April 2001. It was her first time performing in the North.
Yonhap News

The music of a South Korean singer who once performed at the request of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il – a big fan of hers – has been suddenly banned in the reclusive country, residents told Radio Free Asia.

The reasons behind the ban on Kim Yeon-ja’s music aren’t entirely clear, but the order came directly from supreme leader Kim Jong Un, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA Korean on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“This is the first time that a singer’s name has been specified in a ban,” he said. “A few days ago, I heard from a friend who works at the provincial social security bureau that the general secretary’s order has been issued to block (her) songs.”

The decision is “shocking” because Kim Jong Il – Kim Jong Un’s father – was known to have been a huge fan, the resident said, and her music is popular among the public, making a ban nearly impossible to enforce.

“Her songs are famous for being loved not only by the general secretary’s father, but also by most residents,” he said. “Kim Yeon-ja’s music is deeply entrenched in the hearts of the people here as her lyrics and singing style fit well with the sentiments of North Koreans.”

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Kim Yeon-ja. (duckleavepics via Wikimedia Commons)

Kim Yeon-ja, now 65, has been a stalwart of South Korea's “trot” genre of music, characterized by repetitive rhythm and vocal inflection. It saw its heyday in the 1970s and 80s and is favored by older Koreans. She has also been successful in Japan as an enka singer. 

Debuting in South Korea in 1974 at age 15, she became wildly popular in the North in 2001 and 2002 when she traveled to North Korea for two concerts, the latter of which was at the personal request of then-leader Kim Jong Il.

At that time, photos of her alongside the late “Dear Leader” circulated widely in state media, which lauded her performances.

Exception to the rule

Until now, Kim Yeon-ja’s music was believed by residents to have been a defacto exception to a blanket ban on South Korean music, movies, and TV shows, which are condemned in the North as “capitalist” trash.

North Koreans secretly consume South Korean songs and shows, which are smuggled in from China on SD cards and USB thumb drives, but listening to K-pop or watching dramas from the South can lead to stiff punishments.

But most people assumed the ban did not really apply to Kim Yeon-ja’s music because Kim Jong Il liked her, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan.

But the ban was not just on her music. There are specific songs that make reference to South Korea included in Kim Jong Un’s orders, the sources told RFA.

“‘Morning Dew,’ and ‘Our Wish is Unification,’ were also designated as banned songs,” the second resident said.

The ban on the latter song is striking. “Our Wish is Unification,” has been an unofficial inter-Korean anthem since Korea was divided at the end of World War II, and has been sung by both North and South Koreans during cultural exchange events and even in lieu of anthems when teams from both Koreas face each other in international sports competitions.

But Kim Yeon-ja’s songs will continue to be played and sung in North Korea, the second resident predicted.

“Even the police officers who crack down on the songs are passing around the recovered SD cards to friends and family members to listen to or sing along to,” he said.

Translated by Claire S. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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