N. Korean Draftees Take to S.Korean Song

Seol Song Ah  |  2015-03-19 15:36
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March in North Korea means high school graduations and mandatory military service, and more recently, singing a South Korean song titled "Letter from a Private," reflecting growing permeation of South Korean culture into the North. The song is well known in the South for reflecting the sentiments of young men facing conscription.

Recruitment for high school graduates is underway at the moment," a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Tuesday. "Each year in March, villages go through a period of sending people off, and scores of friends and draftees sing 'Letter from a Private' together."

He added that until last year, those singing the song were largely unaware of its southern origin, with even teachers, anxious for the departing students, frequently chiming in. These days, however, draftees are not only aware of the fact that it's from the South, but they also talk about Joint Security Area' [a popular South Korean film set in the truce village at Panmunjeom that features the song]," he said.

Draftees deemed fit for duty after undergoing medical examinations and haircuts at the municipal military mobilization unit are given ten days to stay at home before being shipped off to the provincial unit, according to the source. The draftees feel embarrassed about showing their military hair cuts and try to cover them up by wearing hats. Singing this song provides them with some comfort, helping to soothe the sadness that comes with leaving family and friends," he asserted.

The sound of these soon-to-be soldiers playing the guitar and singing the lyrics my shortened hair, at first looked funny; my reflection in the mirror stiffens, along with my heart is audible throughout the village. "At these sounds reverberating throughout the night sky, parents cry, and elderly members of the village wish them the best, hoping they will not starve," he said.

The source explained these starvation concerns stem from the fact that soldiers are often at higher risk for malnutrition because unlike ordinary residents, who are able to do business at the jangmandang, they are forbidden from engaging in individual economic activities. With limited access to state provisions, which generally consist of little more than rice and salt, soldiers often languish from a lack of protein and vitamins available in other side dishes, suffering from chronic malnutrition and--in extreme cases--starvation. 

South Korean mothers cry when their sons are drafted because they know a protracted period will pass without seeing them. North Korean mothers, however, cry when their sons (or daughters) are drafted because they know the suffering that awaits them, according to the source.  

South Korean songs are loved by North Koreans because they give them a chance to express their feelings and emotions away from being compelled to express their uniform loyalty to the Suryeong [Kim Il Sung]," he said, speculating the popularity of the song to only increase with time.

This assumption is bolstered by a population constantly employing new methods to evade state oppression. While singing foreign songs is banned in the North, he explained that residents are not overly concerned with the consequences, having devised an excuse for such a situation: "they thought the song was Chilbosan music." This music is produced in the North for propaganda purposes in the South and reportedly employs techniques more relatable to those below the 38th parallel.

The full song with English lyrics is available below or here.

*Translated by Jihae Lee

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