Last week, the avant-garde industrial group Laibach became the first-ever Western rock group to perform in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. The band, which formed in 1980 in what was then the communist country Yugoslavia and is now Slovenia, performed a short set last Wednesday that was mostly composed of tunes from The Sound of Music and other covers, as well as some Laibach originals at the city’s Ponghwa Theatre and an acoustic set at the Kum Song music school. The shows, dubbed the Liberation Day Tour, marked the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan after World War II.
The original idea for the concerts came from a Norwegian artist and activist named Morten Traavik who had previously organized cultural exchanges with North Korea. Laibach asked him to direct a video for their song “The Whistleblowers,” which appeared on their 2014 album Spectre, and when it was completed, he showed it to North Korean authorities who eventually sent the band a formal invitation to perform in the country. The group’s latest video for a song off Spectre, “We Are Millions and Millions Are One,” is streaming at the bottom of this article.
When Rolling Stone asks the group’s Ivo Saliger why the group wanted to do the shows, he asks his own question, speaking for the band: Who wouldn’t want to embark on such an experience? “There is no second chance to play in Pyongyang for the first time,” he says. “Laibach has, since its very foundation, been dealing with totalitarianism in all its manifestations; therefore visiting North Korea was absolutely a must-do.'” Here, he explains all he and his bandmates learned from their trip.
What were your first impressions of North Korea when you arrived?
Our first impression of the country was, “This is just like we expected… but it is somehow completely different.” A few days later, we were thinking about an option to be able to “live and stay there to reach the higher wisdom in ourselves.” The country may be poor and isolated, with a heavily oppressive political system, but the people are fantastic and they seem to possess the precious wisdom that we don’t.
How did the country’s government receive you?
Of the higher-ranking state officials, we only had a direct contact with the Korean vice minister of culture — also a music composer himself — who couldn’t speak English much, so our communication was very formal and polite.
Did you meet with any heads of state or get any communication from Kim Jong-un?
No, there were several party officials and foreign ambassadors at the show, but we were not in touch with them.
Did the government provide handlers or minders to watch over you?
Our group of 30 people was taken care by five Korean “helpers, guides and translators,” who also made sure that we did not act “too freely” and vanish in the night. They were all very helpful and not at all a nuisance.
What were your interactions with them like?
Generally very easy, smooth and kind, even with the people who did not speak any foreign language. There were more problems when we were building the stage set for the show, primarily because of a lack of equipment and cables, but everything was fine in the end.