Acoustic guitars aren’t just for rockin’ in the free world anymore. In fact, they’re more popular than ever in what’s possibly the least-free place on earth—North Korea.
According to the Daily NK—a Seoul-based news site run by North Korean defectors—guitars are a hot commodity among elementary and middle school students in North Korea. In fact, one source from South Pyongyang told the Daily that the nation is in a “fever” to learn guitar.
Times have certainly changed in the politically isolated country. In the 1960s, the North Korean government frowned heavily upon the mighty six-string, viewing it as an instrument for ne’er-do-wells and an affront to tradition.
But over the years the authorities loosened their iron grip on the fretboard, and such instruments as the guitar and the accordion were welcomed back into mainstream North Korean life.
But the guitar’s popularity among families with young children is currently unparalleled north of the 38th Parallel, and for good reason—it could help the kids avoid years of hard labor.
North Korea’s universal conscription requires all men to serve 10 years in the military, and all women to serve six. And conditions can be harsh for conscripts, according to U.S. military records. Scant food rations can lead to malnutrition, leave is rare, and a work day can run from 5am to 10pm with duties varying from 10 hours of training to growing crops and raising livestock to supplement the food supply. Conscripts can also be subject to harsh corporal punishment, according to a report from miliaryarchives.com, a registry of U.S. military documents.
But the ability to play a musical instrument, according to the Daily NK, can land conscripts a role within the military’s “propaganda unit,” where members are tasked with performing nationalist songs to inspire loyalty to the regime and boast productivity among the laborers.
More importantly, those in the propaganda unit typically receive higher rations, and avoid difficult deployments such as back-breaking construction assignments.
And for those families looking to give their kids a brighter future through music, the guitar has sped far ahead of the piano in popularity due to the affordability of the instrument and lessons—and they’re more widely available thanks to the domestically produced guitars manufactured at the Mangkyungdae Instrument Factory in Pyongyang.
So, while the guitar-fever sweeping North Korea isn’t exactly of the “three chords and the truth” variety we see with kids in the West, it is another example of how music can, as the saying goes, soothe the savage beast.
Or, in the case of North Korea, soothe the beast of burden.