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March 2, 2024

North Korean rich kids learn brass instruments to get cushy military assignments

The stereotypical cliché of Korean tiger parents shelling out for private lessons so their children can master a musical instrument may have an ounce of truth to it, even in North Korea. 

In South Korea or among most of the diaspora, musical proficiency might be seen as a way to help children stand out during a highly competitive college admissions process. 

But in North Korea, parents dream that their children can learn to play the trumpet or French horn so that they can join a propaganda band to avoid backbreaking work during their mandatory military service. But it’s mostly for wealthy families who can afford to pay for lessons and an instrument.

After high school, women must serve five years and men must serve seven. For many, it means a good portion of the best years of their youth will be spent toiling away at collective farms, construction sites or coal mines – because that is how North Korea uses a good portion of its military personnel. 

Demand for musicians in military propaganda bands has made musical skills a ticket to relatively easy deployments, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

“If you learn a brass instrument, even if you are assigned to a construction unit, … you will be transferred to an arts and propaganda unit to play,” a source from South Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “This is the way to escape hard labor and always being hungry.”

Nice side gig

The source said more and more children are taking up brass instruments for this purpose, so high school music teachers are capitalizing on the trend by offering their services as private tutors on evenings and weekends. They can earn about 30,000 won (US$3.70) for a one-hour lesson. Over a month, this can bring in more than $100 per student.

Considering that the monthly government salary for teachers and professors is the equivalent of a mere 37 U.S. cents, teaching kids how to play the trombone is a nice side gig.

But on top of tutoring fees, the instruments themselves can cost as much as 500,000 won ($61), so only the children from wealthy families can afford it.

“Poor students cannot learn an instrument even if they wanted to,” the source said.

Another source, from North Hwanghae province, said private music lessons are all the rage for high school kids in the city of Sariwon. 

As the number of people who want to learn the brass instruments increases, the number of tutors teaching the instruments is also rising,” the second source said.

Just trying to survive

North Korea’s private tutoring industry has roots that date back to the national crisis known as the Arduous March, the 1994-1998 famine that killed as many as 2 million people or 10 percent of the country’s population by some estimates.

Although technically illegal, authorities began tolerating private tutoring during the famine because the government stopped delivering food rations to teachers and professors, and they had no other way to survive other than by peddling their services to wealthy families. 

At that time, foreign language tutors were in high demand, but now in the era of North Korea’s nascent market economy, private tutoring is even more widespread, and teachers of all disciplines have more opportunity. 

In Pyongyang and most cities, parents who have the means can hire tutors for math and physics, computer science and IT, music and even dance – as long as they don’t teach the kind of dance featured in South Korean K-pop performances.

“This year is the first time that brass instrument tutoring has appeared and high school music teachers or brass instrument players in art propaganda teams are tutoring students at home,” the North Hwanghae source said. 

“[It] has become popular among students subject to conscription because if [they] … are selected to join the propaganda teams, they will not be hungry during their military service.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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