Yun and the Cold War

This posting considers how Isang Yun’s music became at the receiving ends of the cultural tensions of the Cold War in the Korean Peninsula.

Whenever musical modernism is discussed in relation to politics, the Western tradition tends to consider its relation to the Marxism. However, in the case of Yun’s musical insights, most frequently debated ideology about his musical viewpoint is the Juche.

The atmosphere around the Juche Ideology on the liberal side of Korean Peninsula is more than mere frosty because it is the founding philosophy of competent authority, the communist in the North. Seriously though, there is nothing that the liberal side should be threatened over this so-called philosophy because the main problem of Juche ideology lies with its principles. That is, although its historical origin might have been evolved from the Marxism, it does not concern the revolutionary idea of the working class at all.

So why the Juche matters in the reception of Isang Yun’s music? His music was not written based on the Juche ideology, and therefore one could argue that the two are unrelated in a literal sense. Problems, however, occurred in the two angles; under the name of the National Security Law in South Korea on the one hand, and Yun’s willingness to retaining the Korean roots in his German exile on the other. On his deportation to the Germany, not only his music but also him as an individual became a topic of taboo in the South Korea at least until the late 1980s. On the contrary, Yun was the only classical composer that the founding leader of North Korea, Il-sung Kim apparently admired and provided enormous supports on musical activities in many ways.

Kim was the political leader in international affairs, so he would not have acted as a patron to the South Korean born classical musician without ulterior motive! Having had another meeting with the composer in Pyongyang on 11 October 1979, Kim acknowledged how Yun told him about the Juche ideology “suits the present age” and how he perceived Yun’s musical insights attempt to “democratise” South Korea. Indeed, these remarks would not have been received favourably by the South Korean authority.  

Kim’s acknowledgement consequently put Yun’s music at the receiving ends of the Cold War cultural tensions in the South Korea and that’s how his memorial projects were blacklisted even in the 21st century.


About julee

I am a researcher in musical modernism and politics. I am also a freelance cellist and especially enjoy playing chamber music with my violinist sister yulee. I live near Hatfield House .
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