Colloquium: The Politics of “Arirang”

photo: Byong Won LeeThe Cen­ter for Kore­an Stud­ies fall 2014 col­lo­qui­um series will open Thurs­day, Sep­tem­ber 18, with an explo­ration of some of the polit­i­cal aspects of Korea’s most famous folk­song, “Ari­rang.” Byong Won Lee, pro­fes­sor of eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, will deliv­er a pre­sen­ta­tion titled “The Pol­i­tics of ‘Ari­rang’: Tri­par­tite Polit­i­cal Dynam­ics of the Kore­an Folk­song in South Korea, North Korea, and Chi­na.” The col­lo­qui­um begins at 4:00 p.m. in the Cen­ter for Kore­an Stud­ies con­fer­ence room.

Ari­rang” orig­i­nat­ed in the cen­tral region of Korea in the mid-1920s as a new folk­song (sin-minyo) and has evolved into the icon­ic song for Kore­ans every­where. In 2011, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment des­ig­nat­ed “Ari­rang” as an Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage of the eth­nic Kore­ans in the Yan­bian Kore­an Autonomous Pre­fec­ture of Chi­na.

Nation­al­is­tic South Kore­ans were sus­pi­cious of the Chi­nese move as anoth­er of the ongo­ing Chi­nese efforts to appro­pri­ate Kore­an her­itage, includ­ing assert­ing own­er­ship of some his­tor­i­cal events. The South Kore­an gov­ern­ment has been active­ly pro­mot­ing the song inter­na­tion­al­ly as the nation­al musi­cal icon with con­sid­er­able exag­ger­a­tion of its his­tor­i­cal ori­gin. This effort result­ed in the reg­is­tra­tion of “Ari­rang” as a UNESCO Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage of Human­i­ties in 2012.

By con­trast, “Ari­rang” was rarely men­tioned in North Korea until the ear­ly 1980s. The inser­tion of the song title in the “Ari­rang Mass Games” in North Kore­an is an effort to tone down the strong ide­o­log­i­cal emboss­ment and project a utopi­an Korea under social­ism through the uni­fi­ca­tion of the penin­su­la on North Kore­an terms.

Pro­fes­sor Lee’s pre­sen­ta­tion will exam­ine the tri­par­tite polit­i­cal dynam­ics of “Ari­rang”: (1) as a musi­cal icon through its nation-branding efforts in the Repub­lic of Korea, (2) as a soft image-making medi­um and ide­o­log­i­cal dis­guise in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic People’s Repub­lic of Korea, and (3) as a polit­i­cal embrac­ing of minori­ties by the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na.

Cen­ter for Kore­an Stud­ies col­lo­quia are free and open to the pub­lic. The Cen­ter is locat­ed at 1881 East-West Road on the UH Mānoa cam­pus. Paid park­ing ($6.00) is avail­able in the park­ing lot mau­ka of the CKS build­ing and else­where on cam­pus. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, includ­ing arrange­ments for access for the hand­i­capped, tele­phone the Cen­ter at (808) 956‑7041.