On Internet and Accordions

The final examination a teacher must pass before graduating in North Korea is a critical one: a test of competency on the accordion. It’s the so-called “people’s instrument”, apparently because it’s easy to bring along on marches to construction sites or to labor in the fields, and needs no accompaniment save perhaps a voice singing a classic song like “We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.”

A student practises the accordion in Pyongyang, North Korea (photo credit LivingIf)

It is harder these days to unearth information on the accordion’s role in North Korean culture, because on Google almost every single search concerning accordions and North Korea returns a link or article concerning a video that has been making the Internet rounds, of a quintet of young North Korean accordion players improvising on the theme of a-ha’s “Take On Me”, that awesome ’80s pop song. You almost certainly know the song, famous for its memorably rotoscoped music video blending live action with penciled drawings.

This new video of North Korean accordionists is similarly memorable for its anachronistic melding of cultures, a confluence between a North Korea seemingly stuck in the ‘50s, a pop song firmly rooted in the ‘80s, a folk instrument invented in the 1800s, and a Norwegian artist in 2012 filming this small performance which spread all over the Internet. To North Korea, the ’80s are, like, the future. To us, both song and performers are as dated as an old Polaroid photo.

It is nice to get a glimpse of another side of North Korea, although the video is really only superficially interesting. It doesn’t say much about the culture of North Korea itself, only that these young men and women are pretty good at improvising on the accordion. But the video does highlight the ease of interconnection in this world, where I and millions of others like me can watch five random young people perform a Norwegian pop song in the most reclusive country in the world.

They call the Internet the “global village”, a term popularized in the 1960s before the Internet even existed, forecasting a day when it might. But today the Internet has more in common with the demographic function of cities. Since 1800 the population of the world has moved ineluctably toward cities, and in 2008 for the first time over 50% of the world’s population lived in cities. People flock toward cities because they enable the spontaneous connections that foster growth, a self-sustaining cycle that exists because cities host a dense concentration of people, so it’s where most new businesses are started, where they are financed, where the jobs are, and hence where the higher standard of life is.

A similar flocking effect is occurring with the Internet. The Internet is a virtual world city, where citizens anywhere can come together and share ideas, get funding, find jobs. Some of the more obvious migrations include:

  • social interaction (Facebook, Twitter, e-mail),
  • information dissemination (Google, Wikipedia, newspapers and magazines),
  • education (online universities),
  • retail (Amazon and eBay),
  • media production (YouTube, Flickr),
  • content management (collaborative documents and calendars),
  • professional networking (LinkedIn),
  • creative funding (Kickstarter),
  • philanthropy (Kiva),

…. and on and on. This barely scratches the surface.

As more people migrate to the web, more organizations offer services online and drive further migration to it. Increasingly, access to the Internet represents life in a city with the highest population density in the world. There were a billion people on the Internet in 2008, and over two billion in 2011, all within a virtual arm’s reach.

North Korea lacks access to this world city. Closed border notwithstanding, if North Korea had access to the Internet, it would have access to the world. The Internet is an enormously powerful tool for economic development, and our standard of life is increasingly driven by the Internet. Without it, North Korea—as far out of the game as it is already—will only fall further behind.

Of course, I’m torn by the Internet’s offerings. Much of what it makes available seems superfluous: does my Facebook activity really equate to a better social life? Does networking on LinkedIn really aid my professional career? Luddites, and I sometimes feel myself to be one of them, would argue that there’s no substitute for the real thing, and the virtual connections made possible by the Internet detract from our lives by distracting us from real connections with the world actually around us.

Then again, I would never be writing this blog, would not have gone to Korea this past summer, if I had not used the Internet to discover the Ministry of Unification’s overseas correspondent program. The Internet can be superfluous, but it can also be a powerful tool for greater connection in the world.

I wonder if those North Korean students would be as good as they are at the accordion if they spent as many hours as I do on the Internet; but I would never even know to wonder about it—and neither would you, dear reader; and we would certainly never find out—without our global Web.


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