- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) - Going to see North Korea’s most popular musical groups is kind of like a night at the concert anywhere - except for just about everything.

There will be a pretty good light show. The skill of the performers will be unquestionable, their melodies pleasing to the ear. The arena will probably be packed and the crowd will rise to their feet several times to applaud. But for most non-North Koreans, that’s where the feeling of familiarity quickly tapers off.

In authoritarian North Korea, everything must have a political message - even, and perhaps especially, its state-sponsored entertainment.

After a spectacular military parade and mass rally in Pyongyang to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country’s ruling party on Saturday, North Korea’s capital was filled with the sound of music Sunday as some of its most popular performers took the stage, one of which was built specifically for the festivities and floats on a river.

Headlining the effort to give the normally dour capital a more celebratory mood for the next few days are the State Merited Chorus and its orchestra, who on Sunday shared the stage with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s own hand-picked girl group, the Moranbong Band.

Yet to be seen is the Chongbong Band, which remains somewhat mysterious but has been hailed by the state-run media as the next big thing on the North Korean music scene.

The State Merited Chorus is a straight-up military band who perform in full uniform, often before a big screen showing scenes of the nation’s military might, dedicated and selfless factory workers or satellite-bearing rockets blazing off into orbit. Their music, sung by dozens of impeccably serious soldier-singers, is about overcoming difficulties in the service of the higher cause of the state, and, of course, devotion and adoration of the leader.

The Moranbong Band, however, is what might be considered the cute face of the North’s ruling regime.

And while they also often appear in uniform, it’s not the kind any regular unit would wear.

The women of the Moranbong Band sport short skirts, their young and attractive singers move across the stage in a mildly suggestive manner and their short hair has inspired many fashion-conscious North Koreans to follow suit. The other band members, all dressed the same way, play electric guitars, keyboards and drums in a fairly conventional pop ensemble, save for the electric violins.

Despite the more current look of the band and their decidedly catchy tunes, however, its message is just as patriotic and distinctly North Korean as the state chorus.

But what of those standing ovations?

They come whenever the leader - who is always the real star of every show - appears on the big screen.

And he inevitably does.

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