Here is the most detailed report I can find I can find on the extermination of the Unhasu Orchestra in Pyongyang, North Korea. At least a dozen musicians, including the Orchestra's Leader, Mun Kyong-jin, and others were machine-gunned in a public execution on 20th August. News is only just emerging.
The Unhasu Orchestra is not the oldest or largest western orchestra in North Korea but it's extremely prominent. Orchestras all over the world are used in big public galas, and the Unhasu was a "real" orchestra of serious musicians, although it was pulled out for state occasions and played for dictators. Last March, Myun-whun Chung conducted the Unhasu Orchestra and the Radio France Philharmonic at the Salle Pleyel, Paris (which is why I picked a French source - read the comments too).
Myun-Whun Chung went to Pyongyang to conduct them before they arrived in France. Since North Korea is very much a closed country with a paranoid regime, Chung's visit was something of a miracle. Classical music, to Koreans, is as important to their culture as Verdi is to Italians, or football to the British, so Myun-Whun Chung's gesture was sending out massive signals. He is a couratgeous man, because he knew thye risks. If Pyongyang had detained him, France might have reacted, though I guess the Anglophone world might not understood why musicians are such a big deal. The photo shows Chung rehearsing the orchestra. Now it feels tragic. I'm slightly worried that the story hasn't been corroborated elsewhere but nothing would surprise me. [Addendum : the lack of corroboration is troubling, but in situations like this news doesn't come out thru "usual channels". Just as news of Auschwitz, the famines of China in the 50's and Stalin's gulags filtered out slowly, things like this don't get covered in the normal way. People aren't going to twitter from Pyongyang! If the regime wants to discredit the story, they just have to produce the victims alive and well. Who has most to gain from the story ? Not Seoul or Beijing, who'd exploit it more if they could. But within the power structure of North Korea, it's an effective way of suppressing dissent. Kim Jong-un is still new in the job, and probably needs to consolidate his personal control.]
Obviously we don't know why the Unhasu Orchestra was targetted: paranoid regimes don't act logically. The musicians could have simply disappeared into gulags in the frozen north and starved to death like so much of the population. So a mass public execution means something. Maybe their prominence attracted rivalry, maybe it was simply because one of the women killed, singer Hyon Song-woi, was dictator Kim Jong-un's former girlfriend, though "girlfriend" in those circumstances does not mean voluntary as it might mean elsewhere. He married another singer recently. What hidden agendas might there be? Even though nearly everyone does music in South Korea, music circles are close enough that most people know each other even if just by name. In North Korea, because of the nature of the regime, circles are even smaller and tighter. I hate to think what might be going on. In the west, we have things easy.
Below three contrasting clips. The first comes from the official DR Korea channel and shows Kim Jong-un cheering the Unhasa on a recent State occasion.Then the New Year Gala 2012. This is REALLY worth watching because it shows what state orchestrated music can be like. The concert is played to a backdrop of politcal videos, Massive choir. Where have we seen such things before ? Spot the orchestra's leader, now murdered. Then the Paris concert with RFP two moths later.