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Music Diplomacy Opens Window of Opportunity: The New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang

February 27, 2008

The next best thing to being in the music hall in Pyongyang for the performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was watching the performance with the hard-nosed members of the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club in downtown Seoul, a little over one hundred miles to the south. After watching the live broadcast of the performance with the correspondents and other interested observers based in Seoul, I participated in a polite but sharp debate with Brian (B.R.) Myers, an analyst of North Korea’s official propaganda machine and keen observer of North Korean political culture.

According to one perspective, the admirable but naïve expectations that music would soften the hearts of the North Korean people toward Americans, opening their eyes to a world beyond the tightly controlled one in which they live, will be dashed on the impermeable propaganda wall. They assert that Kim Jong-il permitted the performance in order to lull the Americans into thinking that he is serious about reducing tensions and negotiating normal relations. However, his true intention is to relieve US pressure on his regime while he reinforces his shaky system. He does not fear the impact on the citizens of North Korea (even if everyone of them had a chance to watch the performance via television) since all of them fully understand that foreign cultural troupes, as well as political leaders, come to Pyongyang as pilgrims to pay homage to their genius leader. The American visitors may appear friendly and engaging, but they represent an implacable, ever-hostile foe. After the stage goes dark and the musicians depart for their next performance (in Seoul), nothing will change.

I’m not so sure. It seems to me that this analysis seriously underestimates the intelligence of the North Korean people. This is no longer the tightly sealed society that the media still portrays it to be. Information about the world outside now penetrates the North through multiple channels via direct cross-border contact as well as through the widespread black market circulation of video disks and tapes. Western classical and popular music, as well as some South Korean music, is widely known and appreciated; North Korea produces first-rate classical musicians and the best are trained in Russia and Europe.

Also, this is not the first cultural exchange with the US. Perhaps the pioneer cultural envoy was Bill Clinton’s brother Roger who brought his ragtag rock group to Pyongyang in 1999, a step for which he and his brother were roundly criticized. The American Quaker aid organization, the American Friends Service Committee, organized at least two visits by two US classical quartets several years later. And last year another US NGO took a Christian rock group to Pyongyang where they played three concerts to large live and broadcast audiences. But certainly the Philharmonic’s performance in Pyongyang does take these exchanges to a new level, both in prestige and in the diplomatic support the initiative has enjoyed from both sides.

A skeptic pointed out that all of this cultural exchange has resulted in no significant change in the North’s hostility toward the U.S. This proves the point that the Philharmonic’s visit is a futile exercise. I would reply that we should not build expectations that cultural diplomacy is the cure-all, but rather recognize that cultural exchanges like this week’s can foster change on the psychic level, where propaganda operates, and can also create an opportunity for political leaders. But only if they choose to take advantage of it.

First, such events introduce cacophony into an individual’s carefully dictated perceptions of the world. North Koreans encounter people and situations that do not fit the straightjacket of official propaganda and somehow they have to make sense of it. The State provides an official explanation but, at some point, these become such a stretch that even a well indoctrinated citizen may find them implausible. If these discordant notes become louder and more frequent, the individual must adjust his/her construct for interpreting the world and society. This is not an easy impact to gauge, but for those of us who have interacted with North Koreans over many years, it is seems clear that such a process is going on — and it seemed to be at work last night.

Human emotion is probably the least controllable and most complex aspect of human behavior, and music directly plays on the emotions. Visitors in the concert hall commented how the North Korean audience gradually warmed up as the performance progressed. Whatever their politically correct thoughts may have been, the magic of music was doing its thing. The final number, an orchestral arrangement of the Korean folk song Arirang, pushed many over the edge. Tears, animated waving and clapping, shouts of “bravo” erupted from the audience. And even after all the performers had left the stage, many continued their cheering. This display of spontaneous emotion was provoked by musicians from the country constantly denounced as the North Korean peoples’ number one enemy. Where will the North Koreans file these emotions, and how will they integrate them into the official picture of the United States that is cranked out daily by the State? I think it is reasonable to expect that it will make their inner lives a bit more complex, and perhaps prepare many to entertain a somewhat more open attitude toward the outside world.

A second possible impact is to create a window of opportunity whereby political leaders can take policy risks. Cultural exchange cannot change policy; policy will change only when political leaders act. The impact of cultural diplomacy is not one way. While we may be focused on the possible impact in North Korea, Kim Jong-il is hoping that the North’s hospitality and accommodation will soften perceptions of North Korea among Americans. If they choose to do so, political leaders in Pyongyang and Washington can interpret to their citizens an event such as this visit to Pyongyang as a gesture of goodwill, justifying concessions necessary to move the political process forward.

The publicity that both sides have loaded onto this event may open a window of one or two months. If progress can be made in implementing the denuclearization agreement with the North during this period, the Philharmonic’s visit should share some of the credit.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Korea Representative.

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