North Korea’s Cultural Relations Strategy

The international press (and just about every blogger on the planet-including myself) has written something about the NY Philharmonic’s visit to North Korea last week.  Whether one believes that this event is a significant breakthrough in cultural relations or not, what has evaded direct discussion in the media is the purpose of cultural relations in the North Korean system (and indeed its predecessor – the Soviet system).

At the end of World War II, the DPRK imported many Soviet party, state, and military organizations.  One of these was the USSR All Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (known as ‘VOKS’).  Publicly, the mission of VOKS was to promote peace and understanding between the Soviet people and other peoples of the world.  However, the actual mission of VOKS was to promote Soviet ideology, policy, and influence overseas. 

VOKS began its mission in the 1920s.  It undertook activities such as: Attempting to influence French intellectual circles; bringing sympathetic individuals and groups to tour the Soviet Union to see how the construction of the worker’s paradise was proceeding; bringing students from the developing world to be educated in the Soviet Union; sending Soviet scholars and technicians to undertake development projects overseas, etc.  VOKS was even influential in the USA, where it supported a number of pro-Soviet civil society organizations. 

VOKS also played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of Soviet hegemony in North Korea following World War II.  Cultural delegations of North Koreans were taken to the Soviet Union to bear witness to the great accomplishments of the worker’s revolution.  Their impressions were then distributed to the North Korean population at large, along with many other cultural goods produced by the Soviet Union. 

Although VOKS’ success at swaying public opinion in the west is an unresolved question (as far as I know), the details of their activities are well known to western scholars since Soviet archive materials are readily accessible. Effective or not, the take away from this history lesson is that socialist countries have historically treated cultural relations activities, like everything else, as regime-enhancing activities.  In other words, they promote the political incumbents. 

The North Koreans copied VOKS wholesale from the Soviets, and this organization is still functioning in the DPRK today.  It is the Korean Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (CCRFC).  Although this body has been around since the founding of the DPRK, it is perhaps most known in contemporary times for supporting the Korean Friendship Association, numerous pro-Pyongyang “Friendship Societies,” and to a lesser degree, several leftist organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild.  These organizations tend to toe the party line and echo Pyongyang’s perspective in international debates.  At a minimum, they promote a marginal distrust of western media and historiography.

Based on the comments I have made so far, many might be led to believe that I am pessimistic on the positive impact that cultural relations broadly, and the the NY Philharmonic visit specifically, might have in changing the North Korean system.  But this would be a mistake.  Since the Arduous March and Kim Jong Il’s rise to power, North Korean institutions have undergone such a transformation that comparison with their Soviet predecessors might not be useful for understanding their purposes today.

Since 1997, the North Korean CCRFC has been chaired by Mun Jae Chol, a North Korean policy elite.  I just finished watching the NY Phil performance-here-and Mun Jae Chol is indeed in the audience, as are several people who work for him who I have met.  Mun Jae Chol took over the committee in 1997 (as best I can put together from KCNA reports–his promotion was not formally announced in the news), and since then the mission of the organization seems to have changed significantly.  To start with, the cold war is over.  North Korean cultural relations activities are not going to convince the world’s people that the North Korean government is the legitimate governing authority for the whole Korean peninsula.  No one will ever believe that now.

Since the propaganda war is over, and resources are scarce, the CCRFC seems to be  focused on generating foreign exchange revenue from tourism, cultural exchanges, and brokering foreign direct investment (all under the guise of their previous mission, however).  Under established laws and customs, the staff of the CCRFC are permitted to interact with foreigners and make regular trips overseas.  They are the very people who have an incentive to promote interaction with the west because they will directly benefit financially from it.  True these people are not paragons of liberalism, but they all own western clothes, use digital cameras, listen to iPods, broker deals between private North Koreans and foreigners (smuggle goods), and travel to China on a regular basis.  There are procedures in place to control their entrepreneurial tendencies, such as never allowing one guide to be alone with a foreigner, however, these rules can be evaded at minimal cost.  They might repeat what they are told to say, but they certainly know better.

Staff of the CCRFC include influential party members and security personnel.  Raising the frequency and profile of cultural relations activities with North Korea will increase the income of these individuals who can buy support directly through cash transfers, or indirectly through business deals, ultimately greasing the cogs of change in the North Korean bureaucracy towards a greater acceptance of openness.  Maybe.

Comment from Dr. Petrov:
CCRFC (known in North Korea as Taewe Munhwa Ryeollak Wiwonhoe or simply TaeMun) is indeed struggling to survive in the changing economic environment. Although most of the projects they try to lure foreigners into are devoid of economic sense, they are still pretty powerful and even allowed to invite journalists to visit N.Korea. Cooperation with CCRFC is a game of unpredictability but in some cases can lead to success. See a success story here.

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