Pyongyang launches a cultural wave

Joong Ang Daily

While dragging its feet again on its pledge to denuclearize, North Korea is expanding its cultural outreach to the West.

The move is drawing a mixed response from North Korea watchers. Some hail it as a prelude to a long-awaited opening of the isolated nation, recalling China’s “ping-pong diplomacy” that served as a catalyst for a thaw in its relations with the United States in the 1970s.

Others, however, caution against expecting too much, citing the communist nation’s track record of using arts for propaganda.

Regardless, Pyongyang looks set to provide a rare chance for Europeans to see its elite orchestra perform.

The North’s State Symphony Orchestra is scheduled to hold performances in London and Middlesbrough in September in what would be its largest-ever shows abroad, according to Radio Free Asia. The concerts will be telecast live, added the U.S.-government funded station.

The orchestra is said to have been nurtured by the North’s all-powerful leader Kim Jong-il, reportedly a big fan of film, music and other arts.

In the North’s latest cultural diplomatic activity, five North Korean movies were screened over the weekend in San Diego, California during the first inter-Korean film festival organized by a university in the United States. North Korean authorities selected the films. Pyongyang’s No. 2 two diplomat in the North’s United Nations mission, Kim Myong-gil, attended the event after receiving U.S. government approval. Members of North Korea’s UN mission are required to stay within a small radius of New York and need Washington’s approval for trips outside the city.

The film festival came two weeks after a North Korean movie, titled “Schoolgirl’s Diary,” was screened in Paris. It marked the first-ever commercial distribution of a North Korean movie in the West.

One of the most awaited shows in coming weeks is a concert by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang. During the performance, the orchestra will perform the U.S. and North Korean national anthems as well as classical music. The historic concert, backed by the U.S. State Department, will be broadcast live via satellite on Feb. 26.

“This journey is a manifestation of the power of music to unite people,” said Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s executive director, reiterating remarks he made last month.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Washington’s point man on Pyongyang, said earlier the performance bodes well for their bilateral relationship.

“We haven’t even had ping-pong diplomacy with these people,” he said. “It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process. It does represent a shift in how they view us.”

Hill expressed hope that the cultural exchange will help resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Many experts here agree cultural diplomacy can be an effective way of dealing with the North. They view the North’s move as reflecting its cultural pride and determination to break its isolation. “It also appears to be aimed at diluting the North’s negative image as a repressive nation and silencing criticism from hard-line U.S. officials,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

But skepticism lingers with the nuclear crisis still unresolved.

“Even if the orchestra plays music from heaven, it will have nothing to do with most North Koreans outside of the venue,” said Joo Sung-ha, who defected from North Korea in 2001 and now works as a journalist in Seoul. “We need to think about for whom such one-time shows should continue.”


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