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February 27, 2008

Color Me Unimpressed
Posted by Michael Cohen

As many of you are aware the New York Philharmonic performed yesterday in Pyongyang, North Korea. A beautifully written piece in the FT provides some fascinating detail to the event.  It sure seems like it was a nice moment - but as for breaking down barriers between countries, well I'm sorry but I just don't see it.

I understand the argument that these types of cultural exchanges are good ways to open up closed societies, a la Ping Pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s. But, North Korea is the single most repressive regime in the world. How is this effort going to "open things up?" Forgive me for sounding so cynical but it seems like this diplomatic initiative will do more to provide international credibility to a terrible regime (probably the worst in the world) then do anything to open up North Korea to outsiders. I would imagine the goal of this whole exercise was to show North Korea's "openness" at a time when negotiations are ongoing regarding the country's nuclear program. As for providing the North Korean people with a taste of the outside world . . . well that sure seems a bit naive.

In a less repressive society, or if North Korea had eschewed foreign visitors in the past, I might see the benefits, but lest we forget North Korea hosted Madeleine Albright in 2000 and there was even some talk about President Clinton visiting the country. It seems to me that if a more diplomatically attuned administration was elected in the United States the potential for a face-to-face meeting between say President Obama and Kim Jong Il would be possible - the current visit by the Philharmonic notwithstanding.

Isn't this whole thing being blown a bit out of proportion. Take for example the comments of Philharmonic director, Lorin Maazel and the 1959 visit by the orchestra to the Soviet Union:

It showed Soviet citizens that they could have relations with foreign organizations and these organizations could come in the country freely," he said. "But what the Soviets didn't realize was, this was a two-edged sword."

"By allowing interactions between people from outside the country with people inside, eventually the people found themselves out of power."

Sure, 32 years later! Look, I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon and I invite any and all DA bloggers and commentators to tell me why I'm wrong, but I really don't see how this event does anything to impact the terrible existence of the North Korean people. It seems instead to me as if the Philharmonic (well meaning as they certainly are) was played for a patsy.


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The most effusive burbling I've read or heard about this Philharmonic's trip was a post earlier today on this very site. That might have been addressed directly.

I do think it is worth observing that, for North Korea, allowing a performance like this, with as much participation by Western journalists as there was, is extremely unusual. In the abstract, yes, of course it could be a ploy to burnish the regime's image. But Pyongyang has a record of not being very good at ploys of this kind. I think it is also interesting the Kim Jong-il evidently absented himself from the entire proceeding, which for any kind of event involving foreign visitors and made known to the North Korean people is also extremely unusual.

What does it mean? I don't know. It might not mean anything, or it might represent an attempt by North Korea to send one kind of signal in the absence of understanding on Pyongyang's part as to whether Americans would understand it. It could indicate something changing in the upper levels of the North Korean government, or conversely a nervousness about perpetuating isolation from the United States and thereby turning control of their country's destiny completely over to the Chinese. Or it could mean something else. It seems to me worth studying this event, and seeing what comes next.

I'd say your cynicism is about right. Repressive regimes have many choices about how to portray the outside world: scary, evil, weak and in need of assistance, non-existent, etc. In N. Korea's case, they choose to make their version of Korea out to be a paradise at war with a jealous world. If they can spin the visit by the musicians to be a victory for the regime against the evil outsiders, who are also musically inferior, then it does nothing to help bring down what I would agree is likely the worst government in the world. Only if this event could actually penetrate the lies the government tells its people would it actually do some good, but I don't see how that is going to happen. Mr. Kim gets to claim a victory in front of his subjects, we get to feel good about the diplomacy of music, and in the end, not much changes.

In the case of the Soviet Union, both sides were successful over several decades in not obliterating themselves and the rest of humanity. It was no small triumph of restraint and rationality, in the context of an ongoing global competition, and that restraint was tested and threatened on several occasions. One can never know for sure, but it may be that the limited but not insignificant cultural exchanges with the Soviets over many years, where the opposing publics were occasionally allowed to see and appreciate the cultural achievements of their adversaries, and remember for a time that those adversaries were human beings with human spirits and universal human aspirations for beauty, excellence and understanding, might have played some small role in staying the hand of power. Perhaps some of the personal relationships that were developed might have helped as well.

When I look at the amazing changes that have taken place in China in my lifetime, from the fanatical and impoverished Maoist depths of the Cultural Revolution to the rapidly developing and opening China of today, I attribute those changes in great part to the fact that we have pursued a policy of engagement with China since the Nixon administration.

Engagement works. The alternative - cultural and economic isolation as practiced tward Cuba, for example - doesn't seem to have produced anything. I seriously doubt people around the world are now suddenly impressed with North Korean "credibility", simply because of an orchestra visit. But the visit might prove to be a small first step on a long road. The task of getting a country to rejoin the world, and moderate its social rules and norms in a direction that is more acceptable to that broader world, happens one relationship at a time.

I agree with you, Michael. Though I'd go easier on the Philharmonic. Artists make art, that's what they do. While I don't think we need to overstate the importance of that, any artist should jump at the chance to find a new audience and that's what the Philharmonic did. So while I am cynical about the massive global political effect potential of this sort of thing, I'm not cynical about artists doing what they do best in a new venue. Good for the Philharmonic.

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