Are We Over-Analyzing Musical Dipomacy?

March 18th, 2012

Diplomacy can come in many shapes and sizes, from the ping pong diplomacy of the 70s to China’s current panda diplomacy. These direct interactions and exchanges are a form of diplomacy that can prove more palatable and understandable to the general public. After all, the imagery of a cute panda frolicking in zoo is a more preferable image in the papers to that of hardnosed diplomatic negotiations; where such cuteness comes at a minimum. As attention spans for politics shrink, views of nations can thus increasingly be shaped by arts, images, and events.

Can North Korea capitalize on this with a new push of cultural diplomacy fronted by its musicians? Its Unhasu Orchestra are wrapping up their high-profile visit to Paris and they performed Wednesday last week. The eventwas unique in many ways; it is the first time this orchestra and most of it’s members have played abroad – France is one of the few remaining EU nations not to have diplomatic relations with North Korea – and on top of this the whole performance was conducted by South Korean Chung Myung-Whun (whose mother is from Wonsan in the North).

The event has already proved, in publicity terms, a success. It has received widespread press attention in France and abroad. Radio France, who are hosting the event, told us “Music can be a key that opens the path to dialogue and brings down barriers earlier considered insurmountable”. Slightly grandiose promotional talk, but true none the less. Meanwhile France’s AFP has celebrated it as a ‘musical bridge to Europe’. North Korea’s own media have also been reporting favorably on the event, with Rodong Sinmun hoping it “would be of significance in the development of cultural relations between the two countries and in showing the true features of developing culture and art of the DPRK”.

These kind of quotes and images are a far cry away from the usual coverage of the DPRK. North Korean images in Western media are invariably focussed primarily on The Kims, missiles, Military drills, and a crying public. This performance has been a chance for the public to view North Korea and its citizens in a more ‘normal’ light. Especially so, when the nation’s top musicians can be seen performing well known Western pieces, such as Brahms’s First Symphony that was apparently very well received.

However, North Korea still faces an uphill struggle if it has plans for any charm offensive. Director Chung Myung-Whun had previously said he wanted the event to “be presented with no political wrappings, no speeches, no flags flying”. Well, he may not have got his wish, as the traditional questions, ideas, and reportage of the DPRK are never far away, even with a seemingly harmless musical event. Experts have been quick to dissect the performance for possible wider meanings.

“Cultural exchanges are rarely separated from North Korea’s broader political strategy. It is reasonable to assume that there must also be a diplomatic motive that accompanies the performance,” asserted Scott Snyder, in a Bloomberg piece entitled ‘North Korean orchestra in Paris shows Kim Jong-Un Opening window on world’. Whilst the Washington Post takes an even larger leap, and tries to tie the concert to the recent ‘warming ties’ following the Leap Day deal. All round there has been a large sense of ‘what does this mean?’

The answer to this question is not as enlightening as the fact that the question is being asked at all, and highlights one of potential pitfalls for NK watchers and the media – over-analysing. There is a history of always reaching for an explanation of DPRK’s ‘end goal’, in a way that other nations’ diplomatic exchanges (even other rogue nations) are not subjected to.

For once, we may need to narrow our context. Cultural diplomacy between the DPRK and Western nations can never flourish if it is constantly subjected to the pressure of wider geopolitics, as Maestro Chung recognised and tried to minimise. We must accept that of course this musical performance can not balance out recent Anti-South Korean protests, or KPA military displays, or the repatriation issue. Equally it is not particularly related to any good will from the recent talks.

It is, as much as diplomacy can be, a stand alone issue. A chance for the Western public to view the North Korean population as human. Any questions of politics can perhaps be left aside for one moment, and music can be a less rocky road on which the DPRK and the West can travel.

Relive the concert here:

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About the Author

David Slatter

David Slatter is a remote contributor and intern-editor for NKNews. He is a resident of Seoul and is active in the North Korean Human Rights movement there. He is a graduate of International History and Politics, and the current focus of his study and writing is Inter-Korean relations.