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Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
On Saturday night, roughly 400 people gathered for an evening of North Korean music at Merkin Hall, a concert space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The Ureuk Symphony Orchestra, a 40-member, semi-professional ensemble based in the New York area, was performing its 118th concert; the event had been organized by the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC), a non-profit established in 1997. A security guard wielding a handheld metal detector checked people for weapons at the door.
People of various nationalities made their way into the auditorium, where numerous North Korean officials were also seated.
At a few minutes after 8, conductor Chris Joonmoo Lee, who was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. in 1972, took the stage. According to the program, Lee, who is 75, “makes regular appearances on concert stages across the world,” and has conducted “many of the world’s major orchestras, including the State Symphony Orchestra of DPR Korea, the Pyongyang Conservatory Orchestra,” and others.
The performance began with the violin concerto “Sa-HyangGa” (“Thoughts of Home”), which is based on “The Eternal Revolutionary Songs of Kim Il Sung.”
The program made no explicit mention of any North Korean connection
Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 in F Op. 50 was next, followed by the North Korean composition “Our Pledge.” The orchestra played one piece each by Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn, then finished with “Girl on a Swing,” which appears on one North Korean LP between the songs “I Shall Remain Loyal Single-Heartedly” and “Our Country is Tax-Free,” and the grand finale, “A Bumper Harvest in the Chongsan Plain,” which pays homage to the “Chongsan-ri method” of labor devised by Kim Il Sung in 1960.
The program made no explicit mention of any North Korean connection, creating a degree of opacity for anyone not steeped in DPRK arcana (which, admittedly, is most non-North Koreans) and making the exact point of the event somewhat difficult to discern.
That at least two senior North Korean officials attended the event is “a tacit endorsement at least, and at most, somehow part of North Korea’s official presence in the U.S.,” said Mintaro Oba, a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. State Department.
“Typically when music is involved in diplomacy, it’s more overt, like when the New York Philharmonic went to North Korea,” Oba told NK News. “The benefit of that is tying what’s going on specifically to a spirit of reconciliation and exposing them very overtly to Western or North Korean music, and that’s clearly not what’s going on here.”
The Ureuk Symphony usually performs twice a year, with a spring concert to mark April’s “Day of the Sun,” honoring Kim Il Sung’s birthday. While these concerts usually slip by with very little notice from U.S. media—the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng is one of the few people who has covered Ureuk, writing a piece about their April 2016 concert titled, “Duped New York Audience Gives Standing Ovation to North Korean Propaganda”—North Korean state media has made hay out of them for nearly two decades.
“Concert Given in U.S. to Celebrate Kim Jong Il’s Birthday,” KCNA announced in 2000, highlighting the participation of “renowned orchestral conductor Ri Jun Mu [Christopher Joonmoo Lee’s Korean name], chairman of the cultural and arts division of the General Federation of Korean Residents in the United States.”
Last year, the Pyongyang Times covered both Ureuk’s February and April performances in New York, noting that after the former, “some of the audiences [sic] expressed admiration for the concert and congratulated the entertainers, saying that they did not think Korean music would be that impressive and the concert was very fantastic.”
However, Lee, Ureuk’s artistic director and conductor, “has trouble keeping people once they find out it’s North Korean music,” a source close to the orchestra told NK News.
The organizers, mostly older men who remember pre-war Korea and want to see the peninsula reunified before they die, genuinely mean well—even if sometimes they go a bit too far, the source said. Rev. Yun Kil Sang, KANCC’s president, regularly appears in North Korean news, even when the orchestra isn’t playing.
Lee, Ureuk’s artistic director and conductor, “has trouble keeping people once they find out it’s North Korean music”
“Overseas Koreans said in general that they felt “kind-heartedness” and “high-spiritedness” from Vice-Chairman Kim Jong Un when they were received by him after paying their respects to the bier of Kim Jong Il, chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission, displayed at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace,” KCNA wrote in 2012.
“Yun Kil Sang, chairman of the Federation of Koreans in the U.S., said: ‘His image gave other persons something comfortable. It gave a dignified yet gentle impression. When I looked at his face, I could feel that his hand shaking was based on warm sincerity, not casual manner.’”
Yun has been accused of promoting anti-Semitism in the past, and KANCC was investigated by federal authorities for alleged tax violations and improper contact with North Korean officials in 2015. According to KANCC’s latest tax filings, they took in a total of $5,913 in 2016 with net assets at the end of the year totaling $2,634. However, a Merkin Hall sales representative told NK News that rental rates begin at $3,500 an hour.
The orchestra plays “Our Pledge” – based on a song by Kim Il Sung – 2012
Detractors call the organization, which is not registered with U.S. authorities under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a pro-Communist front group. But although KANCC’s website includes material that could easily be seen as supportive of Pyongyang, Moon J. Pak, KANCC’s senior vice-president, denies there’s anything subversive going on.
“To be able to work as a bridge between North and South, we feel we have to understand and be accepted by the North Koreans,” Pak, a medical doctor in Michigan, told NK News.
“That’s why we work very closely with the North Korean government. Their government is very dictatorial, so when you go there you have to comply with their rules and we might have to sing their national anthem, that sort of thing. So we compromise our political views in that sense for the eventual peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.”
Pak is a U.S. citizen, and says the rest of KANCC’s leadership is as well. The “conservative elements of the Korean-American community look upon KANCC as pro-North Korea, but we are really not like that,” he maintains.
“We compromise our political views… for the eventual peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula”
He describes the group’s position as “inclusive,” and notes that Ureuk’s October concert, at the same hall in Manhattan, will “be a joint venture, with diplomats from both North and South. We may seat them side-by-side, so they can talk to each other and things like that.”
Although last week’s concert will surely turn up in a North Korean news article any day now, North Korea expert and Jeju Peace Research Institute visiting fellow Andray Abrahamian isn’t quite sure he sees the point.
As he told NK News: “In tough times like these it shows the North Koreans a commitment to working with them, but beyond that it doesn’t seem to have much value. I mean, what’s the propaganda value of having an audience not understand that springtime in April has political meaning to the orchestra that’s performing? It’s a little strange.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube screengrab