Wednesday, August 18, 2010

No follow up after the New York Philharmonic's triumphal tour in North Korea Why?

As maestro Lorin Maazel raised his hands a hushed and controlled excitement gripped the huge concert hall in Pyongyang, the capitol of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea aka North Korea]. In February 2009 in the opening days of the Barack Obama [BHO] presidency the appearance of the New York Philharmonic in North Korea looked as though a page had been turned on US DPRK relations. But it wasn't to be.
Maestro Maazel brought to Pyongyang an 'American' programme of music, notably Gershwin's 'An American in Paris' and Dvorak's 'New York Symphony'. Musically it may have seemed 'daring' but the North Koreans agreed to the programme. Mr. Maazel chose as an encore a favourite Korean song 'Airirang' which pleased his audience no end. To mark this singular event, he went so far as to say a few words of friendship in Korean which were greeted with much applause.
The concert was televised and played on NPR [National Public Radio] stations throughout the US. It was heard in the ROK [Republic of Korea aka South Korea]as well. That evening's programme is available in CD format on the internet.
A curious observer had to ask at that moment was this a 'groundbreaking' moment like sending the Gershwin opera 'Porgy and Bess' to the USSR [Soviet Union] in the winter of 1955, and accompanied by the writer Truman Capote as its muse? Or something in the line of 'ping pong diplomacy' with China which culminated with Nixon's surprise visit to the PRC [People's Republic of China in 1972? Would diplomacy take the lead over martial posturing towards the DPRK by the US? Was there a 'light at the end of the tunnel' on finally putting an end to the Korean War frozen in time and place by the 1953 Armistice Agreement?
If there was an edge to 'people to people' relations, the interest aroused in the US media about the New York Philharmonic journey to Pyongyang, it could arouse a hunger among the ordinary American to see the faces of the 'enemy', to hear the sights and sounds of a much boycotted North Korea not only by the US but the world community as well. If anything Maestro Maazel had through music and his winning personality had put a human touch to the stark reality of a DPRK which plagued by famine and floods and economic boycotts.
The television cameras had opened a window on a part of the world long denied to US citizens.
Would this be more than a novelty? The Korea Society in New York which maintained 'good relations' with North Korea, helped with the New York Philharmonic's rleg of its tour of Asian capitols. Nonetheless hardly had the enthusiasm of the visit had quieted, the mood in the Korea Society underwent a rapid change, reflecting the hard line attitude of the Obama administration, flush with an election victory and confident of its ability to change the world in its own image.
Speakers invited to the Korea Society took a more aggressive tone towards North Korea and the Society hugged more closely to the Cold War tone set by South Korea's president Lee Myung bek. [The Korea Society is an NGO, but it is funded indirectly by the US and ROK; its officers are vetted and tend to come out of the US military, diplomatic, and spy elite. As such it spins like a weather vane in the slightest change of political winds.
For whatever the reason, BHO's administration had stored good relations in a diplomatic pouch and sent it nowhere. What was it afraid of? Did it feel that the transmission of the concert directly from North Korea without censorship had given the American people a too favourable opinion of the much demonised North Koreans? Did it feel that the front page news of the New York Philharmonic had shown a DPRK leadership and people that were cast as real human beings who responded to the same music as did Americans and who appeared relatively at ease and more importantly unthreatenly?
Apparently so.
Wasn't Mr. Obama unwillingly to open more widely a firmly shut cultural--ultimately political--door to a people long shunned and so inwardly turned, to improved relations with the US? To Kim Jong il's regime which if we carefully sift through the 'langue de bois' of its own words and stern rhetoric reflect an anxiousness and a desire for contact with the outside world, particularly with the US?
Although the US president was all too well aware that owing to Kim Jong il precarious health, and the stress his regime is undergoing to ease the training and preparing the rise of Mr. Kim's chosen successor, his third and youngest son Kim Jong un, wasn't the US Korea experts alerted to the under the radar and to frustrations of a regime carrying out a peaceful transition, in order to avoid the pitfalls of chaos?
If they were--and GuamDiary seems to think that they are, they are going for the DPRK's jugular to not only ostracise, but weaken Kim Jong il to a point that insurrection and collapse would ensue.
As such tensions between the US and the DPRK have degraded to such a point that any new initiative to reduce them looks as though it is out of consideration.
A brief hope came in July 2009 with the sudden arrival in Pyongyang of Bill Clinton. Described by the White House and the media as a 'private initiative', the former president who during his 8 years in office had opened a dialogue with the DPRK, sought and obtained the release of two US journalists who entered North Korea illegally in pursuit of a story of North Koreans fleeing across the border to China for work and supplies to alleviate dire shortage at home. Tried and convicted to 12 years of hard labour, these two women whom the Kim Jong il government treated humanely and with kid gloves, were on Mr. Kim's authority freed and turned over to Mr. Clinton.
Such a gesture, once more raised hopes that some sort of breakthough were in the works. But that too was not to be.
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was pushing hard to bell the cat of the DPRK's nuclear programme. Her tack backfired badly. The US seized the UN Security Council succeeding in a resolution condemning Pyongyang and imposing harsh sanctions. The DPRK is a government not to trifle with, and gives as good as it gets. It walked out of the six party negotiations in Beijing leaving Mme. Clinton with an empty victory. [More than 18 months have passed and it has not returned to the negotiating table.]
In the meanwhile the spirit of John Foster Dulles haunts Foggy Bottom the home of America's diplomacy, the Pentagon, and the White House. confrontation through diplomacy, military exercises, more drastic economic sanctions, and beefed up propaganda warfare took over.
In spite of embracing a spirit of triumph and gamesmanship, this overheated appeal to the heady first days of Cold War, could only result in empty but dangerous boasts.
Even more significantly and even before the sinking of the ROK vedette 'Cheonan', Mr. Obama had calibrated US policy towards North Korea with Seoul's Lee Myung bek's go for broke, nothing but all Cold War against the DPRK.
These two countries named Pyongyang as the hand behind the sunken ship despite the many unanswered questions it raised and the gross massaged by South Korea of the evidence, which included that at the time of the incident many of the 'Cheonan' officers were drunk. Nevertheless, for the US and the ROK there were and are no shades of grey in the matter. So throwing caution to the wind, they seized the UN Security Council for a resolution naming Kim Jong il & co. the guilty party in the sunken 'Cheonan' and the imposition of yet another round of harsh economic sanction.
This approach blew up in Mssrs. Obama's and Lee's face like a trick cigar: China and Russia won't go along. And so the US had to impose new sanctions on its own authority and Mr. Lee had to make the best out defeat in the international arena. [See, GuamDiary earlier postings.]
Yet the Obama administration which has more than endorsed but also strengthened and in a way codified George W. Bush's hard line policy on North Korea. Saying this contact kept to a strict minimum, the more especially since the DPRK courts have convicted and sentenced an American Christian who once taught English in South Korea and naively allowed himself to be manipulated by right wing South Korean and US Christian groups, to enter the DPRK illegally and bringing 'glad tidings' and his truth of Christianity. Result: 8 years of hard labour. If the US media picked up this item, they hid it well, but the foreign press online reported that in August 2010, a doctor had visited this young American to document his health and well being. Is an exchange in the air? No one is talking yet.
In spite of a new blanket on doing business with the DPRK, it is still possible for Americans--mainly American Koreans--to travel to the DPRK. The Arirang games is an enticement and a Chicago based US travel agency is authorised to represent travel to North Korea. There however is a catch: Americans have to make it on their own to Beijing and from there fly to Pyongyang for 4 days for the roundly sum of US$1200. Contact with US universities and Korea experts and former diplomats continue in the DPRK or in China.
Kim Jong il & co. are not dupes. They have not slammed the door shut in the brusque and angry manner the US has. They have never stopped expressing the hope of a 'detente' of sorts and of better relations. Mr. Obama & co. are very much less so.
[GuamDiary has reported on the CFR [Council on Foreign Relation] Report on US policy towards Korea. It is pertinent to observe that among the 24 'Korea' hands who signed off on its conclusions for a 'rollback' policy towards North Korea, betraying a return to the hoary policy of regime change and containment of more than a half century ago, is the man who runs the travel agency which books the ordinary US citizen wanting to visit the DPRK even for 4 days! Does this man relay the names of US citizens to Washington's homeland security agencies?]
It is all too easy to engage in character assassination when talking about North Korea. The blacker the picture the better, it seems. Much has been made of the fact that at night the DPRK is a blanket of darkness, testimony of its antiquated power infrastructure, its lack of hard currency, and so on. But what would Americans say when pictures of communities in the American midwest are without city lights owing to the deep recession the US is in? Or how close North Korea watches its citizens? What about the erosion of US civil liberties and the encroaching eye of America's Big Brother's spy agencies in illegally tapping telephones, hacking into e mail files, and the like? But that is for another blog post.
What is evident: the answer why there has been no follow up since Maestro Lorin Maazel's greeting of friendship in Korean in Pyongyang in February 2009, is as plain as the nose on one's face. The US is fearful that a North Korea with even a hint of a human face would undermine its determined policy of bringing the DPRK to its knees. A smash in the face is worth more, or so it seems, to patience and open negotiations and a revival of people to people relations.
And lurking for more than a half-century is a disdain for and a disbelief in the ability of a small country on a dividen peninsula, its ability to excel in advances in the sciences--in advanced rocketry and nuclear weaponry. A disbelief bordering on a mystery with in an enigma that a country on the brink of financial ruin could hold US in check on the diplomatic chessboard. We want to cry 'open your eyes US', 'do your homework'. These plaints do not seem effective in today's hothouse of Cold War thinking among America's elite, feed on the stale theories and the policies of another time and place.
And therein lies the tragedy and much worse!

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