Sunday, January 2, 2011

26 February 2008: Americans in Pyongyang

A reader of GuamDiary sent us a DVD of the New York Philharmonic's 'The Pyongyang Concert' performed and televised from the Great Eastern Performance Hall in the North Korean capital. on 26 February in Pyongyang
It was a moment of what the US used to call of 'People to People' [P-t-P], at its very best. 'P-t-P', a programme floated by president Eisenhower, to cut through the red tape of Cold War politics and bureaucratic inertia, the better to foster better understanding between people in our 'small and interconnected' world. The disc has a documentary which shows the way the music transcended ever so briefly the great divide which has been separating the DPRK and US for more than 60 years.
The warm personality of the Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel and the transforming talent of the orchestra's musicians bonded the North Koreans and the Americans in a way that was immediate and touching. Maazel spoke learnt phrases in Korean; surprised that the audience understood him, it was a way to 'break the ice' and immediate to connect with the North Koreans.
The Philharmonic played, as a coda, the traditional folk song 'Arirang' which had a visibly moving effect. 'Arirang' is a song loved on both sides of the divided Korean peninsula. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say that for the South Koreans watching the concert on the television, few fought the tears that may have pearled on the lids of eyes.
The North Koreans looked on this 'unique' occasion as the first steps of a rapprochement between the two countries. It is difficult to read the motives of the Bush administration in allowing the Philharmonic to play in Pyongyang. After all, to president Bush, the DPRK was an 'axis of evil' state; its leader Kim Jong il, he did not hesitate to vilify; and in his pursuit of a lunatic policy which pushed North Korea to test a nuclear device.
Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's president, with the New York Korea Society ready to offer its good offices, and the 'maverick' State Department diplomat Christopher Hill, smoothed the uneven edges in order to arrange for the Philharmonic's presence in Pyongyang.
According to Mehta, the North Koreans agreed to programme: the playing of the two nations' national anthems, with national flags displayed on the stage's edges. He stressed that an 'American' orchestra would be performing in the DPRK, and the selection of the music would reflect its character--Dvorak's 'New World Symphony', a work commissioned by the Philharmonic; Gershwin's 'An American in Paris'; and Leonard Bernstein's 'Candide's' overture.
GuamDiary urges its readers to look for the DVD in public or university libraries, or if the spirit moves them, to buy it.
Mehta, Maazel, and the Philharmonic musicians may and did feel that they had succeeded beyond their wishes. Yet, the concert had no follow up by the Bush administration.
Someone who had a good feel for the inner workings of the New York Korea Society, spoke to GuamDiary on the condition of anonymity. In spite of its good works in assisting in bringing the Philharmonic to Pyongyang, the Society'schanged its tune from one second to another. The word, it seemed, had come down from on high in Washington that it 'disengage' from having anything to further the 'people to people' tilt towards an opening to North Korea. It may have been alright for the Society's top guns to deal with the DPRK delegation to the United Nations, but nothing more. It may be an NGO, but it does dance to the tune of its paymaster!
Did the Bush administration take fright that the viewing American public would discover that North Koreans were not the villains nor the monsters that US propaganda made them out to be? Did it retreat from the possibility of a breakthough in disucussions with Kim Jong il? We do know that the administration turned a sharp heel and retreated into a Cold War frame of mine. It lacked the political will or courage to venture forth and chart new diplomatic territory. And so much the tragedy since the Obama administration has kept to the straight and narrow of no contact!

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