Imagine tuning into the BBC and hearing a trained operatic voice singing 'Happy Birthday' in Korean to Kim Jong eun. Well, you do not need to imagine. It really happened. The voice belonged to Suzannah Clarke of Middlesbrough, England. Is there a special charm that attracts Clarke and Middlesbrough to North Korea? Clarke and Middlesbrough illustrate the old saying that music and sports are a universal language.
A little bit of history is in order here: in 1966 North Korea qualified for the World Cup held in the UK. The DPRK's 11 landed in Middlesbrough. The people of this Yorkshire county displayed a curiosity about the DPRK team, which was not hostile. In fact, by maintaining an air of neutality, they took the North Korean team as their own. In other words, they treated it as a hometown team. As for the North Korean soccer players, they did not disappoint the town that adopted them. In one of those strokes of luck which happens in sports, the DPRK 11 knocked out the world soccer champions Italy in the first round. Their victory brought much joy to Middlesbrough and drew it closer to the North Korean players. Park Doo ilk's goal went down in the record books as one of the biggest upsets in world soccer history. Alas, they, too, were eliminated but they left for home with the proud self respect of trouncing Italy and with the knowledge that in the midst of the Cold War, a town in England had treated them as one of their own. For North Korea and Middlesbrough it was 'the games of their lives'. [GuamDiary suggests looking at Daniel Gordon's 'The game of their lives' which captures the spirit of that triumph, and follows 40 odd years later what happened to the DPRK 11 players after they returned home.] An unexpected and 'tremendous' goal caught the world's imagination that instant which was impossible to forget. The town of Middlesbrough never forgot the North Koreans they adopted, and as we shall see, North Korea kept a found memory of Middlesbrought nearly a half century later.
Fast forward to 2003 when Middlesbrough Italian trained opera singer Suzannah Clarke participated in Pyongyang's Friendship Festival as tensions heightened on the divided Korean peninsula over the North's nuclear programme. Perky, clear eyed, and surely nobody's fool, with an degree with honours in Business, believed that as a good citizen of Middlesbrough, she could bridge differences with North Korea through entertainment. And she proved that by singing 5 concerts, performing both operatic and West End musical songs. Her 2003 'tour' was filmed by the BBC.
North Korea greeted her warmly, on two counts: one, she was breaking a taboo against performing in the DPRK, and two, she was from Middlesbrough.
Clarke has returned many times to North Korea. She has also given talks and classes on western opera and spoken of popular music. She has gone into the provinces as well. She is no starry eyed idealist, but ever the practical English gentlewoman that she is. As though she were talking, say, with a neighbour, the soprano exchanged tips on home gardening to increase family food supplies, with her North Korean hosts.
Listening to her interview on the BBC, Clarke exhibits a warmth towards North Koreans but she also knows they respect her opinions and her beliefs. She remains true to her ideal of building bridges through song. But it's not all song and concerts for her. According to her, she found her hosts attentive and curious about the world beyond North Korea without being patronising. And of course, she never forgets to say that she's a goodwill ambassador from Middlesbrough. Clarke, in her own way, is an example of the finer qualities of English sense of fair play.
As for Middlesbrough, the 'Middlesbrough Ladies' soccer team re enforced the city's historic connexion with North Korea, by playing in the DPRK. The team wore jerseys emblazoned with the words 'Friendship Football'. The press described the smiling 14 players and 3 coaches as sports ambassadors breaking new ground by playing in North Korea. The 'Ladies' were part of a programme marking 10 years of diplomatic relations between the DPRK and the UK. And football became a metaphor of that relationship which can serve as a model for other countries. In fact, to mark this event, the Embassy showed the popular film 'Bending like Becham' to a North Korean audience.
Events have come a long way since Middlesbrough 'adopted' the DPRK 11 in 1966. And the ties that bound that city and North Korea have survived and thrived through generosity of spirit and a willingness to get along or what in the old days people called 'peaceful coexistence'.