North Korean Metaphor War: Whether Adrift or Storming Forward in the Post-Cold War Epoch, the DPRK Remains Not So Much an Enigma as a Deep Cultural Bunker Into Which One, Generally Speaking, Can Only Enter By Pounding on a Piano

If I had a nickel for everytime I read the words “according to Kim Jong Il’s former Japanese chef” I could buy enough rice to feed entire boatloads of squid fishermen in the sea whose name was called Korea by an Italian in Mongolia in the 1250s.

Which is to say that the repetition of data, after certain repetitions, becomes not data at all, but a blockage.

Accrochage: phalanges of the trained musician bring plangeant glissandi to those pleasantly-drifted into halls named for dead dissidents, the only kind we truly respect.

A melismatic turn in North Korean music would be a sign that Syrian friendship has finally inflected itself upon the layered harmony of that so-called “friendship” which fails to share a common tonal intercourse!

But let’s just talk about books, specifically, this one:

Hartmut Koschyk, ed., Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005). 

In which Bonhoeffer in Korea is discussed and Doris Hertrampf, the former German Ambassador in Pyongyang, reminds us of certain basic facts; a book in which Uwe Schmelter, on page 311 of her essay (“Ist die deutsch-koreanische kulturelle Zusammenarbeit eine ‘Einbahnstrasse’?”  pp. 301-312) brings down my house-of-cards-mind with a real revelation that undermines, to modify a Rumsfeldian phrase but to shear from it the referent to the cultural destruction of Iraq, “what I thought I knew about what I thought I knew.”

This fact, which opens up a wide swath in an enigma that originated as a great wound some decades ago, is that the Goethe Insitut opened in Pyongyang in 2004 and promptly screened the film Goodbye Lenin under title “Never Cheat Your Mother.”

Were that not enough (were that not enough? what is this “entry”, some kind of Dickens novel? facts mere gruel for the uncared-for yet consequently insatiable?), the book moves on into even more fertile cultural territorium:

Alexander Liebreich, ”Kulturarbeit in Nordkorea,” in Deutschland, Korea: Geteilt, Vereint, Hartmut Koschyk, ed., (Munich: Olzong Verlag, 2005), pp. 313-329.

In which it is established that Liebreich is chief director of Munchen Kammerorchester [Munich Chamber Orchestra]  and a kind of musicologist [Musikwissenschafter], and that he took three trips to Pyongyang from 2002-2006.

What’s that I hear you saying?  You want something unique from this man?  Perhaps, a pebble of data that, when shifted and ground down among other pebbles, portends a thunderstorm, a tidal wave, an upsurge, an Aufschwung of analysis worthy of being gripped like a newspaper on that terrible morning?

The man is a musician, and he notes the unbelievable quiet in Pyongyang in a way that none other would.  Instead of harping on the lack of cars in the North Korean capital (“Shame! Shame! on you for not purchasing our Hyundai-Toyota-Mercedes-Chrysler-Shares-in-Our-Failing-Companies, Shame, North Korea, for clearly the measurement of your damnable system is now complete!“), on page 314 Liebreich says simply:

“Wir unterschaetzen, wie wichtig das klangliche Umfeld fuer einen Menschen, vor allem aber fuer einen Musiker ist (We underestimate how important the sonic environment is for a person, but above all for a musician).”

Yes, by God, yes.  Riding in the back of the Maestro’s tiny red Japanese sportscar between his Baltimore mansion and his millions-dollar symphony hall, I, as an twelve-year-old soprano about to be baptised into the cult of Mahler, had this point driven home by David Zinman.  Recollecting his castigation of a winter audience, Zinman said so pointedly, so naked in both his dependence and his power: “The artist starts from nothing, and must start with a blank page, a white canvas.  Sound is my medium.  I ask merely that you provide me with a blank canvas.”

Giving master classes in Pyongyang, the young German maestro/author now realizes how important the culture of note-taking is in Pyongyang.  Would that he would analyze the national anthem!

And then he does Bruckner’s 8th Symphony in a huge hall.  An absolute rush of North Korean string talent is made available to him.

Defection is not an option and there are too many hours now logged on this fine side of Checkpoint Charlie to mitigate against anything other, but every so often one feels as if one has washed the face of an ancient statue or an inscription on the tomb of a king (buried of course with his concubines), so nobly and so unaffected is a truth expressed.

Humans need silence in order to understand themselves, but when braided up into strands of sound marshalled by Brucknerian successors, no system — even full of the most paternal insticts and their most coercive extensions — can stand up and honestly say “We have nothing, nothing to offer you.”

So let the octaves thunder in Pyongyang, because we have hungry souls.


  1. “Wir unterschaetzen, wie wichtig das klangliche Umfeld fuer einen Menschen, vor allem aber fuer einen Musiker ist (We treasure, above all as musicians, how important the sonic environment is).”

    A more accurate translation (I presume this was a quick paraphrase) would be: “We underestimate how important the sonic environment is for a person, but above all for a musician”.

    1. Thank you I was thinking this over on the airplane and realized my mistake! Correction to follow!

      1. and I love the phrase “sonic environment,” all the more reason to keep reading and translating

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s