Blockages and Breakthroughts: Cultural Diplomacy and North Korea

[A cross-post of an essay which I posted on — AC]

Yesterday, Corée_Actualités launched a short missive which functioned as a kind of bouleversement of the normal: a 90-member delegation of the DPRK’s Unhasu Orchestra (consisting of 70 players) will be performing at the Salle Pleyel in Paris this coming March 21.  The French Radio Symphony Orchestra (l’Orchestre de Radio France) will be playing alongside Unhasu, under the direction of the South Korean conductor Chung Myung-Hwa. (Like most successful conductors, Chung holds a couple of jobs concurrently; he is also the director of the Seoul Philharmonic.) The Unhasu Orchestra, as readers may recall, is an elite bunch which was closely associated with Kim Jong Il and which continues to serve as the literal pulse of the fast-beating heart that is the revolution in Pyongyang. The Mangyongdae lass who pours coffee and plunks a bass guitar in search of foreign currency in the Dandong restaurant looks up to the orchestra with a kind of awe — there is no higher position for the entertaining elite, and the material benefits conferred to the orchestra members are substantial.  As the French press digests the story — which has inspired no features yet in or LeMonde, but which surely will — we at will endeavor to keep you informed.  In the meantime, the news, covered in brief at FranceTV’s “Culturebox”, sparked an analytical turn which is at hand presently. — Adam Cathcart

Blockages and Breakthroughs: Cultural Diplomacy and North Korea

by Adam Cathcart

Why Bother Analyzing It? Rodong Sinmun Front Page, Feb. 13, 2012

The present general consensus about cultural diplomacy and North Korea appears to rest upon the following assumptions:

a. North Korea’s blockade against Western culture has gone from near-total (under Kim Il Sung) to endangered but still vigorous under Kim Jong Un;

b. North Koreans, especially youth, are desperately in need of alternate modes of culture (essentially, ours if not precisely James Turnbull’s South Korea);

c. North Korean musical and performance culture has been stunted rather than stimulated by the cult of Kim family leadership;

d. North Korea’s relatively massive state expenditures on the arts are essentially about ideology, and building a core of loyal elites in Pyongyang;

e. Performances by Western or South Korean groups in North Korea are acts of “soft power” subversion which can serve to undermine the state;

f. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are essentially musical dilettantes whose primary purpose for attending any performance is to amplify applause and reveal the political stock of whatever generals are in the retinue;

g. the themes and message of North Korean music, and the musical bureaucracy, are not necessary to analyze, because they prevaricate against the very notion of individual expression.

Rodong Sinmun, February 17, 2012

Notice also what is completely absent from the above litany:

a. North Korean culture is exportable;

b. North Korea has one of the most comprehensive systems for musical education in the world;

c. the North Korean cultural bureaucracies, in terms of goals, budgets, and politics are completely comprehensible to their allied Chinese counterparts;

d. the North Korean bureaucracy is studying, but not imitating, how China is slowly privatizing its own socialist cultural industry ownership;

e. North Korea has a state Symphony Orchestra and a contemporary music ensemble capable of playing at the international level.

Very rarely does anyone challege any element of the consensus described, and rarer still does anyone have the temerity to argue for the unspoken elements laid out above.  Perhaps this is why the appearance of a certain Norweigian on the scene (covered with utmost delicacy by Evan Ramstad) has been so unsettling; with his accordions and flip-books, the artist appears to believe in actual cultural exchange.

The festival makes several discomfiting assertions; and not once do they mention the concentration camps! (But must the camps stalk the edge of every conversation of North Korea?  As Simone de Beauvoir complained about paramters on postwar French and American discussions of Stalinist gulags, such obligatory caveats become awfully wearisome; everybody knows the camps exist.) In any event, to the Norwegian publicist-summary:

Morten Traavik calls on both locals and visitors to Barents Spektakel [a festival in northern Norway] to take part in a pioneering record attempt and a test of our ability to act together as one: with the help of North Korean mass games instructors we will try to create Norway’s biggest living picture, hopefully with several hundred participants.

Following the signals of the North Korean instructors, every participant turns over pages of a colorful flip-book, becoming one of the hundreds of living pixels forming huge, shifting mosaic pictures of well-known motives from the High North. ME/WE also puts our communal spirit to the test: Are we western individualists able to subordinate ourselves to the collective discipline necessary to act together as one, if only just for some hours? Join the project and find out! […]

ME/WE is Part 1 of a bigger project THE PROMISED LAND (along with Gold Stars and Norway on Norway) by Morten Traavik, that he has developed in North Korea through years of travels to the world’s most secluded country. This unique collaboration has resulted, for the first time ever, in a larger group ofNorth-Korean artists coming to Norway and Northern Europe, as participants in Traavik’s project. THE PROMISED LAND opens our minds for a possibility of dialogue, overcoming mutual suspicion.

According to, the accordion players were invited to the festival, but Traavik was not sure if they would come or not. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Scandanavia, a Finnish ice skater has to apologize for entertaining North Korean kids at a recent competition in Pyongyang.

Sports as cultural exchange: There is a poignant scene in Robert Egan’s brashly carnivorous book, Eating with the Enemy, in which a team of North Korean female soccer players travels to the US for the Atlanta Olympics.  After a wild shopping trip to WalMart near an interstate highway, the team returns to the hotel, whereupon the team goalie goes to each room to collect the television cords so as to prevent the women from watching cable television. Perhaps this is a horrifiying moment; the replication on American territory of the DPRK’s information monopoly. It is the extension of a North Korean state cultural quirk into a new realm.  In a text that opens up a number of apertures, sometimes painfully so, this anecdote brings forward the notion of a refutation of the principles of cultural exchange even as one is engaged in it.

This is a point that could be similarly made when it comes to Chinese-language education in the DPRK: One could point to the growth of Confucius Institutes in Pyongyang as a sign of change.  The North Koreans seemed comfortable enough with the idea to allow Vice Premier Li Keqiang to visit Chinese language students at Kim Il Sung University.

Li Keqiang, Vice-Premier of the PRC, Speaks to North Korean Students of Mandarin at Kim Il Sung University, October 25, 2011; image courtesy Xinhua

By the same token, should China have any hopes for their language at a university named for a man who, in spite of being fluent himself, famously said “Why should we speak Chinese in our own country?” Perhaps we should be skeptical of the notion that Chinese language education in North Korea will aid in opening the DPRK up to further foreign influence. Chinese-fluent North Koreans, if their ideology remains solid, would just as soon join the online comment wars in defense of their system than supinely listen to their endless supply of would-be Chinese pedagogues.

And why should the North Koreans trust either the Scandanavians or the Chinese?  After all, when the Danish Embassy in the PRC decided to have a film festival entitled NORDOX in three major Chinese cities last December (as I discovered to my total shock that month, via pamphlet, in a small art gallery in Shanghai), the Chinese Cultural Ministry approved the screening in Beijing and Guangzhou of the film “Yoduk Stories [耀道故事].”  Do you suppose the North Korean Embassy noticed?

The meaning of cultural exchange in the North Korean context remains in flux.

Not only is it in flux, but the Unhasu Orchestra now occupies the center of the debate.  KCNA absolutely seethed earlier this month at a Chosun Ilbo critique of the orchestra’s recent work.  The North Korean article, most of which is reproduced below, is itself worthy of much, much more attention than it has heretofore received (emphasis added, my commentary in brackets):

KCNA Dismisses Rubbish in S. Korean Paper

Pyongyang, February 11 (KCNA) — The south Korean reptile paper Chosun Ilbo recently let loose a spate of invectives about the local performance tour made by the Unhasu Orchestra, the DPRK’s renowned art troupe.

Having no elementary understanding of the mass-based art, this paper echoed what was aired by Radio Free Asia engaged in the anti-DPRK smear propaganda. It claimed that “the performance was not received well by audience” and “it brought them burden rather than pleasure”.

This was wicked elements’ trumpeting aimed at doing harm to the single-minded unity of the party and people.

How can such human scum understand the people of the DPRK and its arts?

Inspired by songs, the Korean people’s 80 odd year-long just revolutionary struggle started, advanced and won victories.

The Korean revolution and people held aloft the banner of “Let’s always be cheerful although our path is thorny!”, the banner of confidence and optimism, during the Arduous March, the forced march.

In this glorious course, songs and arts in the DPRK have served as valuable ideological and moral pabulum [e.g., sustenance] for the people making revolution that a large quantity of food can hardly substitute.

Even after the loss of the father whom the Korean people deeply trusted and followed, they drew a thousand-fold strength and courage from the songs presented by the orchestra [which comes to personify the leader in the style of snow] after the start of the advance in the new year. It is setting the hearts of people afire with reverence for the leader in various parts of the country [including Wonson and Huichon]. Its performances evoked a lively response among audience as they helped consolidate the unity between the leader and the people [as per Kim Jong Il’s theories, which have their roots in Germanic throught (see Acta Koreana article, cited below)] and aroused among them ardent longing for him.

The service personnel and people of the DPRK joined the orchestra in singing songs in tears and rose up, inspired by them. What the above-said media asserted is nothing but a shriek of despair made by those taken aback by the might of the arts, the hot wind raised by the orchestra more powerful than a nuclear bomb. [Mock KCNA all you like; this is easily the best sentence written by anyone in 2012, Rushdie and Keillor included.]

The reptile paper, a mixture of the American style and Japanese way of life, can never understand the true character and value of the DPRK’s arts.

They were so displeased with its local performance tour that they claimed it was unprofitable, the absurd assertion of a merchant. This suffices to guess their level of knowledge about arts. [The whole point being that profitability and market principles are an up-side-down way of looking at the arts; the whole point is that they are not profitable; rather, the point is that the state, understanding the need for Bildung, makes the outlays anyway for the spiritual health of the populace.]

In related news, a huge new Kim Jong Il cantata functions as the latest refinement of the ever-growing Gesamtkunstwerk cultural apparatus in the DPRK:

The Korean unification which seems destined to happen in our lifetimes (should we live to be as old as de Maiziere, the ex-East German Prime Minister who now dines for free amid the musical chairs of Unification Ministers in Seoul) is going to be absolutely ghastly when it comes to the question of culture and cultural integration.  Is North Korean culture completely destined for the rubbish bin of history?  Are North Korea’s cultural bureaucrats and musicians all going down with the regime, being tied so closely to it? Can the North Korean vision of art and culture be separated from the glorification of a man and a family who absorbed the lessons of Stalinism and left the rebel-turned-dictator in the dust? Or does North Korea have a distinct and viable future precisely because of its mode of culture, its “games”, its music, its sport, and its willingness to thrust the supremely faithful outward, where they shall perform, bathe in applause, collect the agreed-upon currencies and headlines and then pivot, homeward, where the great pedal tone of the revolution awaits, the Urthema, the body and Gestalt of the leader upon whose brow every anonymous worry has been cast, and from whose hand every benefit flows?

Further Reading:

Adam Cathcart, “North Korean Hip-Hop? Reflections on Musical Diplomacy and the DPRK,” Acta Koreana Vol. 12, No. 2 (December 2009): 1-19. (Full text as pdf. here.)

Adam Cathcart, “Inside North Korea: French Edition,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, September 5, 2011. (Includes footage of a hip-hop kid in Pyongyang.)

Isaac Stone Fish, “Pyongyang Rock City,” Foreign Policy, October 21, 2011. (In which the author is quoted.)

Darren Foreman, “North Korean hip-hop,” World of DarrenF, June 7, 2010. (In which the notion of KCNA-rap is spawned in London.)

Jaeyeon Woo, “NK Portrait: From Gulag to Toy Robot,” WSJ Korea Real Time, April 1, 2011. (Rap, Ryanggang-do kids, and “Yoduk Story” stories).


  1. The concert of the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra together with members of the North Korean Unhasu Orcehstra will take place at Salle Pleyel in Paris already on March 14th (not as written on 21st of March).
    And the conductors of that concert are Chung Myung-Whun (not his cello-playing sister Chung Myung-Wha) and two young North Koreans: Ri Myong Il and Yun Pum Ju.
    I have no clue wether they are the same persons, but in 2006 two young North Koreans students with the very same names majored – together with several other North Korean students – in “Conducting” at the Department of Music of the University of Vienna.

    1. Nice, thanks Werner! Hope to make these corrections and do a whole post on this event quite soon.

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