Powerless Harmonies: Cultural Diplomacy in French-North Korean Relations

In March 2012, an orchestra of North Korean musicians went to Paris to perform, an event which gave us a very good case study of looking at the DPRK’s soft power efforts. It also provided an example of cultural diplomacy between Europe and a country in East Asia dedicated, for the most part, to resisting exchanges that may not adhere to its ideological values.

In the case of Unhasu, the exchange really came to nothing in the diplomatic sense. The French government did not mobilize behind a push to establish relations DPRK. Given the North Korean visit came at a time when the DPRK was dancing allover the tightrope of the world stage with missile tests and the like, it seems clear that the North Koreans were using the trip to Paris to show their amenability to negotiations, if that was necessary.

The Unhasu visit was also about, in an indirect way, inter-Korean relations. While the attacks on Li Myung-bak heat up in spring 2012, the North Koreans nevertheless could hold out the possibility of an inter-Korea orchestra concert under Kyung Hwa-Chung, who had visited Pyongyang the prior year with the director of the Seoul Philharmonic.

But none of that has come to fruition.

When it comes to foreign relations, the DPRK only has a few means of trying something unusual, and sources for aid as well. We can see this with the on-again, off-again negotiations with Japan for a huge package and breakthrough that never quite seems to arrive.

One area of more or less untapped potential for the DPRK in its global relations had been the government of France, which has a tendency toward global engagement but is not in diplomatic ties with DPRK — the only European state not to be so, along with Estonia.

After the French elections in April and June in 2012, a new impetus was given, in a minor sense, to French foreign policy. The relations with China took a slightly different course, but the work with DPRK seems not to have been reemphasized and France has moved by default into a more  Has the event of the Hollande government meant anything to the possibility of French-North Korean diplomatic relations being opened up? Not to all appearances.

In the aftermath of some rather high-profile visits by Jack Lang (something like the US equivalent of Jack Kemp) to the DPRK in 2009, France opened an office in Pyongyang in October 2011. The office was headed by Olivier Vaysset, who, although lacking the title of ambassador, have nevertheless been received by DPRK Foreign Ministry at some point.

Yet, French objections to normalization seem to have calcified, with Paris taking a rather orthodox defense: France stands in international institutions and with them in object to nuclear testing, human rights violations in North Korea, etc. In Ayrault government response to questions put forth by left-wing deputy député Jean-Jacques Candelier, the objections were described as multiple. Naturally the objections of South Korean and US partners were also likely to have figured as important here as well. In the near term, do not expect a North Korean breakthrough with the Hollande government.

Citations: AAFC, ‘Le Quai d’Orsay “garde la porte du dialogue ouverte avec Pyongyang”,’ 13 August 2012.

Adam Cathcart and Steven Denney, “North Korea’s Cultural Diplomacy in the Early Kim Jong-un Era,” North Korean Review, Vol., 9, No. 2 (Autumn) 29-42.

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