More on North Korea

I was privately asked two very good questions, and thought I’d share the answers.

Can the New York Philharmonic have any contact with the North Korean people?

Not likely. Attendance at the Philharmonic’s concerts will be carefully controlled. And of course any concert in Pyongyang can’t possiblyreach the North Korean people, because only the elite, for the most part, are allowed into Pyongyang.

North Korea, as far as I know, doesn’t have the kind of artistic life that other countries have. Even in most repressive countries, there will be concerts and other public events that people attend more or less on their own, buying tickets just because they feel like being there. But not in North Korea. From everything I’ve read, public events are only staged to glorify the regime, and attendance may either be compulsory, or else not allowed.

But I wouldn’t minimize the effect a concert might have on the North Korean elite, or on North Korean musicians. Any North Koreans who attend may well be thrilled. They have almost no contact with the outside world, and a Western orchestra playing its heart out — as I’m sure the Philharmonic will — might well be a revelation. I’m sure there’s underground uneasiness about the state of things, and some desire, of course never expressed in public, to make a change. If even a few North Koreans can see for themselves what the west is like, and if they can meet some Americans, there’s no telling how deep the effect might be.

What could life be like, for high-ranking North Koreans?

Some of them might be as sick of Kim Jong-il as the rest of the world is, or maybe even more so. So lighting a spark in their imaginations might lead to something big — or not. It’s hard to know, but I’m sure it’s worth a shot.

Would the Philharmonic’s visit to North Korea be anything like two pioneering orchestral trips to Communist countries in the past?

The Philadelphia Orchestra toured Communist China in 1973, and the Philharmonic visited Soviet Russia in 1976. In one way, there’s a relationship. All these visits were gestures of peace, and of communication, trying to reach across political barriers to countries we hadn’t been friendly with. Maybe there’s a greater resemblance to the Philadelphia trip to China, because China, in those days — Mao Zedong was still alive — was unknown territory to most Americans, and the US was unknown territory to most Chinese.

But in other ways, the trips are very different, because North Korea is far more forbidding than China or Russia ever were. China, for instance, had internal politics that the whole world could see. The government’s policy changed from time to time. There would be relative freedom, and then repression. Huge campaigns were launched, turning the country upside down. And then those campaigns would be stopped. Beyond that, China still had a lot of its pre-Communist culture still intact, as well as a lot of western-influenced culture, including people playing and studying classical music. North Korea has none of this. It’s as if the rulers wanted to wipe the slate clean.

And while surely the country has internal politics, only hints of that show up in public. On the surface, it seems almost as if the government’s policy has never changed. In recent years, according to Bradley Martin’s book (see my last post), there have been hints of an economic relaxation, with more North Koreans engaging in trade (and smuggling), and more of them showing at least a little individual initiative. But it’s not as if the country has formally announced any new direction. This means that the Philharmonic would be entering a situation nobody knows very much about — or at least far less than people knew about China and Russia in the 1970s.

And Soviet Russia, back then, was much more like our own society than China was at that time, and North Korea is now. The most ghastly Communist rule came during Stalin’s time. But by 1976, when the Philharmonic visited, Stalin had been dead for more than 20 years, and the Soviet government had in many ways repudiated him. The labor camps (the dreaded Gulag) had been closed, and people who opposed the regime were no longer arrested and shot. Leaders could be removed from office, and sent into retirement (as Nikita Khrushchev was), rather than put on trial. In no way was there freedom of the kind we have, but there also wasn’t the brutal repression typical of Stalin’s time.

The Soviet Union also had a vital classical music life, in many ways more vital than our own. This had existed before the Russian revolution, and continued under the Communists. There were many public concerts, all over the country. When Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in the 1950s (after Stalin’s death), there was a genuine outpouring of warmth for him. Many, many people in Soviet Russia loved music, cared about who won the competition, loved Cliburn’s playing, and thought it was a hopeful sign that an American had won.

The same thing happened when western artists performed in Russia — when the Philharmonic visited, or, earlier, when George London sang the title role in the most quintessential of Russian operas, Boris Godunov, at the Bolshoi. Russian music-lovers got excited. There was a real public for these events.

None of this happens in North Korea. There isn’t any concert scene, independent of the government. There don’t seem to be many — if any — classical music performances. People study classical instruments, and learn how to compose, but their talents are put to use in concerts of music specially written and (in the case of folk songs) rewritten to glorify the regime. (Bradley Martin’s book has a fascinating interview with a North Korean cultural official, who explains how folk songs had to be given new content, in order to serve the government.) Traditional Korean music, in its original form, was simply wiped out, though some of it survives, altered to fit into the new kind of regime-glorifying work.

A comparison with Stalin’s Russia ought to show what the differences were. Just about everyone involved with classical music knows how Shostakovich suffered under Stalin. He was forced to withdraw one of his operas, voluntarily withdrew his fourth symphony, and made sure that his fifth symphony was written in approved Communist ways. He was terrified that he’d hear the dreaded knock on his door in the middle of the night, and for a while slept fully dressed, so he’d be ready to go with the secret police if they came to arrest him.

All this sounds horrible to us, and it really is horrible. But at least Shostakovich was allowed to compose! At least there was a fully developed musical world, in which his works could be performed. And while the Communist party interfered now and then, and more or less forced him to write a few pieces that were pure Communist propaganda, he still could write many works that didn’t get involved in politics at all, like his string quartets. And, for that matter, many of his symphonies. Even the fifth symphony had a secret, anti-Communist meaning, which (if you believe some memoirs from the period, quite apart from the disputed Shostakovich memoirs so famously published in the book Testimony) was clear to the many artists and intellectuals who attended the premiere.

Compare the fate of North Korean composers. They apparently exist; they work on huge government-glorifying musical spectacles. But we don’t learn their names, and as far as anyone knows, they don’t write anything that isn’t specifically for the government. There simply doesn’t seem to be any independent concert scene, of the kind Shostakovich was part of. So Shostakovich had a kind of freedom no one in North Korea even can dream of, at least under present conditions. He had to be careful; the Communists could descend on him at any time. But he was free to compose anything that wasn’t specifically forbidden, as opposed to North Korean composers, who (at least as far as we know) only compose music that the government commands them to write.

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  1. David Irwin says

    Greg, Great post!

    We have a local musician/scholar whose speicalty is women compsers from Korea. We had a concert in Tampa last year with a woman composer from Korea who was impressively talented. It is stupifing that the North Korean regime should repress music in such awful ways. The contrast is dramatic.

    Thanks, David.

    The contrast between South and North Korea is devastating, from everything I’ve heard. This is one reason it can be helpful for North Koreans to have contact with the outside world. They’re taught, I believe, that their country has a better life than other countries do, hard as it sometimes is. The truth could — I’ll be hopeful now — someday make them free.

  2. James Zhu says

    Following is a post in response to Terry Treachout article on WSJ 10/27. Since part of Treachout article, which strongly against the visit, is a refute to you view, I repost here.

    The following was written to Terry Teachout.

    I was a bit unsettled by your article on New YorK Philharmonic visit to

    North Korea, 10/27/2007, on WSJ. You never lived in such a society(“Darkness

    at Noon”, nothing less) and culture, how do you evaluate the impact of

    classic music to people “not familiar with Western composers”? I was

    first exposed to Mozart at a time when one of my school teachers was

    beaten to death on the street like a wild dog. I didn’t quite

    understand what was going on, but through his Serenade I said to myself, “there

    are got to be a better world”. I was timely punished and sent away to

    a camp for scavenging these Columbia 33 1/2 records and listening to

    them. After Philadelphia Philharmonic came to China(the audience

    was highly controlled and not telecasted), nobody over there thought it

    was a support to Mao, knowing you wouldn’t be raided on anymore if you

    listen to Duke Ellington, and knowing the more good stuff were coming. I

    surmise the viewpoints like yours must be more belligent before Philadelphia Orch.

    did China. Alas, look at what happened.

    Thanks, James. You’re speaking from your heart here, and also from an experience Americans have never had (thank God). Your words touch me. They’re very valuable. I know that NY Philharmonic musicians have been reading my blog, and I’m going to make sure they see your comment. Thanks again.