I’m still receiving e-mail–and lots of it–about my “Sightings” column discussing the New York Philharmonic’s proposed visit to North Korea, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday. Virtually all of the people who’ve written so far have agreed with the stance I took against the visit, though I did get one letter that made me smile, albeit grimly:
Why don’t you get your facts straight about North Korea before engaging in your petty little smear campaign. Fat heads like you need to be slapped around and kicked in the groin.
I suspect that Kim Jong Il’s staff would be more than happy to oblige, since they already do it for so many other people.
Of far more interest, however, is this (unedited) e-mail from one James Zhu, part of which he also sent to Greg Sandow, whose earlier postings on this subject I quoted in my column:
I was a bit unsettled by your article on New York Philharmonic visit to North Korea, 10/27/2007. 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 understood 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 the same New YorK Philharmonic came to China (the audience was highly controlled but not telecasted), nobody over there thought it was a support to Mao, knowing you wouldn’t be raided anymore if you listen to Duke Ellington, and knowing the better stuff was coming. I surmise the viewpoints in media like yours must be more vocal before NYPO did China. Alas, look at what happened.
I am not sure how to put it politely: you are really sounds out of your line of work to the last few paragraphs of the article. When we are opinionated out of our circle of competence, we just show off our back end.
He certainly isn’t sure how to put it politely! (Greg either didn’t receive or was too nice to post that second paragraph.) Nevertheless, Zhu’s point of view is very much worth hearing, since it reflects, in Greg’s words, “the ghastly experience of living under a totalitarian regime.” This does not, of course, mean that his experience as a survivor of the Cultural Revolution is directly relevant to the situation in North Korea, about which he has as much first-hand knowledge–none–as I do.
Still, the point Zhu makes deserves to be taken seriously. It may well be that some contact between North Korea and the West, however narrowly restricted and closely monitored, is better than none at all. I hope he’s right, too, since my guess is that the Philharmonic is going to go to Pyongyang in any case.
Yet I remain skeptical, and am far more inclined to agree with the op-ed piece by Richard V. Allen and Chuck Downs of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that appeared in the New York Times the day after my column was published:
Any outsider who reaches out to the suffering millions in North Korea must be cautious not to worsen their oppression. Consider how the regime prohibits international food donors from verifying who actually gets the food. Food aid is distributed only to the military and the faithful, and denied to those judged unreliable or disloyal. This is just one reason why Doctors Without Borders withdrew from North Korea in 1998.
Normally, concerts in North Korea are limited to performances of music that Kim Jong-il himself is (falsely) credited with having written or at least approved. Merely to listen to radio broadcasts from other nations is to risk imprisonment. During a party on Christmas in 1992, one of the regime’s former propaganda officers, Ji Hae-nam, made the mistake of singing a South Korean song. She was sentenced to three years in jail and, as she testified to the United States Congress after her escape, beaten so severely she could not get up for a month.
It would be wonderful indeed if the Philharmonic could expose an audience in Pyongyang to some of the West’s great anthems to freedom, or at least demonstrate that excellent music has been written outside North Korea’s borders–and that the outside world is not so threatening after all. But negotiations so far on the terms of a visit are not promising.
If, as some starry-eyed commentators have suggested, the dictator’s willingness to let the Philharmonic perform demonstrates a new level of “openness,” then the orchestra should be able to make reasonable demands: that the orchestra alone set its program; that the performance be broadcast on state radio for everyone to hear; that the concert hall be open to the public, not just the elite; and that the Western press be allowed to attend. If the regime refuses these conditions, the Philharmonic should, in the name of artistic freedom, decline to perform in North Korea.
We’ll soon see what the North Korean government demands of the Philharmonic–and what the orchestra’s management, not to mention the members of the orchestra itself, will agree to do in order to play there.
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