Monday, March 03, 2008

Myth-takes About the North Korean Concert Myths

UPDATE: Ben Rosen over at the Huffington Post (shudder) writes about his first-hand experiences about the North Korea trip made by the Symphony, and far more eloquently than myself describes what was good about it. Perhaps the biggest thing that I forgot to mention is the soon-to-be-opened Pyongyang Institute of Science and Technology. A science university, with classes in English? With three of the four directors Americans? That's pretty wild stuff for North Korea. Could outside exposure be nearing the tipping point? Once enough people know the truth, will NK be forced to change? For the first time in ages, I actually have some hope.

Griping about the New York Philharmonic Symphony's trip to North Korea continues, with a column in the Wall Street Journal. Terry Teachout rebuts five "myths" about the NK concert... but most of those can be turned on their head just as easily to say the opposite. Typical of someone making assertions without facts or research to back them up.

- The fact that the audience responded warmly to the concert proves that it was a good idea. "We just went out and did our thing," Mr. Maazel told reporters, "and we began to feel this warmth coming back. . . . I think it's going to do a great deal." Bunk. All it proves is that apparatchiks can be sentimental, too,

You could just as easily say that just because apparatchiks can be sentimental it means the concert was a bad idea. And you would be just as wrong.

Yes, most people living in Pyongyang are from North Korea's elite. They appreciated the concert, although that does not mean much. Who would not appreciate a great concert? What, are they going to 'boo' because the second violin sucks? What else do you expect from any audience?

The audience responded warmly because that is what most audiences do. This means little one way or the other.

(Although Kim Cheol-woong said he was surprised by the warm reaction. Who is Kim? Keep reading...)

End of story.

Not a fan of anyone who writes like he is a professional wrestler. "End of story" my ass.

- Any direct contact between North Korea and the U.S. is by definition desirable. Not if it makes things worse for the North Koreans -- and it may.

Once again, not much in the way of evidence for this. Teacher's big proof of this assertion was a quote by Kim Cheol-woong, a NK musician who defected in 2001.
Kim Cheol-woong, a musician who defected from Pyongyang to the West in 2001, warned the Journal's Melanie Kirkpatrick that "there will be educational sessions . . . [on] the triumph of Kim Jong Il's political leadership, which resulted in the fact that even the American artistic group is coming to knock their foreheads on the floor in front of General Kim."

Yeah, well, Kim has also been cited (in Reuters and elsewhere) as saying the concert had the potential to could help change hearts and minds. Here is his Yonhap quote:
"Watching North Koreans listen to the U.S. national anthem courteously, on their feet, I felt the mood of respecting each other. The New York Phil performance will likely serve as a stepping stone for improving relations between North Korea and the U.S."

Oops. Apparently Kim's opinions are a little more nuanced and ambivalent (if not positive) than Teacher realized.

Back to Teacher's article:
- Even if only a handful of North Korean musicians heard the concert and found it inspiring, it was worth giving. Really? Are musicians more important than "ordinary" North Koreans?

The concert was broadcast live on NK radio and TV, so more than a handful of NKs heard it.

And I do not see how this makes musicians "more important" than ordinary North Koreans. Classical music concerts tend to be disproportionately attended by the upper class just about everywhere. Not a lot of "ordinary" citizens in the average concert hall. But NK is such a shuttered society, any time you have people coming into contact with foreigners (especially Americans) and seeing that they do not have horns and are normal, you are striking a blow against NK propaganda (as Andrei Lankov likes to say).

- People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Ah, the bogeyman that is moral relativism. Of course the United States is not North Korea. There are few states (if any) that are on North Korea's level.

I do not see how this is a mistaken idea about the NK concert. If Maazel has a problem with the US justice system, that really has little to do with whether or not it is okay to hold a concert in North Korea.

But if it is okay to do business with China, Russia, and a whole host of "bad" countries, is any dealing with NK beyond the pale? Where is the line? Is it impossible to think that the benefits of openness might outweigh the negatives of going to a repressive state?

(Btw, maybe, just maybe, the US (like all democratic countries) should aspire a higher moral standard than NK? When the US falls short of its ideals and has problems, it is a much bigger deal than when an oppressive dictatorship does far worse.)

- Great art can change the world.

Myeh. A pretty wishy-washy complaint. Does anyone really expect a story or song or painting to change large political systems? Anyone out of high school, at any rate...

On the other hand, art does change the world... but not in some kind of simplistic, one-to-one, cause-effect way. For example, learning art and music and the like change the way you think, the physical hardwiring of the brain (just as reading and writing do).

More to the point, Western classical musicians going to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and later did matter. Even though the Soviet Union kept chugging along for years, those concerts did matter, they changed the way people thought about the state and its enemies, they helped to undermine the legitimacy of the system.

Irene Breslau, a member of the Philharmonic's viola section, got it right on the nose: "I've had a lot of moral reservations based on wondering what a concert for the elite is going to do to help the people starving in the street,"

Could say the same thing about any classical concert in almost any major city in the world.

Anyhow, I have spent far longer on this rebuttal than I intended. My basic point is, a lot of people have gotten hot and bothered about that NY Philharmonic Orchestra concert. And most of those complainers are approaching this issue with more self-righteousness and heavy-handed ideology than brains, nuance or practicality.

The truth is, cultural exchanges do not matter a whole lot when it comes to fixing the North Korean problem. There are far larger forces at work. But when dealing with a closed society that depends on isolation to maintain its legitimacy, outside contacts have the potential to help break down the isolation, if only a little.

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