Culture triumphs politics: ‘An American in Pyongyang’

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

For one night on Feb. 26, in a barren, stoic land half a world away from us, art triumphed over hostility. Political animosity and past antagonisms were temporarily put aside as the New York Philharmonic performed in the East Pyongyang Theater in North Korea, marking a historic night of music and culture. The trip was prominent not only because it marked the largest group of foreigners to enter North Korea in 50 years, but also because it showed how, despite existing bitter political dissidence in United States-North Korea relations, music can serve as a common ground to unite both nations’ citizens and culture.

The Philharmonic chose its program with great care. With the American and North Korean flags flanking both ends of the stage, music director Lorin Maazel began the concert with both the U.S. and North Korean national anthems. Maazel then launched the Philharmonic into the Prelude to Act III from Wagner’s opera Lohegrin. Following the spirited Wagner, the symbolically chosen Symphony No. 9 by Antonin Dvorak was performed nobly and heroically. Commonly known as the New World Symphony, this was the very symphony that Dvorak wrote in wonderment as he began his life in America, a “new world,” and is thus fitting for a concert in another new, unfamiliar world.

Following these pieces came George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”, continuing the “new world” theme by illustrating the delight and frivolousness of the Parisian atmosphere as experienced by a foreigner. While introducing the piece, Maazel remarked to the audience that perhaps one day, someone will write a piece entitled “An American in Pyongyang,” a comment received warmly by the appreciative audience of 1400 foreign journalists and North Korean elites.

The warmest reception, however, came at the end of the program, when the Philharmonic played “Arirang,” a beloved Korean folk song respected on both sides of the border. Understanding the song to be a symbol for the reunification of North and South, audience members largely agreed that the atmosphere became emotionally charged, especially for the 11 members of the orchestra of Korean origin.

The concert, the last stop on the Philharmonic’s tour of Asia, marks a new era in the age of ping-pong diplomacy, a term aptly coined in the 1970s when an American ping-pong team traveled to Maoist China, effectively leading to the opening up of the country. In addition to such athletic diplomacy, past music groups have also visited closed-off countries; both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra journeyed to the former Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, respectively, during the Cold War era.

The diplomacy effort on the part of the Philharmonic in traveling to North Korea was interpreted as a note of optimism on the part of the Philharmonic’s directors and musicians, as well as U.S. officials, toward U.S.-North Korea relations. Maazel stated in an interview that he “[didn’t] want to be overly conscious … but just wanted the people in the audience and through television to see us as friendly people who love their work and who wish to communicate what we feel about music to the people.”

Politically, some hope that the concert will serve as a means to open North Korea’s doors to the Western world and lead to an eventual agreement by the country to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction. For example, former Defense Secretary William Perry, who was in attendance, called the event a “milestone,” according to Newsweek.

Washington officials did not feel the same way. The Bush administration did not comment on the performance and has distanced itself from the event. Interestingly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an accomplished pianist, was in South Korea for the inauguration of the South Korean president and could have attended the concert. Instead, she countered the optimism of the event. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” she said, according to Time.

While Rice is correct that it is evident that a concert will not single-handedly sway North Korea’s dismantlement, what it has in fact accomplished is the warming of U.S.-North Korea relations through the commonality of music and culture.

Zarin Mehta, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, echoed this sentiment in a telecast interview: “There is a chance that this will start to open up people’s minds ... then we will have done some good in the world. That’s the only thing we can hope for.”

That is precisely the role of cultural diplomacy. The Philharmonic’s musical gesture allowed for both Americans and North Koreans to see each other as human beings rather than political enemies. Art is a uniting force, and all we can hope for is that perhaps one day the political relations will mirror those of the New York Philharmonic’s concert — not of discord, but harmony.