Since the announcement Tuesday that the New York Philharmonic plans a 48 hr visit into the
heart of North Korea, the world has been a buzz. Headlines praise and criticize the visit on
February 26th, 2008 for both encouraging discourse between states and legitimizing the
D.P.R.K.’s regime. This is not a first for cultural diplomacy; China, the Soviet Union and
Iran have all had their methods of trying to befriend the North American powerhouse, but is
the agenda behind them cultural, political or both?
Cultural diplomacy: a gentler type of carrot
It’s no secret that North Korea is a bothersome splinter impeding the far reaching grasp of
the current Bush administration. As one of the founding members of the ‘Axis of Evil’, North
Korea has been less than forthcoming with U.S. plans for its denuclearization.
The current Six-Party Talks (U.S., China, Russia, Japan, D.P.R.K and South Korea) have been
attempting to deflate tensions between states and force a shutdown of D.P.R.K’s nuclear
programs. But despite the recent headway made at the sixth round of Talks, progress is slow.
The traditional methods of sticks and carrots (sanctions and concessions) have been largely
inefficient. Both sides continue to have hostile relations, while the demonization of the
D.P.R.K as sponsors of terrorism cannot help open channels for dialogue. Perhaps the back door
use of cultural diplomacy will prove to be more fruitful.
The Institute of Cultural Diplomacy insists that cultural
influences are very effective means of taking down barriers between hostile parties, and will
be increasingly important as traditional methods of diplomacy begin to fail.
“The current issues within local, regional, national and international systems can not be
resolved without effective change at the grassroots level…The global community currently finds
itself in a situation where state governments are starting to realize the significant
constraints of their traditional models for diplomacy as the neutrality and legitimacy of
their respective initiatives are systematically being questioned.”
If this is so, then The New York Philharmonic might be on the right track. It seems that the
trip they planned was one of musical appreciation, education and understanding. Unfortunately
it seems to have been overshadowed by the Bush Administration’s zeal for political gain.
Cultural appreciation vs. political animal
Outlined in the statement issued by the Philharmonic’s President Zarin Mehta, one of the
Philharmonic’ conditions to perform was that their musicians insisted on interacting with
other local musicians and music students. As such, they have arranged open rehearsals, and
master classes for local music students during the visit. They further decided upon the
musical arrangement, which, like a proud sporting event would begin with the national anthems
of both the D.P.R.K and the U.S.A., as a sign of respect and understanding between the two
However, the mainstream media largely interpreted the concert and specifically the playing of
the American anthem as some small victory for the U.S., as if the game had already been won.
Mehta further thanked The State Department for all of its support, and held the conference
with Ambassador Pak Gil Yon, Permanent Representative of the D.P.R.K to the United Nations.
The U.S. State Department took questions concerning the concert on December 11th, not
hesitating to incorporate their own political agenda into their statement:
“The Department of State supports the decision of the New York Philharmonic to perform in
North Korea. In the October 3, 2007 Six-Party Joint Statement, the U.S. and DPRK agreed to
increase bilateral exchanges. We believe cultural exchanges such as the upcoming visit by the
New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang provide an opportunity to enhance mutual understanding.”
All these overt political tones seem to have overshadowed that beauty of this musical event.
And while mutual understanding may possible through music, politically, the tune keeps
changing, further skewing the hopeful possibilities of this union.
December 12th, Secretary of State Condelezza Rice announced that the U.S. was still unwilling
to negotiate ‘broadly’ with Pyongyang as they believed that D.P.R.K was not completely
forthcoming with all of its nuclear activity. Back to square one?
It is unfortunate that cultural and political diplomacy cannot remain divorced for this
historic event, for if one goes a foul, it is likely the other is to follow. The Institute of
Cultural Diplomacy furthers in its introductory statement that “it may be concurrently asked
whether certain governmental initiatives are true efforts to build dialogue, understanding and
trust or just a way of promoting a self-serving national or political agenda.”
When February 26th rolls around, be sure to watch the world commend and criticize. Sit back
and enjoy the show. At the very least there’s sure to be some good music.