Musical Diplomacy


Last month, a shocking, unprecedented event occurred. In a large packed hall in Pyongyang, North Korean elites stood and listened to the Star Spangled Banner, in front of the American flag. This event was televised live throughout North Korea. Those of you who’ve been living in a cave, North Korea and the U.S. have been technically at war for over half a century. This has been a half century of the U.S. being demonized as an evil imperial power, in a country where nothing is ever televised live.

This event was also unprecedented because those North Koreans were there to greet the largest contingent of Americans, including 8 Korean-Americans, to be on North Korean soil since the Korean War. Also, the 80 members of the international press that accompanied the Americans were given unusual freedom to film and photograph. And by unusual, I mean that they were allowed to take photos without having them confiscated. It has resulted in shots like the following, an eerily empty subway station, in a scene that looks like a 1930’s movie.


What I’m describing, of course, was a New York Philharmonic concert, staged in Pyongyang. When I read about this event in the news, I was perplexed. How did this event come to pass? And why? I got the inside story from a panel discussion organized by the Korea Society, which I’ve linked to in this sentence.

The panelists include the philharmonic’s conductor, Lorin Maazel, an orchestra member, a journalist who accompanied the orchestra, a technician who helped set up the live broadcast, and others involved in the trip. The whole thing is worth listening to, as they relay the fascinating process of being contacted by the NK government, organizing the concert, and meeting the North Koreans assigned to handle the musical invasion force.

Despite some criticism that the orchestra was used as a propaganda ploy by NK, all of the panelists agreed that this was a goodwill gesture by NK to thaw relations between them and the U.S. This kind of foreign relations strategy was used between the U.S. and China through ping-pong diplomacy. And there are other examples of American orchestras playing in China and the Soviet Union.

The good faith effort was illustrated by the North Koreans going out of their way to accommodate the philharmonic. Essentially, there weren’t hard fought negotiations. Mr. Maazel told them what a NY Philharmonic concert would require to happen and what the program would consist of. It included the usual inclusion of the U.S. flag and playing the U.S. anthem at the beginning for the concert. A theater was retrofitted to NY Philharmonic specifications. The orchestra chose the pieces to be played. And their final condition that the program be televised live to ordinary Koreans was honored.

Below is a youtube clip of the orchestra playing Arirang, Korea’s most beloved song. I was moved by the brilliant arrangement, performed by one of the world’s best musical ensembles, conducted by a genius musician, under poignant circumstances. The concert has got to be one of the most important musical moments of the decade.

Photos by Chang W. Lee/NY Times

2 thoughts on “Musical Diplomacy”

  1. you should also check out the other pieces performed by the philharmonic. i was just as moved listening to the dvorak symphony. it really made me reappreciate the power of a polished orchestra.

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