Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Will music melt North Korea´s heart?
Corriere della Sera - February 27th 2008

Music alone will not transform the closed and brutal Asian state of North Korea, nor will it transform the bitter relationship between the North Koreans and the United States. But the visit to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a large group of American journalists is nevertheless a good sign. Some New York papers have attacked the orchestra for bringing respectability to a cruel regime. But that is surely wrong.

            Cultural exchanges between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War did not bring the Berlin Wall tumbling down. Nor did the famous “ping pong” diplomacy between America and China cause the end of Maoism. But those exchanges did no harm. And by displaying the finest parts of an alien civilisation to a people who have otherwise had their minds closed to the outside world, or filled by negative propaganda, may even do some good. It is reported that the next musician to be invited to North Korea will be Eric Clapton, the rock musician. No doubt, the question of whether he will display a fine civilisation is a matter of taste. But if he is indeed invited, he should accept.

            The more difficult question concerns whether these invitations by the North Korean regime offer any real signal that something is changing in that closed, Stalinist country. Certainly, only the elite, all members of the North Korean Workers Party, will have any direct contact with the visitors, and that elite is by definition loyal and trustworthy to the regime. Nevertheless, every scrap of information about the outside world and the better life that is available there is potentially dangerous to the regime. So it is taking a risk with these invitations, albeit a small one.

            Information already penetrates North Korea via the roughly one million of its citizens who are thought to have spent time working and living in north-east China, across the border, and through the illegal importation of videos. No one can know the effect of such knowledge, but there has been no outward sign that it has prompted any active protest or dissident movements.

            Probably, these invitations to foreign musicians should be seen as a reflection of pressure on North Korea by China for the regime to show a friendlier face to the world. They may also reflect arguments inside the regime over whether the country needs to become more open, emulating China, if it is to become more economically prosperous. During the 1990s North Korea suffered at least one devastating famine, and its economy has remained fragile ever since. To invite musicians is not exactly the same as to invite car manufacturers or investment banks, in the Chinese way, but it is at least a start.

            The biggest test for North Korea’s regime, though, still lies ahead. It concerns the succession to the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-il. He is 66 years old, which is about the same age as was his father and predecessor, Kim Il-sung, when he announced that his son would succeed him. No successor has yet been named, and there is no obvious son or brother who has been trained for the role. The real danger for North Korea is that if no one is appointed, the battle for the succession could provide rather less civilised tunes than the New York Philharmonic.


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