Let Them Eat Concerts, II: Musical Diplomacy, the Ri Sol-ju Rollout, and Kim Ki-Nam

By | August 04, 2012 | No Comments

Moranbong Band Leader Sonu Hyang Hui, with violin, plays a stretto to the guitar solo from “Rocky” at the band’s debut | Image via Korean Central Television; full performance at click

Let Them Eat Concerts, II: Musical Diplomacy, the Ri Jong-su Rollout, and Kim Ki-Nam

by Adam Cathcart

[Part I of this essay is here.]

What if the Moranbong Band’s first and second concerts were more than simply entertainment for his wife (who accompanied him to both performances), but part of a larger plan for cultural ties of DPRK with the outside? Are the concerts, in other words, the spearpoint of a cultural offensive by the Kim Jong Un regime along the lines of a Deng Xiaoping-style opening?

Considering Musical Diplomacy |  As has previously been argued about the US-China rapprochement in the early 1970s, the biggest diplomatic signals are often missed.  When Chairman Mao stood with Edgar Snow on the dais at Tiananmen for a parade in 1970, the US did not pick up on the hint: Even though policy at the time was chaotic and improvised at best, China wanted to initiate direct talks with the US.

Is “Rocky IV” Kim Jong-un’s equivalent of Edgar Snow?  Is it a real indication that he wants to do business with the US, and is finally ready to renegotiate with the United States to recoup the damage done and calories drained from national granaries via the awful scuttling of the Leap Day food deal?  The short answer is no.

But the notion is true that the Moranbong Band was used by Kim Jong Un to cement other alliances and serve as a symbol of honor for a foreign ally – China. As shall be seen in an extensive forthcoming SinoNK look at North Korea’s war commemoration, the Chinese role cannot be overlooked. With Kim Jong Un taking his first major bilateral meeting with a Chinese delegation that did not so much as include a Vice-Premier, there was a need for a quick patch to remind the Chinese how much they mattered.  Thus: From “Rocky” to “Mao Anying,” as it were, and the Moranbong Band dons the olive garb to remind a couple dozen thousand assembled Pyongyangites and Korean War vets — and Beijing — of China’s significance to the war effort.

Chinese Field Marshal Peng Dehuai on screen (left) with his young military subordinate, Kim Il Sung, in North Korea, 1951, showed during the Moranbong Band’s second performance, which included pro-Chinese music evoking the Korean War in Pyongyang on July 30, 2012 | Image from Korean Central Television, via NKNews.org

Moranbong as Courtship, Linked to Ri |  Just because North Korea might be scrambling to placate China or otherwise tamp down the growing Chinese tendency to take the problems of the alliance public does not necessarily imply that the DPRK is eternally absent a coherent media-relations policy. Few analysts would argue that the North Korean arrangement with Associated Press, for instance, has been anything less than a plus for the DPRK. The emergence of Ri Sol-ju, the spouse of Kim Jong-un, is another case in point.

In true North Korean fashion, the actual details of the Moranbong concert trickled out under the full control of the North Korean media in a fashion that was destined to generate maximum buzz in the Western media, emerging in the following order:

1. Woman (who is she?)

2. Outfits (cultural opening?)

3. Mickey Mouse (what?)

4. Rocky IV (seriously?)

If anyone doubts the DPRK’s facility with understanding and manipulating Western news media, it may be useful to re-read the Oprah-centric narrative of recent North Korean history (i.e., the double-memoir of Laura Ling’s arrest on the Sino-DPRK border and subsequent imprisonment in Pyongyang).  In the case of dealing with both Ling sisters in 2009, the North Koreans were masterful, doing everything short of sitting in on board meetings at CNN, and very much getting what they wanted in Western media coverage that urged the US to send a powerful envoy to Pyongyang.

The idea that the North Koreans are completely inept in manipulating foreign media is true sometimes (see: April 13 missile launch), while at others it needs to be emphatically rejected.

The media roll-out for North Korea’s erstwhile First Lady has been, to the frustration of many writers, a kind of success for Kim Jong Un.  The preparation of the discourse and its pacing by North Korean media shows a good understanding of how the Western reception would go. The combination of an unexpected brief flash of Westernization along with a an unexpected flash of transparency (a Kim dictator publicly acknowledging a spouse) was enough for North Korea to reap the gains without having to make any substantive promises to its own people about changes in the system.

Meanwhile “Rocky” could be explained away as a love theme for Kim Jong Un’s “Adrian,” a paean to underdogs everywhere, or, if necessary, an evocation of American decline. Meanwhile, the anti-reformist statements that followed — and the Moranbong Band’s next appearance at a Korean War commemoration — made clear that this was not some broader glasnost move by Kim Jong Un.

Kim Ki-nam, extreme left, beams at Kim Jong-un after the debut of the Moranbong Band in Pyongyang, July 6, 2012 | Image via NK Leadership Watch

Generational Schism, or the Rise of the Geriatrics? |  While much of the focus after the July 6 concert at the Moranbong theater focused on Kim Jong-un’s feminine sidekick, as important was his juxtaposition with two Party elders at the event: Jang Song-taek and Kim Ki-nam.  While Jang has gotten the lion’s share of attention in Western media, Kim Ki-nam, who is in his 80s and was educated in Moscow, is in many ways the more important figure when it comes to cultural changes and propaganda content (which are often synonymous) in the DPRK.

Politically speaking, the most important image released by North Korean state media from the event was not Mickey Mouse but rather when Kim Ki-nam grinned over at Kim Jong Un at the performance’s conclusion.  Naturally this aspect of evident approval of the greybeard-oligarchs of limited Westernization, was ignored altogether by Rodong Sinmun as well as the KCNA.  And maybe Kim Ki-nam himself enjoyed the show. After all, a man in his mid-80s deserves a little Disney after a busy half-year of mourning the leader whose succession he had fostered in the 1980s, supervising all the new statues being forged and Mount Rushmore-style edifices being exploded out of mountains, and giving huge speeches about Kim Jong-il’s lasting influence on the new North Korean architecture.

Of the core Party elders, none has played a more prevalent role since Kim Jong-il’s death than Kim Ki-nam. Jang Song-taek may be seen fairly frequently, but he does not speak.  Kim Ki-nam is both seen and heard, usually pronouncing on the legacy of Kim Jong-il or the artistic direction of the new DPRK.  Kim Jong-un may be the face of the future, but the direction of the propaganda and the young successor’s place in it is also very much coming from men like Kim Ki-nam with strong living experience in navigating North Korean state propaganda through immense external cultural shifts.

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  1. This has 4 incredible insights:
    1) China was the real audience for Moranbong;
    2) KJU now exhibiting real Head of State activities with his first official meeting. And his first official meeting is with China. The Party to Party relationship is alive and well. MFA continues to play on the sidelines when it comes to Sino-DPRK relations;
    3) KJU training wheels are off. No vice premiers in sight as KJU meets a foreign delegation;
    4) DPRK remains a tantalizingly difficult country to understand; Appearance and reality, static and dynamic , truth and lies are not always self-evident in the parellel universe DPRK seems to occupy.

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