Yongusil 21: North Korean Review on the Unhasu Orchestra in Paris and the AP in Pyongyang

By | December 13, 2013 | No Comments

 Haegum (Korean 4-string fiddle) player Nam Un Ha, age 25, prepares for her Paris debut | Image via Demotix, click image for gallery

Haegum (Korean 4-string fiddle) player Nam Un Ha, age 25, prepares for her Paris debut | Image: Demotix

For a nation seemingly external to conventional political themes and narratives, time surely moves apace in the North Korea of today. As this post was being edited, the turmoil in Pyongyang and the anti-Jang Sung-taek rallies spoken of within it have crystallized into his shocking execution. Political and literal demise has of course been a common feature not only of North Korean history and narrative, but also of its more recent past, even those of participants and elements once considered vital to its politics and presentation.

This year’s disappearance and demotion of a number of artists and cultural figures once key to contemporary political thematics are a case in point. As the following article notes, these same artists served as elements within cultural diplomatic initiatives and drive on Pyongyang’s part. Whether such drives will still form part of the post-Jang era is another matter, but analysts from Sino-NK doubtless will investigate and encounter whatever reality is produced, in much the same way Adam Cathcart and Steven Denney (Sino-NK’s Editor in Chief and Managing Editor, respectively), in a revealing article in the latest issue of North Korean Review, have examined the cultural diplomacy once represented by the Unhasu Orchestra, the Moranbong Band and the arrival of the Associated Press in Pyongyang. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Yongusil 21: North Korean Review on the Unhasu Orchestra in Paris and the AP in Pyongyang

The recent turning inward of the Korean Workers’ Party notwithstanding, the past two years have seen a great deal of engagement with DPRK, both successful and futile.  This past week, Yonsei University historian John Delury argued for a forceful push to reengage North Korea in all manner of sectors. Even as he vehemently disagrees with Delury’s assessment of the “Byungjin line”, the International Crisis Group’s man in Seoul, Daniel Pinkston, has taken Dennis Rodman’s tattooed hand and is supporting a push for “basketball diplomacy” with North Korea.

In spite of all of the apparent political turmoil in Pyongyang, engagement with the DPRK is continuing apace. The former Chicago Bull and Detroit Piston arrives in Pyongyang on December 18 for a four-day stay; Koryo Tours opens the gates for tourists to the border city of Sinuiju even during anti-Jang Sung-taek rallies in the capital; and Xinhua photographers spend a day documenting the “Mirim Riding Club” as a sign of China’s cultural respect for North Korea. Engaging with North Korea on the cultural level does not simply yield important insights, it is happening on a regular basis.

As these events unfold, the question needs to be asked: How are we to understand and participate ethically in cultural diplomacy with North Korea?

Two Sino-NK analysts, Adam Cathcart and Steven Denney, address the matter in a newly-published article in the scholarly journal North Korean Review, analyzing the recent practice of North Korea’s cultural diplomacy. Two case studies are taken up: the KCNA-Associated Press photo exhibition in New York, and the tour of the Unhasu Orchestra to Paris.

The rumours of Unhasu Orchestra’s demise soaked up a good deal of the bandwidth in the English-language press that focused on the DPRK this past autumn. Yet there remains a real dearth of academic work on this significant state institution, which was clearly intended to pursue Kim Jong-il’s ideology and spread Kim Jong-un’s glories, particularly in charismatic commemorative vein. Thus this article’s scope and interest in establishing the orchestra’s function in North Korea’s efforts to craft external views of itself is both useful and timely. Cathcart and Denney also help to move analytic interest beyond the swaying female bodies of the Moranbong Band, another musical ensemble frequently tracked by Sino-NK, and into the field of “journalism as engagement.”

The Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang, similarly, has been the focus of a great deal of ire and interest on the internet, but far less scholarly investigation. This article puts the AP-KCNA collaboration into a “soft power” framework whereby North Korea’s gains from the project are juxtaposed against the propaganda uses to which it is put. Even as the AP’s presence in Pyongyang (and, briefly, Manhattan) has manifested the glimmering if hardly full appearance of a new internationalism for North Korean viewers, the article holds out the possibility of the DPRK using the AP as a channel to Washington. In other words, its greatest use in the possible unfreezing of US-DPRK relations may be yet to come, inevitable criticisms of restricted reporting notwithstanding.

Both the AP-KCNA joint exhibition and the Unhasu Orchestra’s sojourn to France coincided with the first months of Kim Jong-un’s reign. Thus they can provide an alternate perspective both on North Korean foreign policy and the wider debate about how to best engage the DPRK. The paper therefore adds to the literature on North Korean foreign relations under Kim Jong-un, and can enrich the ongoing debates over journalistic and musical engagement with North Korea.

Citation: Cathcart, Adam and Steven Denney. “North Korea’s Cultural Diplomacy in the Early Kim Jong-un Era.” North Korean Review 9, no. 2 (2013): 29-42.

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