Current Events Compass: Diplomacy through music? NY Philharmonic in North Korea

They aren’t state officials, tourists, or even professional
athletes. No, the largest group of Americans to set foot on North Korean soil
since the Korean War is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (

The orchestra played a repertoire of music including the North Korean and American National
Anthems, classical pieces by Wagner and Dvorak, and “Arirang” a
traditional folk song profoundly significant to both North and South Koreans. The program was
scrupulously selected to serve as a musical expression of goodwill
toward the North Korean audience. Is it appropriate to characterize the concert
as “symphonic diplomacy?” New York Times journalist Daniel J. Wakin explored this contention in
an article in the newspaper’s online edition.

Song Sok-hwan, North Korea’s
vice-minister of culture seemed to suggest as much by describing the event as
“an important occasion to open a chapter of mutual understanding between the
two countries.” Lorin Maazel, the Music Director for the New York Philharmonic,
offered a somewhat more reserved statement, “If it does come to be seen in retrospect as a historical moment, we
will all be very proud.”

As Wakin pointed out, this is not the first time that an American cultural
institution like the Philharmonic has embarked on such a seemingly audacious
mission of ambassadorship. The Boston Symphony orchestra paid a visit to the
Soviet Union shortly after the onset of the Cold War in 1956, and the Philadelphia orchestra traveled to China despite
tenuous U.S.-China relations in 1973.

Despite involvement of state department envoys in
planning the Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea, U.S. government officials were cautious not to overstate its significance.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino emphasized that, “At the end of the day, we consider
this concert to be a concert, and it’s not a diplomatic coup.”

Regardless of whether the concert was explicitly
intended to pacify underlying tensions between the two nations, the evocative, transformational power of music knows no
boundaries–it transcends political geography. While diplomats may mull over
logistics, security, and the potential implications of the visit, onlookers in
the audience Tuesday night appeared to care little about such details. The
concert demonstrates the connectedness and shared humanity of the international
community–regardless of the political acts of state bodies. And it can’t do
any harm. Or can it?

Tell Us: What do you think about the New York Philharmonic’s concert in North Korea as an act of diplomacy on behalf of the United States?

For more on the concert in Pyongyang, check out these articles:

Wall Street Journal Online

Sarah for My Wonderful World

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