North Korean Defectors Left Skeptical by Concert


North Koreans applaud after a concert by the New York Philharmonic orchestra led by Musical Director Lorin Maazel in Pyongyang, Feb. 26, 2008. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

SEOUL—As the New York Philharmonic left North Korea after its historic concert in Pyongyang, many North Korean defectors were left wondering what impact the event would have on the lives of ordinary people.

“The North Korean people have lived under the shadow of dictatorship and oppression for a long time, and most of them have no idea about music,” Seoul-based defector Park Kwang Sun told RFA’s Korean service.

Park said he doubted the Feb. 26 concert, which began with the national anthems of both the United States and North Korea, was even broadcast live to the nation, as officials said it would be.

Another defector, Ma Soon Hee, said most North Koreans lacked the musical sophistication to appreciate the carefully compiled program, which included Czech composer Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, inspired by African American music and the composer’s experience of the American Great Plains.

“Most people...are busy trying to make ends meet and put food on the table, and what they truly need is rice and money, so they have little freedom to think about music,” Ma told reporter Jungmin Noh.

“Rather than sit around and listen to classical music, people have to spend that time to go out and pluck another bunch of weeds to sell or boil in their pot at home. Only members of the elite have the leisure to think about politics or this kind of cultural event. For ordinary people, a ton of corn or rice means a lot more than a classical music concert,” she said.

Media attention

The concert, held at the plush East Pyongyang Grand Theater, was widely covered by international media as the possible beginning of a shift in decades of enmity and mistrust between North Korea and the United States.

Kim Jong-il’s propaganda machine will surely attempt to distort the true meaning of this concert and use it to further indoctrinate the people.

But defectors were worried that the same message wouldn't be heard by North Koreans at home.

“North Korean defectors as well as people still living in North Korea know full well that the authorities may use this performance to make a statement that musicians came from America to North Korea, to bow their heads in submission to the Great Leader,” defector Park Kwang Sun said.

“Kim Jong-il’s propaganda machine will surely attempt to distort the true meaning of this concert and use it to further indoctrinate the people,” he added.

Others point out that concert tickets would have been restricted to a privileged few in North Korea. Only citizens of Pyongyang, high-ranking government officials, and performing artists would have been allowed to attend, they said.

“What the North Korean authorities have told the international community about the concert, and what they have told the North Korean people, are most probably two entirely different things,” defector Park Myung Hee said.

Fears of distortion

“What the people are most likely told is that the outside world has submitted to the authority of Kim Jong-il, and his worldwide prestige is so high that foreign musicians come to Pyongyang to entertain him,” she added.

However, Park Kwang Sun fled North Korea just four months ago, and he said he thought the concert indicated Kim Jong-il’s current preoccupation with improving ties with the United States.

“Kim Jong-il understands the flow of international affairs, and he is fully aware that, in order to maintain his grip on power, he needs to avoid further isolation, through constantly seeking to develop relations with the United States,” Park Kwang Sun said.

“I believe that his true motivation to allow this concert to take place was to improve relations with the United States.”

Others said as many as half of ordinary North Koreans no longer believed their government’s vehement anti-U.S. propaganda, because they were aware that U.S. backing is behind much of the food aid shipped to help starving families.

“Currently, the U.N. is helping us a lot. North Koreans do not just blindly believe the government’s indoctrination that the United States is fundamentally bad,” Lee said.

Enmity transcended

“North Korean people understand the true significance of this event, although they may be unable to express their views openly.”

But both Park Kwang Sun and Lee Sun Hwa also said they believed the good intentions of the concert might yet be distorted by the leadership in Pyongyang.

One notable dissenting voice from the chorus of skepticism that greeted the concert among North Korean defectors was professional pianist Kim Chul-woong, who fled his job as first pianist with the Pyongyang Philharmonic Orchestra to escape to South Korea via China in 2001.

“Rather than resorting to political terminology such as ‘cultural diplomacy,’ I would rather say that this performance made me feel that music is an overwhelming force that can transcend existing difficulties between the United States and North Korea, including enmity, misconceptions, and distrust,” Kim said.

“North Koreans must have been very surprised,” he told reporter Young-Yoon Choi. “They must have thought that relations between North Korea and the United States have improved to the extent that the national anthem of the United States is now played in North Korea.”

“We have been told that the United States is the fundamental cause of our poverty and deprivation.”

“Now, the people of North Korea must think that relations with the United States seem to be improving, and they must be cherishing some new hope for a better future,” he said, adding that the jazz-influenced “American in Paris” by George Gershwin, based on his experience in the French capital during the 1920s, would have been new and refreshing for most North Koreans.

“I’ve even come to think that next time this genre is included in a performance in North Korea, the country may have already opened up to the outside world,” Kim said.

Original reporting in Korean by Jungmin Noh and Young-Yoon Choi. Korean service director: Kwang-chool Lee. Translated and researched by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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