Baton diplomacy

All signs point to opportunities in the divided Korean peninsula.

Cultural diplomacy is playing a part. The world renowned [South] Korean conductor wearing his hat as ‘maestro’ of the Seoul Philharmonic Chung Myung whun just returned from a four day trip to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. There he not only met with high ranking cultural officials and musicians, he also conducted North Korea’s prized orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The choice of Beethoven takes on special significance for Chung and his North Korean hosts. For the concluding movement sets Lessing ‘An der Freude’ [Ode to Joy] to music, with a lofty chorus of voice expressing exultant happiness in brotherhood.

This message underscores the existential ache shared by North and South Koreans in a divided land; it is an expression of a common hope that one day the North and South will be reunited into a single Korea.
For Chung his ‘visite eclaire’ was moving beyond the words he could convey; for him, too, it was an opportunity to discuss common musical projects between North and South musicians.
North Korean officials were open to Chung’s initiative, but as the maestro observed, ‘they were positively inclined and wary’.
And ‘wary’ they have to be: experience, say, in music diplomacy, has taught them to be on the ‘qui vive’. Consider the big splash that the New York Philharmonic made in Pyongyang in late February 2008. An evening of American music was televised worldwide, and then there was no follow up, dashing any hopes in a breakthrough in US North Korean relations.
The New York Korea Society played a big role in arranging the logistics of the NYP’s trip to North Korea. If anyone looks at the DVD of its ‘historic’ performance, the eye would pick out in the concert hall in Pyongyang former US ambassadors, ex high ranking department of state officials, and Bush appointed diplomats. According to unnamed sources, in the weeks immediately after the Pyongyang concert, the Korea Society got word from Washington to play down contact with North Korea. Dutifully it did.
Little wonder the authorities in Pyongyang remain on their guard. Saying this, they, nonetheless, keep extending a hand to improve relations with the US and South Koreans, for example, alas with little or no response. Still, they have not stopped trying.
Maestro Chung remains ‘optimistically cautious’ plans for more musical contacts between the two Koreans, with Southern musicians playing in the North and Northern musicians playing in the South.
More musical exchanges will broaden the North’s classical repertoire. Kim Jong il’s officials in a significant gesture allowed Chung to conduct in Pyongyang the Ninth Symphony’.
Realistically, the maestro looks out for threatening dark clouds in the political skies that could and would threaten any break through with his plans.
In 2008 the press waxed hopeful that the NYP was like the US ping pong diplomacy would open North Korea to the world. It didn’t happen. The Lee Myung bak government, after scuppering the ‘Sunshine Policy’ embarked on a hostile campaign against North Korea; he has hardly soften his stand.

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