Conversation #5

In which Pak Kim Li reluctantly answers Erich Weingartner’s questions regarding the visit of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to Pyongyang in February 2008. (First published in CanKor Report 303-304, 23 March 2008.)

Pak Kim Li (PKL):  Please don’t interview me about the New York Philharmonic.

Erich Heinz Weingartner (EHW):  I thought you’d be pleased to talk about it.

PKL:  To say what? How pleased we were to receive the blessings of “real” music? To respond to patronizing insults about our lack of a musical culture? To comment on the political coup we achieved in convincing America’s foremost cultural institution to pay homage to our leader? Or is it to comment on the political coup the Americans achieved by convincing us to broadcast the concert live by TV and radio throughout our own country as well as worldwide?

EHW:  Actually, I’m more interested to know what this event meant to people in your country.

PKL:  And how am I supposed to know that?

EHW:  You attended the concert, didn’t you? Didn’t you talk to your compatriots about it all afterwards?

PKL:  For me this was a working visit, Mr. Erich. It’s only because my Ambassador resides in the USA that we were asked to accompany the orchestra to my country. For me this was not a social home leave.

EHW:  It sounds like you at least had time to read foreign news accounts…

PKL:  There were more than 80 foreign journalists in Pyongyang, grinding out story after story! For weeks my desk and part of the floor in my office were littered with hundreds of papers and articles on the Americans in Pyongyang. Do you have any idea how many articles on the concert my Ambassador asked me to translate into Korean? I have had it up to here with talk about the NYPO.

EHW:  What about your own personal reaction to the concert?

PKL:  Personal or official?

EHW:  Personal.

PKL:  Okay, I’ll tell you: I believe in the separation of politics and culture. I think cultural exchanges are a very good thing, and should be handled by our respective cultural organizations, and they should leave us political workers damn well out of it.

EHW:  I was referring to the music.

PKL:  You know, of course, that music was never my forte, much to my father’s chagrin.

EHW:  Did he attend the concert?

PKL:  Well of course! As former head of the music department at Kim Il Sung University, he and a number of his retired colleagues were guests of honour!

EHW:  And your good wife, the piano teacher?

PKL:  She joined at the dress rehearsal. Numerous teachers and students from the conservatory got to attend the rehearsal. And the following day, members of the orchestra visited the Children’s Palace, where she teaches. That was the highlight of her experience!

EHW:  So what did she think?

PKL:  She’s a bit of a romantic, you know. She believes that music has the power to heal the whole world. So of course she wept through most of the concert.

EHW:  I understand that there was hardly a dry eye when the orchestra played “Arirang”.

PKL:  She said throughout the piece she saw the face of our daughter before her.

EHW:  The one who died at age three.

PKL:  The one who died as a result of American sanctions!

EHW:  Mr. Pak…

PKL:  No, I’m sorry. Let’s not talk about it, shall we?

EHW:  It’s alright. I know how painful a subject this is for you. What about your father’s assessment?

PKL:  Oh, he enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance. He doesn’t get out to too many functions these days. Often feels somewhat left out of the loop now that he’s retired. This was grandiose for him. Reliving his past.

EHW:  Except it wasn’t his past. He was listening to music played by the archenemy.

PKL:  He doesn’t see it that way. Since these were not politicians or military but professional musicians like himself, he regarded them as colleagues.

EHW:  As a member of the older generation who lived during the time of the Korean War, doesn’t he hold a grudge against all Americans?

PKL:  I don’t think he ever saw it that way. My father was a teenager when he was drafted for the Great Patriotic War. By his own admission, he was a rather bad soldier. Instead of killing Americans, he once actually saved one’s life.

EHW:  An American soldier?

PKL:  A young man no older than himself. Had been left behind when our side pushed the Americans back.

EHW:  What happened?

PKL:  My father tended his wounds. Then he was taken to prison camp. My father never saw him again. But he thought of him from time to time and wondered if he might still be alive, maybe the beneficiary of a POW exchange.

EHW:  So he might have had more than a musical interest in the concert.

PKL:  Quite likely. He asked me to interpret for him when he went backstage to shake hands with orchestra members immediately after the concert.

EHW:  That should have been interesting.

PKL:  It was a little embarrassing. Since there was quite a line-up of people waiting to shake hands, the “conversations” were mostly one-liners. My father’s line was, “Music is an expression of the human heart.”

EHW:  Why is that embarrassing?

PKL:  Well, after the first three repetitions, I was no longer sure what I was translating made any sense.

EHW:  I think it is a beautiful thought.

PKL:  Most of the American musicians smiled and nodded politely — then looked at me as though I must have mistranslated. One of the older members of the orchestra told him, “Yes, I agree that music is an expression of the human heart. But some hearts are filled with darkness.”

EHW:  What did your dad say to that?

PKL:  My father replied, “Then you and I and all those in our profession must together illuminate the darkness of their hearts.”

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