Cultural diplomacy has been frequently used by policymakers to ease tensions of two erstwhile foes. Perhaps the most successful—and consequently famous—example of this is the exchange of ping pong players between the Americans and the Chinese during the 1970’s. The DPRK has been no exception to these projects. The gift Madeleine Albright presented to the North Korean leader during her visit to Pyongyang was an NBA basketball, autographed by someone in whose presence even Kim Jong Il may tremble: Michael Jordan. Furthermore, the New York Philharmonic played with great fanfare in Pyongyang in February 2008, with whispered promises of reciprocal visits by the DPRK State Symphony Orchestra.
The naysayers will point out that since “the Phil” moved hearts with their rendition of Arirang, the DPRK has conducted a nuclear test and test-fired another ICBM prototype. The critics will also point out that a South Korean naval ship was sunk under mysterious circumstances, while for the first time since the Korean War, civilians were targeted by DPRK artillery barrages.
And to everyone’s chagrin, a return visit by the DPRK State Symphony Orchestra has not yet happened.
Enter rock and roll.
If you believe the scuttlebutt from the last round of wikileaks disclosures, North Korean officials have suggested that in the spirit of exchange, Eric Clapton come to Pyongyang to give a concert
. Rumour has it that second son Kim Jong Chol, and perhaps even designated heir Kim Jong Un are big Clapton fans, and according to the linked article, “one, or even both” went to a concert when they were at boarding school in Switzerland.
It does beg the interesting hypothetical question of what effect a Clapton-like performance may have on the DPRK. To the best of my knowledge, no major pop band has ever performed live in Pyongyang. (As I can only assume such a concert would be in Pyongyang) However, Bradley Martin mentions in his book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader
, that after the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students
, younger folks in Pyongyang were beginning to appreciate the rock and roll that foreigners had brought in with their cassette tapes. (If one remembers what those looked like!)
More importantly, in those pre-Internet and pre-famine days, the exposure to one of the most American of all music genres—rock and roll—undoubtedly left an indelible impression on the young elite of Pyongyang. In fact, one could argue that the promotion of liberty and rejection of authority that rock and roll has expressed for the past seventy years could (from a regime change advocate’s point of view) help spread these values among North Korean citizenry to the point that they might recognize some of the things that are not right, or (from an engagement advocate’s point of view) help temper at least the younger elites in the country to demand from their leaders a more moderate foreign policy.
Call me a wispy-eyed musical romantic, but if a few thousand rock-and-roll-loving left-wing youth can bring that type of change in North Korea, imagine the psychedelic effect a right-wing rock and roll deity
would have! Imagine the crowds (and you bet for propaganda purposes Clapton would not be playing to an empty stadium) that would be electrified by such a performance.
As a final thought, one could imagine that Eric Clapton may be somewhat of a reserved taste in Pyongyang these days. Who knows how many North Koreans have even heard of the guitar genius. However, with K-pop as popular in Pyongyang elite circles as it is, imagine the storm a hallyu
sensation like Ahn Jae Wook