Orchestrating a Limited Musical Cosmopolitanism

Kim Jong Eun commands attention for obvious reasons. His
charismatic heft, however, also manages to obscure a number of the other
personalities at the apex of North Korean politics who arguably do more to make
the whole system run. Within this group there are a small handful of
individuals who deserve a great deal more critical attention, and none more so
than Kim Ki Nam. He is in his mid-80s, runs the Party Propaganda and Agitation
Department, and was one of the pallbearers for Kim Jong Il at that funeral way
back in December 2011 (not to mention travelling to Seoul for Kim Dae Jung’s
funeral in 2009). He has managed to avoid the fate of many of his colleagues;
nobody outside of North Korea has so much as questioned the stability of Kim Ki
Nam’s place in the power structure. He is never the subject of rumors. 

In a regime where the execution of top officials can be
publicly justified on the grounds that the official in question had not
applauded with sufficient enthusiasm or paid only scant attention to the
placement of a carved inscription to the glory of the Mount Baekdu lineage, to
be in charge of propaganda is no laughing matter. And indeed, Kim Ki Nam has
been receiving regular jolts of recognition of his bureaucratic and ideological
power. Of late, he has been addressing huge and full auditoriums, and acting in
all ways as an authority in the matter of Kim Jong Il’s legacy and its
interpretation. At the strangely orchestrated airshow for Kim Jong Eun in May,
it was he standing at the top of the steps in a privileged role, just behind
the “first couple.”

To all appearances and as would befit his bureaucratic role,
Kim Ki Nam has also been a key part in allowing a reshaping of propaganda and
repackaging of traditional messages in an ostensibly new, and female,
skin. 

In other words, behind the ostensibly “sexy”
content of the Moranbong Band there is a deeply conservative agenda at work.
The content of their performances and the visuals in particular behind the
players indicate a deep connection to what can only be called “Kim Jong Il
revivalism,” an effort to create a contemporary tie to the early 1970s in
North Korea (not coincidentally, a period of moderate prosperity).

It is significant that the direction taken in the band’s
activities was solidified and endorsed at the recent Party congress on arts.
Never underestimate the power of such a meeting in a socialist country to
solidify the direction being taken in the performing arts. For while this is
indeed pro forma “propaganda,” it is also more than that: The performing arts
have seen small but tangible changes toward internationalization in the Kim
Jong Eun era, possibly more than any other field. 

The Kim Jong Il slogan about “keeping your feet on the
land while looking out at the world” is not entirely theoretical for the
classical music performing elite. Before he disappeared from public view, the
concertmaster of the Unhasu Orchestra played under conductor Loren Maazel when
the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang in 2008. A Japanese conductor
performed Beethoven’s Ninth in 2012 and the Munich Chamber Orchestra brought
Mozart and some avant-garde Polish music to North Korea. To state that such
visits leave no imprint at all among music students in North Korean
conservatories would be insulting.

In terms of the ability and interaction with foreigners of
its performing arts, North Korea today is not China in 1966; it is much more
like China in 1973. There are ample individual signs of change and openness in
the classical music sphere. These changes are far from pervasive, but, as ever,
with firmer patronage from above or a partial relaxation on international
exchanges, it could be opened up and moved even faster. In other words, music
is an area where North Korea feels proud of its achievements, understandably
so, and can feel confident about pushing ahead with exchanges on a more or less
equal level.

The North Korean musicians I have met are all extremely
talented, and also extremely loyal to the state. The fact that I have rehearsed
with some of them by playing a bit of “Czardas” on an ersatz cello
may have no bearing whatsoever on their political outlook, and why should it?
Certainly studying and playing their music has not turned me into a devoted
follower of Kim Il Sung. Until we are blaring the Overture to
“Egmont” over the DMZ, effectively weaponizing Beethoven, there will
be room for musical exchange.

Perhaps we need to ask a different set of questions. If
North Korea is anything like the former Soviet Union, there are intelligent
musicians within the system who are not entirely pleased with their present
lot. And short of the defection or internal exile that a small number may
suffer, those questions are pragmatic. What does Kim Jong Eun really mean when
he says, “Study the working style of the Moranbong Band”? How much
latitude for self-expression can be found on the margins of the propaganda
state? How much contact is allowed with foreign specialists? Is it possible for
one’s ensemble, including the Moranbong Band, to take a tour abroad? Why have
some members of the Unhasu Orchestra been reassigned to other orchestras, while
others seemed to disappear? How do we use the highest-possible endorsement of
the Moranbong Band as a wedge to accelerate the acquisition of foreign culture
within North Korea, without incurring the wrath promised in Rodong Sinmun to those
who bow to cultural imperialism and long to connect with the global
internet? 

Kim Ki Nam seems primed to bang on about the greatness of
Kim Jong Il until he retires, which would be extraordinary, since few people go
out on top. The significant question for those of us outside of the physical
(but within auditory reach of) the country, is how to interpret and encourage
the kind of limited cosmopolitanism going on at present. 

* Opinions expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily
reflect the views of Daily NK. 

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