Glasnost, North Korean-style, despite the Dear Leader

Korea 2007

By Elizabeth Sullivan

June 09, 2009

Published in Plain Dealer

North Korea is moving straight to "American in Paris" diplomacy.

Dear Leader Kim Jong Il normally prefers whiskey and Hollywood with his nukes and public executions. But in the interest of expanding ties with America, he is expanding his cultural horizons to include a visit from the New York Philharmonic in February.

This is on top of President Bush's personal letter to Dear Leader, urging Kim to come clean on his nukes, and this week's resumption of freight-train service between North and South Korea.

The New York ensemble wasn't even sure the typed invitation faxed to it in August really came from the North Korean Ministry of Culture until the State Department authenticated it, the New York Times reports.

That was followed, in October, by a seven-member orchestra delegation that went to Pyongyang to negotiate conditions for the Feb. 26 concert.

These conditions include an expanded, 1,500-seat hall; a free public rehearsal and a nationally televised concert to maximize outreach. The New York Philharmonic, under the baton of former Cleveland Orchestra maestro Lorin Maazel, also insisted on beginning its concert in its usual overseas way -- with the "Star Spangled Banner," as well as the host country's anthem, in this case Aegukka, or "Patriotic Song."

Also on the program are George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and a Richard Wagner prelude.

Additionally, some orchestra members will teach master classes, thus tearing down even more of those walls that the Dear Leader still tries to keep impregnable despite his country's gradual opening to neighbors and to the West.

It's a strange pas de deux: Kim Jong Il wants to widen the scope of what and whom he lets into North Korea to jump-start the economy and keep himself in power. At the same time, he's brutally and systematically trying to block any seepage out to regular North Koreans.

The Associated Press recently reported that a North Korean factory manager caught making unauthorized international calls from 13 phones in the basement of his factory was publicly executed in front of 150,000 people. The information came from a South Korean aid group whose reports have been credible in the past, AP said.

Meanwhile, North Korea's Orwellian communications police -- known as Bureau 27 -- repeatedly visit the hundreds of thousands of North Korean homes within range of Chinese television to search for TV remotes and concealed television sets, according to the South Korean Web site Daily NK. The police physically seal TV channels and sometimes even disable internal circuitry so the television sets can only tune to North Korean television, says the Web site, according to BBC Monitoring.

However, there's been a backlash -- with a growing number of North Korean civilians protesting the damage to their expensive TV sets, the Web site says.

For a while, Chinese-made cell phones also proliferated, creating a bonanza of first-person accounts for South Korean intelligence. Pyongyang's response to that leakage was draconian and widespread, however. South Korean experts told my group of "Gatekeeper Editors" on an International Reporting Project-sponsored tour last month that the crackdown virtually dried up this avenue of information.

The great thing, though, is that, overall, Kim's pas de denial is failing.

Many North Koreans can still hear outside news on smuggled radios or watch South Korean music videos and soap operas on smuggled DVDs.

Best of all, the exchanges with South Korean scholars, artists and intellectuals have kick-started real glasnost Korean-style that's reaching into a critical elite group in the North. The Dear Leader may viciously censor what North Koreans can write and say publicly, but he cannot solder their brains to his.

The truth -- about his debilitating rule, about the real causes of the Korean War, about the contrast of North Korea's medieval lifestyle with South Korea's riches, about the world -- is getting through. The upcoming visit by the New York musicians will only add to this warming trend.