Kim Jong-il: Will he or won’t he go to concert?
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, according to state media, rarely misses a chance to see Russian dancing girls when they make their rare trips to his reclusive country. But will he be interested in seeing the oldest U.S. orchestra?
One of the biggest questions surrounding the unprecedented concert on Tuesday by the New York Philharmonic is whether the portly leader — portrayed in state propaganda as a masterful composer of revolutionary opera — will take a chair to listen the music of Gershwin, Dvorak and Wagner.
Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky says no formal invitation has been extended by the orchestra to Kim.
The North’s official media is likely to portray the concert as an overture by arch-enemy the United States to pay homage to Kim instead of as a mission to promote goodwill, analysts say.
“It’s kind of a win-win for Kim Jong-il. If he attends, they are playing for him. If he stays away, then he is snubbing them. If he turns up late, he could have it both ways,” says Brian Myers, a specialist in the workings of the North’s propaganda.
North Korea will host the largest contingent of journalists from the Western media when a group of about 80 flies to Pyongyang to cover the concert.
The isolated country has little experience in setting up an international media centre and has been known to send its citizens to political prisons for trying to contact people outside of its borders.
But it is trying.
Foreign media will be able to use mobile phones provided by the North. It is illegal for North Koreans to have them. Foreign media can freely use international telephone lines and the Internet, both of which are banned to North Korea citizens.
“The quantity and perhaps the quality of it (broadband Internet access) is possibly unprecedented there,” Latzky said.
But both foreign media and North Korean citizens will likely be in the same boat because North Korean agents almost always listen into any international call, according to South Korean intelligence sources.
A tale of two theatres
In the capital of newly rich, communist China, the New York Philharmonic played at a recently opened, futuristic structure featuring state of the art acoustics. In still desperately poor, communist North Korea, it will play at a hulking, ramshackle structure the locals struggle to keep heated and lit at night.
Beijing’s National Grand Theatre is a huge glass oval seemingly floating on a pond that surrounds it and was designed by French architect Paul Andreu.
The building, opened only a few months ago and nicknamed “the egg”, stands in sharp contrast to the communist monoliths such as the 1950s Soviet-style Great Hall of the People and Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City for its emperor that sit nearby.
New York Philharmonic officials were bowled over by the new facility.
In Pyongyang, the Philharmonic will be playing East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in central Pyongyang, a bland communist building that mostly hosts propaganda performances in support of North Korea’s leaders as well as the occasional visit by Russian dancing girls.
Earlier this month, North Korean musicians played a symphony at the hall called “Long Journey for Songun (military first) Leadership” and a soprano sang a number praising the glory of collective farming.
But North Korea has made an enormous effort to bring the venue up to standard by installing an acoustic shelf for the New York Philharmonic’s performance on Tuesday.
“The theatre, which underwent a formative and artistic renovation last year to meet the requirements of the new century, has all necessary facilities as an edifice of culture,” the North’s official KCNA news agency says.
Editor adds: The tour to North has prompted heated debate within the United States and beyond. In the WSJ, conductor Lorin Maazel says that the arts, per se, and their exponents, artists, have a broader role to play in the public arena. In the same paper, BR Myers argues the tour will only serve to allow the North’s propaganda machine to hail it as a tributary visit to the iron-willed “General.”
Pictures (from top): Kim Jong-il; North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Pak Gil Yon (R) and New York Philharmonic President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta; Maestro Lorin Maazel who will lead the New York Philharmonic; and Kim at work.
(Jon Herskovitz is a Reuters correspondent based in Seoul. He is travelling with the New York Philharmonic to the North.)