When the Music Dies


When the Music Dies

Mar 17, 2008 3 min read
Bruce Klingner

Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia

Bruce Klingner specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia.

Music may soothe the savage beast, but it won't change Kim Jong-il's intransigence in the stalled Six Party Talks.

The New York Philharmonic's trip last month to Pyongyang was a pleasant symbol of cultural outreach. Only the naïve, though, think it will encourage the North Korean regime to behave better or provide required information on its nuclear weapons programs and proliferation to other countries.

Philharmonic president Zarin Mehta called the concert a "giant leap" toward normalizing relations between North Korea and the United States.

Washington has repeatedly offered to establish formal relations if Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons, stops counterfeiting our currency, and improves its abysmal human rights record -- to no avail.

A visiting former U.S. official characterized the musical event as "firing a 16-inch broadside of soft power into the hearts and minds of the North Korean people."

But North Korean official radio, which reaches more citizens than television, did not carry the performance. The concert certainly didn't moderate North Korea's official press, which stepped up its anti-American propaganda, accusing Washington of preparing to attack the North.

Much has been made of North Korea's allowing the U.S. flag and national anthem to be used during the performance. Yet the regime refuses to permit the South Korean flag and anthem during an upcoming World Cup soccer qualification match in Pyongyang. Seoul has allowed the North Korean flag at previous events in South Korea.

The euphoria the concert generated evokes memories of the emotional moment when the two Koreas entered the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The two teams entered the stadium in matching uniforms and marching behind a single unification flag. Coming so soon after the historic inter-Korean summit, it appeared to some that reconciliation or even reunification of the Korean Peninsula was imminent.

But as is often the case with North Korea, the reality belied the symbolism. Pyongyang demanded and received a secret payment from Seoul, which also paid for the North's uniforms and kept hundreds of South Korean athletes out of the procession so that they wouldn't outnumber the North Korean delegation.

The Bush administration has sought to dampen public expectations that the concert would have any real impact. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice commented, "I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to the concert is going to do in North Korea." Added White House spokesperson Dana Perino: "It's a long way from playing that concert to changing the nature of the politics of North Korea."

Cultural diplomacy is no substitute for real diplomacy. The Six Party Talks are at an impasse because Pyongyang refuses to abide by its commitment to provide "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs [by] 31 December 2007." North Korea continues to deny it ever had a covert program to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons and refuses to provide information on nuclear proliferation to other countries, including Syria.

Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell testified in February that "although Pyongyang continues to deny uranium enrichment programs and proliferation activities, we believe North Korea engages in both." He affirmed that the Intelligence Community had a high level of confidence in its assessment when the U.S. confronted North Korea in October 2002.

North Korea claims that the Six Party Talks are stalled because the U.S. has not removed Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But the February 2007 joint statement only commits the U.S. to "begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism." No deadline was provided, unlike the Dec. 31 deadline for North Korea's requirement to release its data declaration.

The Bush administration maintains that North Korea won't receive any additional benefits from the Six Party Talks until Pyongyang fully complies.

There are rumors, however, that Washington is considering delinking the difficult uranium and proliferation issues from the initial data declaration or will allow these issues to be handled discretely in a parallel, unpublicized side agreement. The Bush administration should do neither.

What's next for North Korea's musical outreach to the world? Pyongyang has invited Eric Clapton to play a concert of previously banned rock music. Kim Jong-chol, the second son and rumored successor of Kim Jong-il, reportedly attended several Clapton concerts in Europe last year.

If the rock legend does play, his song "Innocent Times" would provide a fitting summary of the dismal quality of life in North Korea: "With no freedom to laugh, there's more reason to cry."

Bruce Klingner is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center.

First appeared in FOXNEWS.com