The Sea of Blood Opera Show: A History of North Korea's Musical Diplomacy

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A Pyongyang orchestra's trip to Paris is just the latest in a half-century of odd and carefully managed shows.

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North Korean musicians warm up in Paris / Reuters

Last week, North Korea's premier state instrumental ensemble, the Unhasu Orchestra, performed in Europe for the first time since 1953, the year the Korean War ended. The event was a landmark in North Korea's latest show of opening and reform, a cycle it has repeated many times, this time under the leadership of young new heir Kim Jung Un. The carefully managed event was also a reminder that, with so much energy and scrutiny applied to an event that would be boringly routine for most countries, the world has a long way to go before seriously engaging North Korea on touchier matters like, say, nuclear weapons or conflict with South Korea.

In 1972, one week before President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, an ensemble of North Korean dancers and circus performers stormed Paris, imitating the new push for cultural diplomacy in Beijing. Individual North Korean musicians still occasionally perform in the music competition circuit in Europe.

North Korea's cultural diplomacy started during the Korean War and has not changed a great deal since that time. The mission has always combined a Stalinist style ruler-worship with, more practically, a way to press for foreign donations for the impoverished county. During the war, North Korean troupes regularly toured East Germany and China, both reliable allies, where they ate well and collected as much material as humanly possible, from cash to hydraulic drills, to take back home.

In 1952, several large delegations of North Korean performers set out for European fundraising tours. German audiences were particularly appreciative, lavishing private donations on the state chorus and children's choirs that crisscrossed the Eastern bloc. One group travelled with a few wounded veterans and General Kim Il. The general was very much free to engage in fundraising trips, given that he had left the command of his decimated army firmly in Chinese hands. Choirs of North Korean orphans were particularly effective at eliciting donations. Would it be possible, the East German bureaucrats who'd organized the concerts asked in neatly typed letters from Leipzig, for the North Koreans to send more orphans next time?

More recent acts of North Korean musical diplomacy have followed a somewhat less overtly pathetic model. Last October, then-leader Kim Jong Il unleashed the Sea of Blood (Pibida) Opera Troupe, named for a revolutionary saga of Korean migrant women in Manchuria that was supposedly written by regime founder Kim Il Sung, consolidating the relationship with his regime's most important patron. Back home in North Korea, the regime portrayed the opera as an act of Kim's personal, overactive, and micromanaging genius. The tour was also an opportunity to show Chinese audiences that they were getting something back for all their foreign aid to Pyongyang.

But the North Korean leaders always find a way to rattle their sabers. North Korea's official news agency probably chose their words carefully when, on February 11, they declared that the Unhasu Orchestra was "more powerful than a nuclear bomb." The country has a special skill for mixing beautiful and belligerent, and the recent trip to Paris was no exception.

The Unhasu Orchestra is made up primarily of Western instruments, which are sometimes used, as they were in Paris last week, alongside traditional Korean soloists. The group is a product -- the most celebrated instrumental product, in fact -- of the state's centrally controlled system of artistic training and production. The ensemble bears the specific imprimatur of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, and his Respected Successor, Kim Jong Un. There are few greater signs of political commendation for a North Korean official than to be invited to appear with the leader at one of the orchestra's performances.

Last June, in the Chinese city of Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, I discussed the Unhasu orchestra with one of Dandong's ubiquitous North Korean musician-waitresses. As we admired the front page of the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun and its immense photo of Kim Jong Il implacably standing to applaud a performance by the orchestra, I asked her what made the ensemble so good. I wondered if it wasn't their conservatory training? "It is because they want to honor the Supreme Leader (suryongnim)," she told me earnestly.

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Adam Cathcart is a lecturer in history at the University of Leeds and the editor of SinoNK.com.

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