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

By Adam Cathcart

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.

Only days after a black Cadillac hearse paraded Kim Jong Il's body though Pyongyang, the state produced, staged, and repeatedly performed a huge choral-orchestral cantata all about the life and legacy of the man who had portrayed himself as philosopher-king. Rewards to the composers were rapidly distributed. The strings, brass, and woodwinds of the Unhasu Orchestra stood at the centerpiece of those performances, which were attended more than once by audiophile and successor Kim Jong Un.

The group went on a punishing performance schedule across North Korea. While the orchestra's main repertoire in Paris was Brahms and Saint-Saens, North Korean state media strongly implied that the Unhasu's tour there was imbued with the spirit of Kim Jong Il, a demonstration for Europe of the Kimist renaissance in the greatest and most generous country on earth, North Korea.

For all its propaganda value back home, the orchestra tour also sent an important message to Europe and the West: the country is receptive to contact with the outside. The carefully staged pre-performance activities were, in communicating this bit of diplomacy, practically as important as the show itself. The North Korean musicians appeared at the Louvre, posed with the Mona Lisa, and spent a day at Versailles. For a country whose national propaganda often portrays such Western icons as representations of barbarism and evil, this was a big deal. China's state-run news agency Xinhua, an eager booster of North Korea's opening, quoted a French violinist as saying, "with this collaboration, opening itself to the world -- they will soon be at the level of their neighbors."

As is so often the case with North Korea's outreaches, this is probably about aid. The European Union Working Group on North Korean Issues, which makes formal recommendations on food aid to the country, is scheduled to meet later this month. Pyongyang has probably noticed that international human rights abuses are getting more attention in Europe lately, which could risk European support for food aid to North Korea.

European leaders might also see an opportunity for greater diplomatic access to Pyongyang, which Russia and the U.S. have long dominated. Kim Jong Un was educated in a European middle school, after all.

Still, North Korea is North Korea, and happy engagement is not this regime's most comfortable habit. State-run news on the day of the concert promoted military drills and angry speeches by "Red Guard Worker-Peasant Militia," who used old machine guns to blast holes in targets bearing the name of the South Korean President. University students in Pyongyang were reported to volunteer en masse for military service, each vowing to become one of "five million human bombs to defend the sacred dignity of the DPRK's leaders." The state news agency, responding in part to a new memoir released in French by a North Korean refugee, also pledged to destroy those who harmed the reputation of the DPRK.

These events can look absurd, but West participates because it does not want to discourage any chance for opening and because the idea of cultivating "civil society" ties is too powerful to resist even if, properly speaking, North Korea does not have a civil society. North Korea has left few openings for engagement, and those that have been opened often blow up Pyongyang's face. A recent figure skating championship in Pyongyang sparked scandal in Finland, when a Finnish skater who participated was forced to apologize for the appearance of supporting the regime. A soccer team sent to play against Germany generated international mockery when the team's captain blamed the lightning for their loss.

Against this ostinato of critique, the Unhasu Orchestra's trip to Paris was another of North Korea's probably futile efforts to convince the outside world that the rhythm of change in Pyongyang may in fact be accelerating.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-sea-of-blood-opera-show-a-history-of-north-koreas-musical-diplomacy/254697/