Hemlines, Symphonies, and Nuclear Weapons

A female worker in the Pyongyang subway. (New York Times)

The New York Times’ recent article about rising North Korean hemlines and the speculation they raised about changes in the country’s leadership under Kim Jong-Un was a journalist’s device for exploring the opaque nature of a hermetic and paranoid country.  Unfortunately it also perpetuated the popular notion that there is a fundamental division between the aesthetic and the political in a nation so thoroughly permeated by the regime, and that a change in something as mundane as women’s style could be a sign that Pyongyang was on the verge of “opening up”.

We’ve seen such “signs” of North Korea on the verge of “opening up” for decades now, as the country engaged in fits of family visits, nuclear negotiations, tourism, and cultural exchanges. But nothing has really changed the essential nature of the regime: it remains the world’s last bastion of Stalinism, the planet’s only Communist dynasty. As a result of its backwards, chauvinistic policy of Juche, two million Koreans who might be alive today starved to death during the 1990s.

A few years ago CNN and the redoubtable correspondent Christiane Amanpour were granted extraordinary access to the country as North Korea prepared to host the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in what was a truly dramatic display of cultural public diplomacy. To its credit, the Philharmonic held its ground on a play list which included the North Korean national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and a folk tune common to both Koreas as an encore. It is clear from CNN’s footage that the concert was a big hit with the Philharmonic’s audience.  It was impossible not to feel that art had bridged something.

Amanpour could not help but speculate whether the Philharmonic’s visit and the concert signaled new political changes afoot in North Korea.  It was extraordinary, for example, that the concert was broadcast on North Korean television (at least in the homes where CNN could film) and abroad.  But even for her experience in the country, under close watch by North Korean minders, she may still have missed the complete control the state had over the arts and communications.  This was demonstrated in CNN’s interview with Kim Cheol-Woong, a North Korean piano prodigy who defected to South Korea after he was caught practicing jazz licks.  She assumes that he defected “for artistic reasons”.  What they both miss is that his desire for cultural expression was entirely political, at least according to the regime, and diametrically opposed the national ideology. In a nation like North Korea, nothing is inherently “creative”: everything is political.  This understanding was neatly summarized by Ji Hae Nam, sentenced to prison for three years for singing an “unsanctioned South Korean folk song” in her own home. “You can only sing songs about the party, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il,” she told Amanpour.  After she was released, she fled North Korea for China and eventually South Korea.

While it was dramatic that the Philharmonic concert was broadcast — all other music is normally banned in the country — the fact that the state allowed it to be broadcast is impossible to escape.  There is only one television channel in North Korea (two on Sundays), and only one radio station (on a dozen frequencies in Pyongyang).  North Koreans may be aware of other forms of expression, but the purpose of regime control and propaganda is not necessarily to convince the population of the truth, but to consistently demonstrate its authority and communicate acceptable modes of thought and expression.

The North Koreans tried, and failed, to launch an ICBM in April this year. (Getty Images via Heritage Foundation)

Amanpour’s visit coincided not just with the concert but with a fresh round of nuclear negotiations.  She was granted access to the decrepit reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, then about to be dismantled. Watching this now, it is hard not to feel taken.  Four years after this documentary was completed, the North Koreans claimed to detonate a nuclear device.  The North attacked the South.  Last year, Kim Jong-Il died, but was immediately replaced with his son. Earlier this year, the North test-fired another ballistic missile.  In other words, looking for signs of dramatic change after the concert and the visit to Yongbyon was like expecting actors in a play to continue living the characters they’ve inhabited on stage. We’ve confused tokens for effects.

The hemlines, the concert, the nuclear plant: each may have been a diversion, but internally they primarily have a political function.  In a state like North Korea, that function is control.  They communicate to a supine populace that the regime remains fully in charge; what norms of behavior and thinking are currently acceptable; and that anyone (and their entire family) who diverges from the norm will be dealt with harshly.