Commentary — December 3, 2008, 7:21 pm

Talking with Suki Kim

Suki Kim’s article “A Really Big Show: The New York Philharmonic’s fantasia in North Korea” appears in the December Harper’s Magazine. Kim is the author of the novel The Interpreter and is currently in South Korea as a Fulbright Research Scholar. Jennifer Szalai catches up with her now that the issue is on newsstands.

From “A really big show: The New York Philharmonic’s fantasia in North Korea”:

While the South Korean reporters were calculating the cost of the show, the American correspondents had other concerns. “I’ve gotta get a shot like the one in a Michael Moore documentary with a palm pressed against the camera,” said a young CNN crewmember. A Fox anchor sat nearby; he kept pronouncing “Pyongyang” as “Piiaaang Yiiaaang,” as if the extra nasal delivery would make the name sound extra Korean. The celebrity anchors Christiane Amanpour and Bob Woodruff were said to have already arrived, which then got a few reporters talking about how Amanpour and Woodruff might have negotiated such exclusive access and whether there would be a Kim Jong Il sighting after all. For the reporters on the plane, Kim Jong Il had become the world’s biggest celebrity, and they were the paparazzi staking out the shot.

Seated away from the reporters was the P.R. legend Howard Rubenstein, whose gentle mien belied the luster of a client list that includes the Yankees and the Philharmonic. “I’m interested in how he”—Kim Jong Il—“keeps such tight control over his people,” said Rubenstein. “I guess it’s a professional curiosity.”(Rubenstein, contacted by a fact-checker, directed all inquiries to a spokesman, who denied that Rubenstein made this comment and emphasized that Rubenstein was on the tour not as a Philharmonic patron but in his capacity as the company’s publicist.) Next to him was Mrs. Rubenstein, an owner of New York’s Peter Luger Steakhouse, nodding with girlish diffidence. “It’s exciting. I’ve never even been to South Korea, and here I am going to the North.” Everyone was chatting incessantly, as though we were children on the most thrilling field trip ever: “Our provisions must be coming on a separate plane, since there’s no food over there”; “It sucks that we won’t get to keep the visa for a souvenir”; “I’m already going through BlackBerry withdrawal.” Soon, there was a barrage of questions. “Will there be an ATM?” “Will they charge for incoming calls too?” “Will we be able to walk around on our own?” The plane could have been heading for the moon.

Yet a hush of silence fell as the 4:00 p.m. arrival was announced over the PA system. Passengers paused mid-sentence. Their eyes widened. They held up their digital cameras. They turned their faces to the windows. For the few of us who had been to Pyongyang before, the place was still unfathomable. Six years had passed since my first visit, and here I was again beholding this land, the source of grief and longing for generations of Koreans.

You accompanied the New York Philharmonic in February when they traveled to Pyongyang, for what was being touted as a major advance in “cultural diplomacy.” Your article suggests that despite the high-minded sentiments presented by everyone involved, the event turned out to be little more than a public relations coup for both the North Korean regime and the New York Philharmonic. Nine months have now elapsed since your trip. What has happened in North Korea since then?

There’s a great deal going on. North Korea yet again agreed to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear plant; the six-party nations claimed to have reached a disarmament-for-aid deal; and in Bush’s last hour the United States took the country off its “axis of evil” terrorism blacklist. Joint projects in Mount Kumgang and Kaesong continued to bring tourism and jobs to the cash-strapped North, and it was rumored that Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, which then led the reclusive state to release a series of photos of Kim–which were then heavily scrutinized as to their provenance by the international experts.

Ben Rosen, a blogger for the Huffington Post also reporting on the New York Philharmonic’s tour, wrote a post over the summer suggesting that diplomatic progress in North Korea had something to do with the concert in Pyongyang: “We’re engaged in diplomacy, we’re talking to people who are not our friends, and we’re making headway.” What do you make of these claims?

The New York Philharmonic’s concert in Pyongyang was a symptom of diplomacy, not the cause. The North Korean regime, with support from U.S. officials, arranged a media event featuring Western classical music to show that they are talking to each other despite the five-year-long failure of the six-party talks. And much of what I mentioned above has already come undone–North Korea has gone back on its word on nuclear disarmament by barring sampling required for verification, as well as banning inspectors from sites outside Yongbyon. It’s also slowing down the dismantling, saying that it had not received promised energy aid in time. Operations at the resort at Mount Kumgang were suspended after a South Korean tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier, and Kaesong industrial complex faces an uncertain future since the North declared a border shutdown as a challenge to the South’s conservative government, led by Lee Myung Bak. Economists continue to predict famine as hunger-related deaths and malnutrition rise.

As for Kim Jong Il’s health rumor, it hardly matters as the Great Leader has always been more of an concept than a person. North Korea is left to an army of henchmen, none of whom seems likely to retire anytime soon. I can’t really see how any of these things might have anything to do with the New York Philharmonic’s February concert.

In your article, you mention that you went to Pyongyang six years ago. How did your experience differ this time around?

Last time I was struck by North Korea’s indoctrination of its own people, but this time, I saw them do it to outsiders. North Korea allowed the media a much-sought-after way to cover the reclusive country from the inside, and, in return, the media focused on an American orchestra bringing music to North Korean people. The usual talking points–famine, persecution, nuclearization–were put aside in their coverage. Barely any reports were made on the public execution of thirteen women attempting to flee just five days before we arrived. What I saw was North Korea pulling the wool over the eyes of the international press corps while the New York Philharmonic provided incidental music.

Do you think you’ll go back again?

The choice is not up to me, as is the case with most things related to North Korea. I would certainly go again because I still do not fully understand the place, and I am fascinated by what I do not understand. But that’s different from being able to say I will go. North Korea makes the decisions.

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More from Jennifer Szalai:

From the January 2017 issue

In The Shade

Zadie Smith and the limits of being oneself

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