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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Jennifer Szalai:

From the January 2017 issue

In The Shade

Zadie Smith and the limits of being oneself

From the February 2012 issue

The banality of avarice

Why the finance industry never had to lie

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today