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Jewish World Review
March 4, 2008
/ 27 Adar I 5768
A descent into Twilight Zone
A little night music can soothe the savage beast, at least sometimes. This, alas, can give a well-meaning musician the idea that his tuba is mightier than his enemy's sword.
The New York Philharmonic performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Pyongyang, the other night, and the musical director imagines that he has disarmed Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, and turned his swords into plowshares with a mighty blast of Wagner's "Lohengrin" and the dreamy strains of Dvorak's "New World Symphony."
Lorin Maazel, the musical director, boasted that his orchestra had thawed a cold war once before, with a concert in the old Soviet Union in 1959. After that it was inevitable that the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down.
"The Soviets didn't realize that it was a two-edged sword," he said of that concert. "Because by [allowing our concert] they allowed the country to interact with their own people and to have an influence. It was so long-lasting that eventually the people in power found themselves out of power." He was careful not to promise too much. "There are no parallels in history. There are similarities."
Mr. Maazel imagines that his Pyongyang concert was available to ordinary people, but the 2,500 men and women who filled every seat of the East Pyongyang Grand Theater were carefully chosen. The deputy nuclear negotiator sat next to William J. Perry, the former U.S. secretary of defense. The Dear Leader was not there; many of his men were. But there was nobody to pack the peanut gallery even if there had been such a gallery (and nobody has seen a peanut in Pyongyang in years).
A lot of people imagine it was they who brought down the Berlin Wall, and Mr. Maazel and his distinguished musicians are entitled to be pleased with their good works, but only so far as those works go. It's important to understand why cultural institutions are invited to a grim satrapy like North Korea. It has nothing to do with seeking peace.
"Domestic propaganda thus makes very clear that nothing is to be expected from ongoing negotiations with the Americans," B.R. Myers, a researcher in North Korean affairs at Dongseo University in South Korea, writes in the Wall Street Journal's Asian edition. The constant refrain from America that there is no military solution to the nuclear standoff, he writes, is "attributed not to a desire for peace but to cowardice. The timing [of the orchestra's visit] is fortuitous, since the months from February to April mark the high point of the North's personality ritual."
Every year the regime publishes a series of paperback novels, entitled "Immortal Leadership," celebrating the fantastical triumphs of the Dear Leader. "The story will be simple. Kim tests nuke, Washington protests, Kim hangs tough, Washington sends musicians to entertain him. Isn't that a fairly accurate version of events?"
Any visit to North Korea is a trip deep into the Twilight Zone. Several years ago, four editors and a photographer at The Washington Times were invited to spend 11 days in Pyongyang. We interviewed every senior official except little Kim's daddy, Kim il-Sung, "the Great Leader" and chief architect of the misery in North Korea. He was at the end of his mean and merciless life.
We were entertained on our last night with dancers and musicians, good wine, and course after course of delicacies few Koreans ever see. The evening grew late, and finally our host, a senior government official, stood up to offer the ritual toast to the United States. His toast was a rant and a rage, delivered through a shower of passion and spittle, insult following abuse and affront, warning that "as the jackal cannot become a lamb, the Yankee jackals cannot change their rapacious nature." At last I stood up to return the honor, lifted my glass and compressed a toast into the only eight words our hosts needed to hear: "G-d bless the president of the United States."
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