The Current

How a k-pop concert in North Korea is the latest in a trend of musical diplomacy

A recent concert by South Korean musicians in North Korea is being called an act of musical diplomacy, especially because it was attended by the rogue nation's leader Kim Jong-un.
K-pop girl group Red Velvet joined other top south Korean musical acts in a rare concert in North Korea on April 1, 2018. It's the latest reconciliatory gesture before a rare inter-Korean summit. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

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The South Korean girl band Red Velvet had a prominent audience member when they performed last Sunday: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

The concert in Pyongyang is the first time in more than a decade that South Korean pop stars have performed in the North, and it's being hailed as an act of musical diplomacy.

"Kim Jong-un attending the concert, putting his own sort of stamp of approval on it and his very friendly behaviour with the musicians after the concert, was certainly very striking," said Adam Cathcart, a University of Leeds historian who researches the role of classical music in North Korean politics.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un speaks to South Korean musicians at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1. (KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

"It's a good sign that the inter-Korean diplomacy seems to be working," he told The Current's guest host Gillian Findlay.

Normally, listening to South Korean music north of the border would be a crime punishable by a work camp sentence, he said. The North Korean government reportedly tracks down any pop culture coming from outside its borders.

Instead, citizens of North Korea usually listen to the country's own music, which is heavily flavoured by state propaganda.

"That's been there since the very beginning, a very Soviet style of music education from the bottom up," said Cathcart.

The sound of diplomacy

Musical diplomacy has a long history, from the waltzes at the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars, to the U.S. Jazz Ambassadors program that featured stars such as Louis Armstrong.

More recently, America has been sending its hip hop styles abroad.

Paul Rockower worked on that program — called Next Level — and now runs his own company, Levantine Public Diplomacy. As part of his musical diplomacy programs, he has done everything from teaching breakdancing in Iraq, to touring a female bluegrass band through Central Asia, to taking Hawaiian music to Zimbabwe.

Paul Rockower was involved in the Aloha Zimbabwe program where he taught Hawaiian ideas of aloha and peace. (Submitted by Paul Rockower)

"Artists and musicians make the best ambassadors because they listen differently," Rockower told Findlay. "They can incorporate different styles into their work that shows that they're listening and paying attention to other people's culture."

It's not a quick fix, he said, but musical diplomacy can create change outside of just the concert hall.

"It's planting seeds," said Rockower. "It helps socialize different values and I think in the long term it can create real positive change."

Listen to the full conversation — which also includes a discussion with Rebekah Ahrendt about the history of musical diplomacy — at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Julie Crysler and Danielle Carr.


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