North Korea’s Unhasu orchestra will leave its crowd-pleasing “Cantata to Comrade Kim Jong Il” at home in favor of Brahms’s first symphony when it plays in Paris on March 14.
For the three-year-old orchestra, the Paris event is its first performance abroad. The joint concert with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra at the Salle Pleyel in Paris will be conducted by South Korea’s Myung-Whun Chung. Together with events this month in Washington and New York, it may signal the willingness of Kim Jong Un, the new leader of the so-called “Hermit Kingdom,” to reduce its isolation.
“Cultural exchanges are rarely separated from North Korea’s broader political strategy,” Scott Snyder, who heads U.S.-Korea policy in Washington for the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It is reasonable to assume that there must also be a diplomatic motive that accompanies the performance.”
Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il after the latter’s death in December. While diplomatic officials in the U.S. and North Korea on March 7 opened talks for the first time since the change in the leadership of the impoverished country, the regime has yet to relieve tensions with South Korea.
In recent days, North Korea has stepped up its rhetoric, threatening “a sacred war” against its neighbor for defaming the dignity of its leadership and conducting military drills with the U.S. That came as the regime accused a South Korean army unit in the western port of Incheon of writing “unspeakable defamatory words” below portraits of Kim Jong Un and his father.
The Korean peninsula has 1.7 million troops from the two Koreas and the U.S. squaring off every day.
Some political observers warned against reading too much into cultural events like the one in Paris.
“I’d bet that this was arranged long before Kim Jong Il’s death” said Alastair Newton, a senior political analyst at Nomura International Plc in London. “I don’t believe for one moment that Kim Jong Un is in charge in Pyongyang. This is a deeply Confucian society where age counts and whatever he thinks probably doesn’t.”
Kim is believed to be about 28 or 29 years old.
Myung-Whun Chung told reporters in Paris he hopes a joint concert between orchestras from North and South Korea will be possible by the end of the year.
“We’re not yet politically ready to put musicians from the North and South together,” he said. “There are political obstacles which have to be overcome.”
North Korea’s National Symphony Orchestra, established in 1946, has performed abroad in countries including China, Japan, Germany, the U.K. and South Korea in August 2000. It held a joint concert two years later in Pyongyang with the South’s KBS Symphony Orchestra.
“Yes, these initiatives were under way before the death of Kim Jong Il,” said Charles Armstrong, Professor of History at Columbia University. “But the leadership transition helps give a fresh start to things.”
The Paris event is “a very promising sign that North Korea under Kim Jong Un is reaching out to the world, ” he said.
Unhasu was set up in 2009, according to the South Korea’s Unification Ministry in Seoul. The average age of the artists in the orchestra is about 20, according to Radio France.
They use traditional Korean instruments such as the haegum, a kind of violin, and the kayagum, a kind of zither with 12 silk strings. The first part of the concert will consist of traditional Korean music, to be followed by Brahms.
Beethoven’s ninth symphony -- among the best-known of the German composer’s works and one that uses words of brotherhood from the poem “Ode to Joy” -- would have been “too much,” for this performance, Myung-Whun Chung said.
“We’ll leave that for later,” he said.
*** The concert takes place at the Salle Pleyel at 8.30 p.m. in Paris on March 14. Ticket prices range from 10 euros to 45 euros.