Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 3.6.08

A Chill in an Unresolved War
Reflections on an historic concert in Pynongyang
By Fred Storm 

Dateline: Feb. 26, 2008, Pyongyang, North Korea.

The Academy is pleased to present a Lifetime Achievement Award for Best Musical Performance During Wartime, seeking to thaw the glacial global chill of relations, if ever so slightly, between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And the Oscar goes to … The New York Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Tuesday night’s historic concert at Pyongyang’s Grand Theater Concert Hall by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Lorin Maazel, was certainly the most symbolic symphonic exchange between the Communist East and the Capitalist West in decades. Not since 1959, when Leonard Bernstein directed the Philharmonic in the Kremlin, during the height (depth?) of the Cold War, has the world witnessed a cultural event with such significant political overtones. Leave it to the Big Apple’s Philharmonic to show up big-time, put on a big show, on a big stage, when it really mattered, helping to shore up Uncle Sam’s battered Ugly Betty image that prevails throughout most of the world community, as the U.S. enters into the sixth year of its war in Iraq.

Stunning developments have come out of both Cuba and North Korea lately, the last pair of America’s creaking hard-line communist foes left standing in the aftermath of the last century’s Cold War. In the same week when Fidel finally relinquished the reins of power in Cuba’s Revolutionary Worker’s Island Paradise, to his septuagenarian little brother, Raul, we see Old Glory unfurled on the same stage as the flag of the North Korean Marxist-Stalinist State. We hear the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner played after the North Korean anthem.

The concert was broadcast on a live feed by the North Korean state-run TV to CNN International and to the BBC, as well as the entire North Korean nation (at least for all households fortunate enough to have radios and uninterrupted electric power all evening long). America’s most renowned classical musicians played before a packed house of select senior Korean Communist Party dignitaries and elites, the Reddest of the Red, the Pinkest of the Pink. An American in Paris? No problemo. But more than 400 Americans in Pyongyang, exporting unfiltered American music and culture directly into the homes of the North Korean people, in the very heart of the Axis of Evil? Virtually unthinkable only a few weeks ago. What in the name of General Douglas McArthur is going on here?

Although the Korean War was just a bit before my time, that conflict has been of special interest to me over the years. As the kid of a single mom, before there was such a word as “mentor,” my next-door neighbor “Uncle” Charlie babysat for me after school. Cpt. Charles Fisher was a Navy flyer. He flew combat missions in Korea. While I was still in kindergarten, I learned all about the Korean War from a decorated war hero who had fought dogfights against Chinese MIG fighter pilots in the skies of North Korea, and who had lived to talk about it. The tragedies of the Korean War and the horrific suffering of the Korean people, both North and South, were indelibly printed in the lines on Cpt. Fisher’s face.

Recently, another decorated war hero, Sen. John McCain, gazed into his Straight Talk crystal ball and predicted that American forces would be in Iraq for 100 years or more. The political pundits howled, “You can’t be serious.” The U.S. mired in Iraq for an entire century? Think not, America? Better think again. We have been in a state of undeclared war with the North Koreans since June of 1950. The intractable American-North Korean conflict has dragged on for more than half a century already, with no negotiated peace in sight. Unless we enter into some kind of parallel political universe this summer, and hopelessly divided Democratic delegates deadlock in at their convention in Denver, after the 91st ballot or so, select Dennis Kucinich as the ultimate dark horse candidate to run against McCain and the Republicans in the fall, there will be no peace with the North Koreans any time soon.

American troops, backed by an arsenal of American weapons of mass destruction, financed by the Chinese of all people, buying U.S. Treasuries, seem destined to remain on the Korean Peninsula for another generation or more. North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader as he is known, is more of a comic caricature of himself than a true communist dictator. He is merely a figurehead of the collectivist military regime, due solely to being the anointed son of his famous revolutionary father, Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, the George Washington of North Korea.

Kim Jong Il is no Kim Il Sung. If his last name were not Kim, he would be a nobody within the North Korean Communist hierarchy, much less leading the regime. Remind you of anyone stateside with a similarly fortunate political pedigree? Since the Dear Leader and our Decider-in-Chief won’t be getting together anytime soon, the Korean and American people must look for someone else to carry the tune for peace.


The dysfunctional diplomatic dissonance that has existed since 1950 between the U.S. and North Korea was held in abeyance, if only for just one night by the Philharmonic, by a magical performance for the ages, that just about brought the house down in Pyongyang.

Back in 1971, with the war in Vietnam grinding along into its 7th year of fighting, it was innocuous little ping pong balls that finally got the Americans and the Communist Chinese to begin talking to each other. Those little ping pong balls led the following year to Nixon and Kissinger toasting Mao and Chou in the Forbidden City, and eventually to the American pull-out from South Vietnam. As the 21st century unfolds, could it be that musical notes played in Pyongyang might usher the first cautious steps toward an eventual peace between these wary adversaries?

A box of Ping Pong balls: $3.75. A pair of orchestra seats, front and center at Lincoln Center: $196. The sound of peace on earth, good will toward men: priceless.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. The Grand Symphony of Peace & Harmony for all peoples of Planet Earth may be one day be written by a composer not yet born. The first movement of that elusive symphony of peace and understanding between all nations and all peoples may have been written on Feb. 26 as an overture of reconciliation between the Americans and the North Koreans, sounded by a single note of harmony played in Pyongyang. Bravo.


Fred Storm of Eugene is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter.