Music for Korean unification
When people first meet the easiest and surest way to lay the foundations for warm mutual understanding is sharing a nice meal. The same is true in diplomacy.
Then what moves people most when there is a lack of common understanding or when hostility and antagonism prevails?
In this regard, non-governmental cultural exchanges between North and South Korea have created high expectations. Once again, recent discussions regarding a joint performance of orchestras from the two Koreas in Pyongyang in 10 years is drawing keen attention.
A joint concert by the two philharmonic orchestras was held in Seoul in August 2000, two months after the historic inter-Korean summit. This paved the way for other performances in Pyongyang. In 2001, South Korean pop diva Lee Mi-ja held a recital in Pyongyang. Many classical and pop singers stood on the Pyongyang stage in 2002, and Cho Yong-pil was there in 2005
The New York Philharmonic made a historical tour of the Korean Peninsula, bringing Antonin Dvorak's ``New World'' Symphony to Pyongyang and Seoul in 2008. However, music does not look to have brought about much change to the overall situation.
Chung Myung-whun, who leads the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, has tried to organize a joint North-South Korean orchestra recital since last year. Instead, he conducted on March 14, the North Korean Eunhasu Orchestra and the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra in an unusual joint program. France opened an office for cultural exchanges in North Korea last year although there is no diplomatic relationship between the countries.
Inter-Korean relations may potentially reach a turning point with changing leadership in both Koreas but this could herald a change for the better or for the worse. Then how are the recent signs of a potential cultural thaw to be interpreted?
As a former resident of Bonn, Germany, before reunification I always turn to Germany for answers to Korean issues. The process of German reunification began when the East German regime started to falter in May 1989. This was brought about when the fence along Hungary’s border was removed, opening a hole in the Iron Curtain. Thousands of East Germans fled to West Germany and Austria via Hungary.
The Berlin Wall fell suddenly on the evening of November 9, 1989. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced a 10-point program to expand inter-German cooperation with a view toward eventual reunification. As a result, the first free elections were held in East Germany on March 18, 1990, and a Unification Treaty was signed after negotiations. East and West Germany was officially united at midnight on Oct. 3, 1990.
Just 112 days before the reunification, on June 12, 1990, I was attending the farewell party of the 32nd Congress of the International Advertising Association in Hamburg. The party was laden with all delicacies imaginable, but the only thing I really remember about that evening is the joint performance of two German orchestras.
The venue was the former fish market of Hamburg, a long warehouse-like building on a wharf. On either end of the long hall, two stages were set, one for West Germany and one for East Germany. The two sides competed in turn to sing and play folk songs, pop songs, marches, love songs, and even children’s songs. Germany was truly one nation in musical tradition.
While the Germans never killed one another, making it much different from the Korean case, is it impossible to bring North and South Korean people together through music? The country has only been divided for 65 years while both sides share thousands of years of cultural heritage.
Since 1948, the music of the two parts of the peninsula has evolved quite differently. Preservation of traditional music was most important in the South while North Koreans improved the traditional musical instruments, making them bigger and louder. North Korea also transformed the traditional five note system into a seven note system. Russian and Chinese music influenced the vocalization of North Korean music. A personal aversion of the late leader Kim Il-sung to traditional “pansori,” or Korean opera, reportedly caused the genre to exit from the official culture.
North Korean performances are indeed impressive in scale, perfection, and the quantity of practice that must be required to carry them out. But by no means does North Korean music and dance make people happier or friendlier, at least outside the territory.
On the other hand, many older South Koreans feel alienated when they watch K-pop idols. At the same time, some younger South Koreans find traditional Korean music to be languid and pessimistic.
``I have grown old, and again sets the sun on the west today,” or ``Spring is here but I’m dreary. Spring will soon go and come back next year, but my youth will never return” are the most frequent kinds of verse. That is why it sounds very funny when a prize-winning child sings traditional songs.
Maybe I am a Pollyanna to dream a true meeting of minds between the two Koreas through music. But there must still be some common love of nature, music, and people shared among the Koreans. Anyway, we have shared a common musical heritage for a long time, and music may tear all barriers down if only we create such opportunities.
In the 4th century B.C., Plato said, ``Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything."
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is Heritagekorea21@gmail.com.