Engaging North Korea is a difficult but necessary business. Engagement initiatives need to be honest. Honest about what they can achieve. Honest about the nature of the North Korean regime and the human rights situation in North Korea. And finally, honest about the fact that North Korean responses to initiatives of non-state actors (Track Two diplomacy) are carefully calibrated by specifically positioned state actors to obtain maximum results from such encounters.
Enter Morten Traavik.
The visit of Laibach seems an initiative comparable to Morten Traavik’s previous plan of establishing a creative academy in Pyongyang. Then, this was deemed necessary because “North Korea has had no age of enlightenment when it comes to critical thought. The very notion of contemporary art as a tool of controversy, it is as though it comes from another planet.” Bringing Western avant-garde in the form of Laibach is apparently another instalment of Morten Traavik’s civilizing mission to North Korea, rather reminiscent of the missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the North Korean state is prepared for what’s coming its way, it will not work. What is more, the implication that the North Korean regime needs to be enlightened is just wrong, because firstly it ignores North Korean intellectual history (and it’s not that it hasn’t been researched either. There is tons of stuff on colonial period communist, socialist and anarchist thought. A superficial and general two-term query already resulted in 938 results. You just need to read Korean. Oh, wait, right.) and secondly because it suggests that the North Korean regime does not know what it is doing. Evil does not imply ignorance. Both notions seems to be the product of a long-ingrained Orientalism, but instead of mirrors and beads, now we bring the (imagined) natives (similarly imagined) reason and enlightenment & avant-garde art.
True engagement with North Korea cannot start from such Orientalist and naïve premises, by depicting it as a place of darkness, waiting to be enlightened: The “If only we show them how it’s really done”-thinking. Engagement with the North Korean state has had zero tangible results. I’d rather see Morten Traavik bringing his initiatives to the North Korean people instead of to a regime responsible for the sufferings of millions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The wilful ignoring of the North Korean state’s ideological and organisational hold on ordinary North Koreans in the name of Western avant-garde art I find baffling. The notion that having Laibach perform in Pyongyang will somehow ameliorate the situation in North Korea is just too conceptual: who is going to recognize that there is an implicit challenge to totalitarianism in the performances of this band? These are completely different discursive environments. Tongue-in-cheek brandishing of fascist, communist and totalitarian symbolism (yes, chew on that one for a while) is a non-starter in the context of the NK state apparatus. The tongue-in-cheek bit gets lost in translation, leaving the fascist bits to speak for themselves. Great idea, this.
I know, I know, Kim Jong Un and his brother like Eric Clapton (I agree btw, Eric Clapton is God), so how bad can they really be? Well, bad enough to wish the fascist imagery of Laibach on the 1000 or so invitees to the soirée. It remains to be seen if the totalitarianism-shattering music of Laibach will be made available to the other 23 million or so North Koreans outside the immediate circle of the Supreme Leader. I just hope they play The Sound Of Music loud enough to drown out the cries in the camps.
It’s easy to criticize from the outside, I know. So what should have been done then? Smuggling tapes into North Korea with subversive music on them? Who knows, that might just make a difference. (I would suggest putting different music on these tapes, though. Not Laibach, but something better like Kenny G.). Engaging the state and performing in Pyongyang in the hope of setting a literally enlightening example? Has been done before and never to tangible outcomes of a better human rights situation, less repression or of real openings. For avant-garde art this is a hopelessly out-dated and old-fashioned undertaking, reminiscent of the missionaries of old. And here’s me thinking missionaries were bad news. Boy, was I wrong. I’d never quite imagined the possibility of neo-fascist looking, enlightenment-toting, leather-clad aging rockers preaching the gospel in Pyongyang (another Pyongyang Revival isn’t very likely to break out any time soon though). And I didn’t even mention Laibach’s criminal rendition of One Vision by Queen (okay, okay, not the greatest song by Freddy & friends, but, hey, it’s still Queen, you know?). This is bad news all around. Just plain bad news and not Bad News as in the other band that made a horrible cover of a Queen song. But they ruled. And I’m digressing.