Clapton in North Korea would be good for who?

Not necessarily following the lead of the New York Philharmonic, EC’s management said that he has no plans to play in North Korea. And so the isolation debate continues, just as it does with Cuba and Iran. But is music really the answer to softening relations and bringing ‘rogue’ nations in line with American foreign policy (which itself is many times suspect)?

Jazz and classical musicians toured the former Soviet block countries during the Cold War- Dizzy Gillespie joked in an interview that he was totting the ‘cool weapon,’ referring to his trumpet. Did it really do any good and bring down the ‘Red Menace’? It certainly help to spread the word about the music though obviously the Soviets had a long history of classical music already and would soon develop an ardent core of its own jazz (and later rock) musicians. You could also point to Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ as being music inspired though even Vaclav Havel would tell you that it wasn’t Lou Reed and friends who helped to bring down the Soviets. As best, bands like the Velvet Underground, the Fugs and Mothers of Invention inspired the people who would help to bring about change.

So is the hope that the same would happen in North Korea? If so, why would the dictatorship allow Western musicians to do shows there? Not surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm about the Philharmonic playing in North Korea, saying that this was just a way for the government there to put on a good face and appear tolerant. The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette (a quality writer for sure) took a saner, more reasoned approach to the story, explaining not only how this was a small scale diplomatic maneuver for both countries but also that North Korea already has a classical base that’s noted in other countries.

At one time, it was unimaginable that rock bands would play in China but Wham! led the way and many others, including the Rolling Stones, followed. China itself still censors news and access to the outside world (i.e. they would bloke Net access to an article like this) but there’s hope upon hope that small cracks appear and more freedoms might follow. Resistance to this kind of logic has also kept the U.S. embargo going on Cuba though it’s persuasively argued otherwise that increased exchange would help usher out Castro’s ongoing regime (which will likely survive him, at least for now).

In the end, music isn’t going to bring down Kim Jong-il anymore than a campaign song would get Barrack elected or stop Bush’s war plans. But it can influence hearts and minds much as the Peace Corps’ done (speaking as a former volunteer) and that’s a good first step. It sure beats gunboat diplomacy.