Adam Cathcart: The Sea of Blood Opera Show: A History of North Korea's Musical Diplomacy

Roundup: Historians' Take

Adam Cathcart is assistant professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and the editor of

Last week, North Korea's premier state instrumental ensemble, the Unhasu Orchestra, performed in Europe for the first time since 1953, the year the Korean War ended. The event was a landmark in North Korea's latest show of opening and reform, a cycle it has repeated many times, this time under the leadership of young new heir Kim Jung Un. The carefully managed event was also a reminder that, with so much energy and scrutiny applied to an event that would be boringly routine for most countries, the world has a long way to go before seriously engaging North Korea on touchier matters like, say, nuclear weapons or conflict with South Korea.

In 1972, one week before President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China, an ensemble of North Korean dancers and circus performers stormed Paris, imitating the new push for cultural diplomacy in Beijing. Individual North Korean musicians still occasionally perform in the music competition circuit in Europe.

North Korea's cultural diplomacy started during the Korean War and has not changed a great deal since that time. The mission has always combined a Stalinist style ruler-worship with, more practically, a way to press for foreign donations for the impoverished county. During the war, North Korean troupes regularly toured East Germany and China, both reliable allies, where they ate well and collected as much material as humanly possible, from cash to hydraulic drills, to take back home....

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