North Korea and freedom. Do they belong in the same sentence? One would think not. Yet, the time I spent there could not have better illuminated what independence and freedom truly mean. In 2008 I had the good fortune to spend 48 hours in Pyongyang performing with the New York Philharmonic. As an American traveling in North Korea, safe in the knowledge that I would soon return home to the United States, never have I been so reminded of the gifts that we have in the free world.
During the flight to Pyongyang, our cell phones were taken from us. Thus began the quick transition from a life of independence and freedom, to a place where these concepts are anathema. As the South Korean chartered jumbo jet started to descend towards Pyongyang airport, what struck me most was the distinct lack of color. The browns of the North Korean winter landscape were complemented by the equally bland grays of the military planes that were parked on the tarmac. The bleak landscape truly gave one the impression of having stepped back in time. As we drove into the city of Pyongyang, that image was strengthened.
There seems to be little commerce on the streets of Pyongyang. There are few cars. Most people travel by bike or on foot. At night, the city is eerily dark. Satellite images of the Korean Peninsula at night show a brightly lit South and a North that is practically black. I would venture to say that progress has been halted for everything that benefits the human condition. This is a heavily militaristic society. The people and their humanity is not a priority. As these impressions filled me, I was once again reminded that I would soon be returning to my home, where freedom is a right we strongly value and possess.
We were housed in the nicest high rise hotel in Pyongyang. When the hotel elevator doors opened, the floors were dark and cold. However, the floors that the orchestra resided in were bright and toasty warm. In fact, our rooms were obscenely overheated. The image of sweating Americans trying to pry open their hotel room windows during a cold February day in North Korea is striking. The meals served were embarrassingly lavish. All of this gave the sense that they were trying too hard to make a positive impression, to fool the Western world about the terrible truths of life in North Korea and to create a false image of a prosperous life in this most unprosperous place. In the United States there are rich and poor, But those with less have the freedom to elevate their status. I suspect there are no rags to riches stories in North Korea. The vast majority of these people are dirt poor with no hope of improving their lot in life. The image that was being presented was all smoke and mirrors. The absurdity of the illusion would be laughable if it wasn’t for the tremendous human suffering that was being obfuscated.
The people that accompanied the orchestra during our stay were called minders. More than one of these people explained to me that it was South Korean’s intention to reunite with North Korea, and that Pyongyang would be the seat of power in this unified country. One needs only to spend five minutes in Seoul to realize the absurdity of this statement. I kept waiting for a sign, a wink of an eye, something to let me know that they knew the real truth. That sign never came. They either truly believed what they were saying, or were far too afraid to say otherwise. Speaking against the state can result in death for the perpetrator and his family. This can create the kind of fear that is the mirror image of the complacency that freedom has brought us in the United States.
The orchestra played a beautiful and moving concert, and the reception was extraordinarily heartwarming. Hundreds of articles were written about this historic event. Never had a group of Americans this large been in North Korea since the Korean war. It was considered remarkable that so many foreign journalists were allowed to accompany the orchestra, and even more remarkable that a live broadcast was permitted. Perhaps this concert could have marked the beginning of
improvement in this repressive land, but unfortunately, North Koreans are no better off than they were 5 years ago. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to visit this country and its people, but am deeply saddened that 5 years after my visit, change seems nonexistent. Getting a glimpse of this place, trapped in the bonds of repression and fear, nothing could make me more grateful for the freedom I enjoy as an American today.
About the Author: David W. Smith is a professional musician, and has been playing in the orchestras of Broadway shows for almost 30 years. He is currently a member of the “Phantom of the Opera” orchestra. and is also a frequent performer with the New York Philharmonic. He has travelled extensively both for work and pleasure. Find David on Facebook.