After the New York Philharmonic trip in 2007, then Dennis Rodman’s strange visits just last year, North Korea appears to be one of the ultimate litmus tests for the ethical limits of cultural diplomacy today. Both official and unofficial state programs that travel to a closed off totalitarian regime in order to promote their music, sports, or art is a divisive move, particularly in the DPRK’s context.
The latest controversial cultural diplomatic mission to Kim Jong-un’s domain is London’s Globe Theatre, scheduled to perform “Hamlet” in Pyongyang in 2015 as part of their two-year world tour. The tour specifies visiting every single country on the planet, so North Korea was automatically included in the 205 country list regardless of the humanitarian backdrop.
The Globe Theatre believes that “every country means every country, since we believe that every country is better off for the presence of Hamlet…Shakespeare can entertain and speak to anyone, no matter where in the world they are. We have always believed that cultural communication, and different peoples talking to each other through art, is a force for good in the world."
Amnesty International disagrees with the theater group: “North Korea is a country where the horrors inflicted on people who fall out of favor are worse than any fiction…no tragic play can come close to the misery that 100,000 people trapped in the country’s prison camps endure, where torture, rape, starvation and execution are everyday occurrences.”
In a sense, I can appreciate the Globe Theatre’s insistence on keeping North Korea on the country list—it firmly serves the idea of inclusiveness despite very real issues and constraints. Further isolation only supports the regime’s heinous existence, so perhaps asserting a worldwide cultural tour onto DPRK soil is one way to continue chipping into what is still quite inaccessible.
But the irony of performing high art—or any art in general—remains stark in the North Korea context. Those who will enjoy “Hamlet” in Pyongyang will undoubtedly only include people who prop up the regime’s inhumane and unsustainable system, thus reinforcing Kim Jong-un’s position and internal status. While they applaud for “Hamlet,” thousands will languish outside the city in horrifying gulags, relics from another era. There is little doubt Kim Jong un will take full credit for bringing a world renown theater group to his people; we can probably expect him to spin the story further where the UK is pandering to his powerful influence. This is business as usual for the regime.
The "net positive” that is always discussed in controversial cultural diplomacy programs is highly difficult to quantify in the North Korea equation. The regime’s isolation from the world is precisely what prohibits useful assessment, even in qualitative terms. Surely this void of accessibility is a reason to keep trying to cross DPRK borders—but the question remains if cultural diplomacy is the ideal means in which to reach in.