The past few months have shown how quickly geopolitical dynamics can change, even in the long-running intractable challenge posed by North Korea. Against the backdrop of last year’s continued surge of ballistic missile tests, there came the first direct talks between North and South Korea in January. Then there was the joint women’s Olympic hockey team. And the surprising North Korean invitation to hold a US-North Korea summit and equally surprising US acceptance. But with all of this going on, one of the most overlooked developments was the presence of North Korean musicians in the South during the Olympics—something the North has recently reciprocated by allowing South Korean K-pop stars to perform, with Kim in attendance.  But as a musician myself, their role is what I keep trying to understand.

Part of the delegation sent by the North during the Olympics included a large musical group to play concerts for South Korean audiences. The North Korean Samjiyon Orchestra performed in Gangneung (near the Olympic sites) and Seoul, the first such performance in the south since 2002. Is this a true message of peace, or another desperate attempt to project strength by Kim Jong-un? The secretive and unpredictable nature of the ruling regime in North Korea makes it very hard to determine the true intent of these performances. East Asia Historian Adam Cathcart of the University of Leeds would say this is an example of the North’s “provoke, entice, obtain, betray” cycle. More specifically, this musical diplomacy is intended to play an enticement role. Around the same time as these performances, Kim staged a military parade in Pyongyang. He is simultaneously maintaining the status quo to his people, while seeking to appear more open to the world at large. Make no mistake, Kim is conducting political warfare, aimed at achieving goals that North Korean combat power alone never could.

But still, why music? There are several very good reasons to use music to deliver a political message, and it appears North Korea is recognizes them.

Music is tied to our emotions and has the power to engage almost all areas of the brain. During a concert our brain is completely focused on processing the sounds and sights of the environment. Preconceived notions disappear, and we are vulnerable to the emotional power of being “in the moment.” The Samjiyon Orchestra could have been ordered to play solely propaganda songs such as “He’s Our Comrade Kim Jong-un.” Curiously, they did not play this type of music, but rather traditional Korean folk songs, classical music by Mozart, and pop music by Josh Groban—concluding with “Our Wish is Unification.” Audience members got the real impression that the desire for unification was genuine. It also demonstrated the cultural strength of North Korea, despite the impression is that the country is unsophisticated and backwards. Individual perceptions of the emotions behind different types of music make it ideal for generating this kind of influence. Music affects listeners’ moods. It is easy to see the positive when music makes us feel good, and the negative can be forgotten, even if only temporarily. Concert-goer Lee Kang-joon remarked, “They were much more sophisticated than I expected. It made me more open to the idea of unification.” At least in some sense, North Korea’s objectives are already being achieved—especially considering that South Korea footed the bill for the entire delegation, to the tune of $2.64 million. The delay of US and South Korean military exercises was also a big win for the North.

In 2008 the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played in North Korea at Pyongyang’s request. It is doubtful that event had any long-lasting impact. One reason is that the New York Philharmonic was an independent organization playing a concert in a foreign country, with little support from US government officials. A more important reason, though, was that the 2008 concert was attended only by elite party members—individuals who would not be easily swayed by a mere symphony concert. At the time, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said, “At the end of the day, we consider this concert to be a concert, and it’s not a diplomatic coup.” The Samjiyon Orchestra, by contrast, is under the direction of Hyon Song-wol, a purported ex-girlfriend of Kim himself. The group was specially created for the Olympic delegation and is tightly controlled by the North Korean government. And perhaps its greatest asset was that it performed for audiences of regular South Korean citizens.

Together, these two cases offer important lessons on how the US government might better synchronize arts and diplomacy to promote our values to other nations and pursue US interests. To be sure, the North Korean regime, with its ironclad control over the country’s population, almost certainly would not have allowed the New York Philharmonic to play in venues packed with anybody other than the state elite. But in other cases, opportunities to leverage American cultural influence are present—indeed, some may even arise with North Korea if relations continue to thaw. With the right support and planning, American musicians could have an actual impact on broader strategic relations between the United States and North Korea, and could certainly expose North Koreans to a much different America than the one they know from regime propaganda. Why not use our well-respected musical institutions to our advantage?

One of the 2018 National Military Strategy’s objectives is to enable interagency counterparts to advance US influence and interests. But it isn’t just other government agencies that can play a role; if similarly enabled, non-governmental cultural organizations can have an impact, too. North Korea has developed a focused musical weapon of influence, which appears to have worked well. The United States also has the opportunity to advance our interests through musical culture. Cultural influence (including music) must be part of the long-term strategy for worldwide cooperation and stability.      Integrating cultural diplomacy into the synchronization of all elements of US national power is and will continue to be essential in foreign policy-making and strategy, in peacetime and during war. For North Korea, warfare is not simply a matter of kinetic action that destroys enemy targets; political warfare is just as real and is constantly ongoing. North Korea’s adept use of a musical ensemble to achieve its political goals is evidence of that. Its effectiveness is based on our evolutionary desire for musical sound, something many of us intuitively feel, but a deeper understanding of its potential to promote our national interests is vital. Music helps us to make sense of our emotions and how we relate to the world around us. That’s what makes it such an effective tool with which to influence audiences. North Korea clearly understands this. We should, too.


CW2 Jonathan Crane is a researcher for the Army Music Program focused on the interaction between music and human performance in the psychological, social, and emotional domains.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.


Image credit: Republic of Korea