At a time of escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, one of Pyongyang’s old friends was back in North Korea last month trying to spread his own brand of cultural diplomacy between East and West.
Norwegian director Morten Traavik, accompanied by a crew from his country’s TV2 television channel, was in North Korea in March to record students at Pyongyang’s Kum Song Music School.
Norwegian Director Morten Traavik in Pyongyang during a mass rally in Kim Il Sung Square on March 7, 2013.
“We definitely felt that we were in the middle of something geopolitically significant,” said Traavik. The Norwegians saw a mass rally in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square and viewed public transport and ambulances covered in camouflage nets.
The trip was the seventh made by Traavik, who has worked to develop cultural ties between the two countries. His 2012 video of the Kum Song Music School’s accordion students playing “Take On Me” - originally a song recorded in 1985 by the Norwegian pop group A-ha - was a viral hit on YouTube.
During this recent visit, Traavik wanted to expand the school’s recording of A-ha’s “Hunting High and Low” album, including the Norwegian group’s other international hit, “The Sun Always Shines on TV.”
North Korean students at Pyongyang's Kum song Music School perform for Norwegian television cameras. March 12, 2013
“We’ll be releasing the whole cover album later this year,” Traavik said. “As an artist, I like to follow a good idea through to the end, and to see how much farther you can take it. It seemed logical to do the whole album as well.”
Mounting tensions and escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the United Nations following Pyongyang’s third nuclear test caused other international delegations to cancel their visits. But Traavik said his North Korean hosts were glad the Norwegians stuck to their plans.
“On one level, you could say [the tension] was definitely noticeable,” Traavik noticed. “But on another level, daily life went on as usual. People went bowling on Women’s Day, which is a holiday in North Korea. They went about their daily chores, and did not seem too upset about their situation.”
The Pyongyang rally was held in North Korea on March 7, to protest joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises which followed the nuclear test. Traavik estimates almost 500,000 people took part.
“It is impressive, and to some people, slightly frightening to see so big a crowd with such mass choreography,” he said. “Everything has been drilled and synchronized to the almost tenth of a second.”
Unlike previous visits, the Norwegians were permitted to use their cell phones. “In North Korean terms, that’s a huge leap forward for North Korea’s connectability and relations to the outside world,” Traavik said.
The television team was able to tweet and instagram photos to Norway, as well as upload video by satellite. North Korea subsequently decided not to allow foreigners to keep their smart phones while visiting the country.
The Norwegians also ventured to Panmunjom on the Demilitarized Zone, along the border with South Korea. They arrived the day after North Korea scrapped the 1953 Korean Armistice that ended the Korean War.
“I could notice that compared to previous trips that the border guards on the North Korean side were a tad more jumpy than they had been before,” Traavik said. “I regard a lot of the political maneuvers on both sides in the Korean conflict as little more than posturing, than a ritual which is necessary for the most conservative forces on both sides to maintain their positions,” he said.
Traavik said he believes an actual confrontation is unlikely.