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N. Korea Finds Cultural Ally in Norwegian Artist

Norwegian Artist/Director Morten Traavik in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square, May 2012. (Courtesy EUP-Berlin)
North Korea doesn’t have many friends in the international community. But in far away Norway, artist/director Morten Traavik has become a one-man cultural diplomat bent on changing that.

While North Korea is berated for its totalitarian regime, its isolationistic policies and terrible human rights record, Traavik says he has no reservations about cooperating with the government to further his objectives.

“I see no reason not to work with those forces within the system because if you want to work with countries like North Korea, you have to work with the state, the state is everything.”

After years of cajoling, Traavik earlier this year won Pyongyang's permission to bring 11 North Korean musicians and artists to Norway for the Barents Spektakel, an arts and culture festival in Kirkenes, near the Russian border.

Morten Traavik (Center) with Norwegian Artists in Pyongyang Square (Courtesy EUP-Berlin)
Morten Traavik (Center) with Norwegian Artists in Pyongyang Square (Courtesy EUP-Berlin)
Last month, North Korea returned the favor by hosting its First Norwegian Festival.

“The suggestion to organize a Norwegian cultural festival on May 17th, the Norwegian national holiday, actually came from the North Korean side… so who was I to decline?" said Traavik.

“I have chosen this way of collaborating because there are many people inside North Korea who are genuinely open to friendlier relations with the outside world, and who are genuinely curious to what is happening outside their own country and who are friendly people,” Traavik said.

Traavik organized and was the artistic director for the Festival. He has been involved in several projects with North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries over the past several years. He reportedly is authorized to conduct negotiations on cultural collaboration with third parties on behalf of the Committee.

The First Norwegian Festival in Pyongyang included a photo exhibit featuring some of Traavik's own work, and a concert by some of Norway's most prominent musicians.

The photo display almost didn’t happen. Limited cargo space on the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang meant the photos could not make the flight. Undaunted, Traavik convinced North Korean officials to allow him to project images of the photos on the wall of the concert hall before the performance began.
North Korean Audience at Norway Festival (Courtesy EUP-Berlin)
North Korean Audience at Norway Festival (Courtesy EUP-Berlin)

Traavik said he found the reaction of the audience gratifying.

“They really responded to the pictures,” he said. “You could hear the response of laughter or sighs, you know, reactions from the audience to the pictures, which was fantastic to experience.”

The concert featured traditional Norwegian songs, including some by classical composer Edvard Grieg. Also included was a rendition of the Norwegian working man’s song “My Name Is Ola Tveiten.”

“For me personally, it was great fun to be able to mobilize 1,000 North Koreans clapping their hands to a Norwegian worker’s drinking song,” Traavik said.

For many, the highlight of the event was a performance by Korea's Kum Song School Accordionists. The troop's version of the Norwegian rock classic "Take On Me” had already made them an international sensation.

Videotaped by Traavik before their visit to Norway in February, the accordionists’ rendition of the 1980s song by Norway’s most famous pop group, a-ha, immediately went viral on YouTube.

For the Pyongyang concert, the Kum Song Accordionists were accompanied by Frode Haltli, whom Traavik calls Norway’s “most skilled, most internationally acclaimed accordionist.”

“I also asked them to arrange another a-ha song, namely the title song from the ‘Hunting High and Low’ album which also contained ‘Take On Me,’” he said, describing it as a “brilliant” experience.

This latest journey was Traavik’s sixth visit to North Korea. The Norwegian director is also participating in an exhibit in New York City, making him the first artist to show simultaneously in North Korea and the United States.