Sunday, May 11

Roses for CNN and Christiane Amanpour's North Korea film

Tonight at 8:00 PM CNN will be airing Christiane Amanpour's report on the New York Philharmonic's history-making performance in North Korea in February and her experiences in the country. She had been trying for a decade to get into the country so she jumped at the chance to be part of the press corps that accompanied the Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang.

She was the only member of the visiting press invited to interview North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, about the status of Korea's nuclear program. Click here for the text of the interview.

The film was also aired last night. I caught 40 minutes of it, and on Friday saw a clip from the film that CNN aired. Christiane said that although her visit was very controlled at every step, she thought that any view of North Korea was better than none. I agree.

The clip showed an exchange she had with one of her NK Minders. The guy told her that she could only walk in front of what looked like a giant sculpture or low freestanding wall, but not behind it.(See Sunday update for my correction.)

When she coaxingly asked why she couldn't walk behind the wall, the Minder was absolutely stumped. The body language, and the look on their faces as the Minder realized there was probably no earthly reason why she couldn't step behind the structure, are priceless.

The exchange convinced me to watch the film. Christiane has a way about her that is impossible to fake; it's not exactly childlike but it conveys someone who has never forgotten what it was like to be a child. So she is often able to get away with asking the kind of questions that the more determinedly grownup among the journalism profession can't.

I am very glad I saw the film, and I can't wait to see the rest of it tonight. There are moments that are so overwhelming I can't speak about them because there is no way I can do justice to them with words.

Even if you have seen footage of the symphony performance, you will see it through new eyes when you see Christiane's film. This doesn't mean that she looked at the situation through gauze; quite the opposite, which is what makes the film so powerful.

Was the symphony performance a breakthrough in US-North Korean relations? I think it was a profound breakthrough. Will it move off the dime? We wait now, and watch for the answer.

Was it a PR stunt by the North Korean government? When you understand how carefully the government controls music in North Korea, which you will learn by watching the film, it's wrong to dismiss it as a mere stunt. It was a gesture that took courage.

Jay Lefkowitz, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, told Christiane that when the Philharmonic left, the widespread hunger, power shortages and political abuses would continue in North Korea. Of course he is absolutely right. And the film ends with grim news about a round of harsh language between North and South Korea, and concern about another round of food shortages in North Korea.

Yet when one measures the symphony performance against 60 years of cold war, when one considers the extreme nationalism of the North Korean people, when one sees them standing in a gesture of respect while the Star-Bangled Banner is played, one can only -- I have no words.

Don't short yourself; please make an effort to see Christiane Amanpour's film; you will never forget it.

Bravo, Christiane, bravo! And bravo to your crew!

I suppose I should mind my manners and also thank CNN, North Korea's government, the New York Philharmonic, and -- awk -- and -- awk -- c'mon, you can do this -- and, and thank you Christopher Hill.

Sunday Update
I did to get to see most of what I missed and the clip I mentioned above was included, although it seems CNN edited out a few seconds of Christiane's exchange with the Minder. But it was a sculpture -- a huge one -- and the instruction was not that she couldn't walk behind it but that she couldn't photograph it from behind, which prompted her ask why not.

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