Last October, we wrote about the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that had performed before an enthusiastic crowd at the Kaufman Music Center, a major New York City concert venue, on September 22. Five days after the concert, the Wall Street Journal published a bombshell of an article which revealed that the event, billed as a “Peace Korea Concert,” had in fact been pure North Korean propaganda. In addition to standard items from the classical repertoire, the evening’s program had included North Korean works celebrating the Kim dynasty, praising Kim Jong-un, and calling for the absorption of South Korea into North Korea.
Since the words were all in Korean, of course, many audience members didn’t really know what they were listening to. There were exceptions, though: among those in attendance were several North Korean diplomats, including Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. The orchestra conductor, Christopher Joonmoo Lee, also understood every word. For, as it turned out, Lee, whose Korean name is Ri Jun Mu, isn’t just any musician: he’s a crony and operative of the Pyongyang regime. He spends a lot of time in North Korea and appears regularly on North Korean TV. As if all this weren’t explosive enough, the Journal pointed out that the orchestra had been performing at the Kaufman Music Center several times a year for over a decade – and in the city that may be the hub of the international news media, no reporter, apparently, had ever put it all together.
The Journal‘s revelations came as a surprise not only to most of the people who’d attended its September 22 concert but also to some of the musicians in the orchestra. The piece was, in fact, so devastating that we assumed – or, at least, hoped – that it would bring an end to this chapter in the history of North Korean propaganda. Nope! On February 4, an article in the New York Post brought the news that the Ureuk Symphony Orchestra was coming back to the Kaufman Music Center on that very day. This time around, the concert was entitled “February Spring” – a phrase used in North Korea to refer to Kim Jong-il’s birthday on February 16. The program, as always, would mix classical chestnuts with “North Korean cult songs praising the regime and its dictators, presented innocently as simply ‘Korean folk tunes,’ ‘music from a North Korean composer,’ etc.”
As the Post observed, what mattered here was not “that some unsuspecting Upper West Side 1-percenters are listening to militaristic songs,” but that “back in North Korea the concerts are touted as a triumph in the land of the ‘American bastards.’ It’s cultural warfare at its finest.” Indeed. The Post also added several details that were new to us. For one thing, the Ureuk concerts are underwritten by the Korean American National Coordinating Council, “a fanatically pro-Pyongyang front group once reportedly investigated by the US government for tax evasion and for serving as agents of North Korea.” For another, Lee, the orchestra conductor, is “a KANCC board member and a zealous supporter of the North Korean dictatorship.” He’s taken part in the “April Spring Friendship Art Festival,” an annual event in Pyongyang, and has written a poem celebrating the idea that North Korean nuclear bombs “could be the ‘death rattle’ of the ‘big-nosed’ Americans.” This from the man who wields the baton at “Peace Concerts”!
No, it’s no surprise that fanatical North Korean loyalists are doing their best to spread the Kim regime’s propaganda in the evil West. But why is the Kaufman Music Center providing them with a hall? Why didn’t the Wall Street Journal exposé put an end to this outrage once and for all? Why are people buying tickets to these things? Are Manhattanites that starved for classical music offerings?