With the extraordinary concert staged in Pyongyang on February 26 by the oldest American symphony orchestra – the New York Philharmonic, a new platform, apart from the six-party talks, was created in an attempt to thaw out the icy ties between the US and North Korea.
This is the first cultural performance by American artists in the North Korea in decades. The symphony generated a royal welcome in North Korea.
Undoubtedly, this is a typical example of public diplomacy, similar to the "ping-pong diplomacy" thirty years ago which led to the restoration of Sino-US relations.
Public diplomacy, as defined by the US Department of State in the Dictionary of International Relations Terms, refers to government-sponsored programs intended to inform or influence public opinion in other countries; its chief instruments are publications, motion pictures, cultural exchanges, radio and television.
Complementary to traditional diplomatic means, public diplomacy has its unique advantages. On one hand, it can approach foreign citizens softly to promote its own culture, promote its country brand and recognition there; on the other hand, it is also a flexible way of resolving a crisis and eliminating political and military contradictions. Major countries have recognized the importance of this soft diplomacy in recent years.
For the US North Korea relations, it will be a lengthy process to defuse their ideological conflicts and the tension sparked by security issues. A solution requires also means other than mechanisms like the six-party talks. In light of this, the American ‘symphony diplomacy’ is not simply aimed at entertaining the public but also seeks to build a new exchange platform for the two countries.
All public diplomacy programs serve a country's short-term or long-term foreign policies. The New York Philharmonic hopes to win public acknowledgement for improving bilateral ties.
The biggest problem concerning public diplomacy is how to assess its effect. Evaluating the scale of the Pyongyang performance of the Philharmonic is not enough to validly assess its impact. Public diplomacy advocates expect to wield gradual and imperceptible cultural influence.
In addition to cultural entertainment, the performance conveyed a message to the international community. As the two countries come closer via culture exchanges, they are also stepping closer to dispelling their hostilities regarding foreign policies.
American symphony diplomacy may not have an immediate effect as ping-pong diplomacy did because the international situation has significantly changed. In any case it still sends positive signals for the amelioration of bilateral ties.
The article is written by Zhou Qing’an, a researcher at the International Center for Communications Studies, Tsinghua University.
(China.org.cn translated by Yuan Fang February 27, 2008)