North Korea asked the US to arrange an Eric Clapton concert in Pyongyang, saying that it could help to persuade leader Kim Jong-il to allow humanitarian aid into the country.
A confidential cable dated May 22, 2007, from the US ambassador in Seoul to Washington reveals that North Korean officials “suggested” to the US that because Kim Jong-il’s second son, Kim Jong-chol, was “a great fan” of the British guitarist, “[a] performance could be an opportunity to build goodwill.”
The report adds that “arranging an Eric Clapton concert in Pyongyang ... could be useful, given Kim Jong-il’s second son’s devotion to the rock legend.”
The suggestion was unusual because rock and pop are forbidden in North Korea as a result of their Western influences, but it appears to have met with some success. In 2008, it was reported that Clapton agreed to perform in North Korea last year “in principle.”
The request was portrayed by North Korea as a way to “promote understanding” between the communist nation and the West.
“These cultural exchanges are a way of promoting understanding between countries,” a North Korean official said at the time, referring to plans by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in Pyongyang, while the North Korean State Symphony Orchestra would perform in London.
The plan later appeared to stall, however, with Clapton denying that he had agreed to take part. His spokeswoman put out a statement saying that he “receives numerous offers to play in countries around the world,” and “there is no agreement whatsoever for him to play in North Korea.”
News of the request was revealed in a confidential cable detailing a briefing between the US ambassador in Seoul and a leading human rights worker in the region. Despite increased openness by the North Korean Ministry of Public Health to outside aid, the contact revealed the problems he faced as “an outsider [trying] to get anything done” in a country where “each institution seems to have veto power, but none has the power to push anything forward.”
Describing his frustrations in trying to set up a health program in North Korea, the contact said: “The only organization that can really deliver is the military, which does not talk to anybody, or the Red Cross.”
The contact also warned the US ambassador that North Korean families living abroad were being “milked for money before, during and after” reunions with relatives in the country.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Overseas Compatriots Committee ... extorts a tremendous amount of money from desperate families ... [who] must pay US$300 to apply and submit comprehensive personal and financial information,” the cable reports. “If selected, the families are forced to pay for unwanted -sightseeing excursions in North Korea, before they are finally able to see their relatives, which is always just hours before their departing flight, they are often told that the relatives had to travel to the meeting place by taxi and [owe] several thousand dollars in fare ... These are desperate, old people who would pay anything.”
After the trip, the cable continues, families abroad “typically get repeated correspondence from the North Korean government asking for money to assist the family members, who are sometimes falsely alleged to be ill.”
The contact urged the ambassador to set up a program to help families wanting to reunite with North Korean relatives.