Rock and Roll can break North Korea's nasty regime. Seriously!
Recently I gave a lecture to a university class in Washington D.C. on the topic of the influence of rock and roll music in the former communist Eastern Europe, how it was essential in bringing down communism, in the breaking up of the Soviet block. I explained how rock music was a messenger of freedom of speech, of freedom of expression, of a different world out there beyond the barbed wire. I talked about how the genre was our quasi internet to the democracies of the free West. It struck a note with the students.
When the Beatles arrived, the musical art-form they spearheaded was unstoppable. It broke through the Iron Curtain, the seemingly impenetrable Soviet border no matter how heavily it was guarded. The youths of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union braved the secret police, circumvented the jamming stations and listened to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Free Europe or the BBC, to catch up with the latest pop and rock tunes, and in the doing they caught up with the realities of the world. They understood that contrary to state propaganda they were permanently showered with, perhaps communism was not the best of all worlds, it is not the promised land and that they were actually living in Orwell's Animal Farm, where everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.
In all this, the advent of the age of communication played an important role. The short wave radio, the vinyl records, the tape recorder and later the VHS and dish antennas made the flood of songs and information unstoppable.This has been called soft-power, among other things. But then, it was not at all soft in its impact, so perhaps "soft-power" is a misnomer.
Don't be mistaken, even if the means of delivery was crucial, but in the end however it was all about the content, the attractiveness of American and British rock and pop. It filled our hearts and minds with joy and hope. It broke the monopoly of the Communist Party in information and its hegemony in the arts and politics. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Steve Winwood, David Bowie, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page were all messengers and they were our friends. Their songs were more than music, and they were more than mere musicians. Rock music was powerful, easily absorbable, nevertheless serious.It was a community feeling, but very personal.
Even at their most benign, communist regimes are suppressive, where the fight is always ideological, promoting the power of the few at the cost of millions. Lenin and Stalin or Mao had the same goal: to isolate, to control the everyday life of their citizens, deprive them of independent thought, brainwash them through constant propaganda and suppress any dissent by brute force. But no county, no political system is able to shut out the world entirely, and the any communist dictator is terrified that the truth will be found out by the people.
North Korea's nasty communist regime seems like an enigma to most, a sealed off hermit kingdom. For those who have lived through communism though, there is little enigmatic about it, even if Nort Korean style communism at its most extreme.
Changes in North Korea must come from within. As long as Kim Jong Un keeps his monopoly on the arts, culture and information, change will not come about. His worst nightmare must have been to find out that the recently escaped soldier, who just goes by the name "Oh", is said to have an admiration for K-pop, a South Korean musical genre that derives from western rock, hip hop, R&B and jazz. It only shows that serious and honest rock and roll, which is created by free people at their free will, can still move millions, and for millions represents the bridge to a better, freer life.
Rock and roll should be seen as a metaphor for any powerful tool which moves the hearts and minds. It is just a shame how we in the complacent west have forgotten how much our musical heroes have done to make the world a better place for hundreds of millions living under communist authoritarian regimes. We must now put our minds to find ways to get our message through to the people of North Korea. We did it in the past, we can do it again. Leave the content to the arts, to musicians, to actresses and actors, to those who benefit most from the freedoms we take for granted. Then let the smart people of technology put their minds to it, and find ways to deliver it. The combination of the two will create a potent, irresistible mix. Make this Kim Jong Un's worst nightmare.
We know that the determination of the West to stay strong militarily in the face of the Soviet lead Warsaw pact was crucial in the fall of the Soviet empire. But western soft-power arguably played an equally, or perhaps even more important role. This lesson should not be forgotten.
So get those Marshall amps out, put them on the battleships and start blasting good old rock and roll into North Korea and let it work its magic.