It’s time to read between the linesOn July 1, 1998, five jazz musicians performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The musicians, who ranged in age from their 70s and to their 90s, were from Cuba. The name of the band was the Buena Vista Social Club.
They were stars in the Cuban jazz scene in the 1930s and ’40s, but their musical careers were severed after the Cuban Revolution. It was American music producer Ry Cooder who went to look for them, as well as Compay Segundo (1907-2003), who was formerly a shoe shiner in Havana.
Although diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba broke off in 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis only elevated tensions, civilian-level cultural exchanges continued even during that turbulent time, and the Buena Vista Social Club was the fruit of the endeavor. Their album sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, and the New York Times highly praised the Carnegie Hall performance as a historic event.
Recently, American historian and University of Connecticut Prof. Alexis Dudden mentioned the Buena Vista Social Club to Vice Unification Minister Hwang Bu-gi.
Professor Dudden is an expert on Korea as well as Japan, lecturing on U.S.-Japan relations in Japanese. Last month, she initiated the joint statement by 187 historians calling on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to face its history of wartime sexual slavery. Before President Park Geun-hye’s visit to the United States in June, she brought up the subject with Hwang, advising that the president not think about Japan and focus on North Korea to make her visit more meaningful. She also recommended creating a North Korean version of the Buena Vista Social Club as a means to open up North Korea via civilian exchanges.
Detente with North Korea, she argued, would be far more attractive than historical discord between Korea and Japan, especially since U.S. President Barack Obama normalized ties with Cuba last year. She also made sure to mention that Korea could play the main role in initiating detente with Pyongyang.
Professor Dudden also expressed concern that President Park’s visit to the United States could become trapped in the “Japan frame.”
Before U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Japan, its Foreign Ministry asked the U.S. State Department not to bring up the “comfort women” issue, a condition Washington later accepted. Seoul needs to read between the lines. After all, it was not Americans, but Koreans, who showed the most interest in Abe’s trip to Washington, Dudden said, while Japan ended up the beneficiary.
The author is a political and international news reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 5, Page 29
by CHUN SU-JIN