Goethe Lands in North Korea | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.05.2004
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Goethe Lands in North Korea

After years of delicate negotiation Germany's Goethe Institute is becoming the first western cultural institute to open a reading room in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, a major cultural coup.


The Goethe Institute is coming.

Located in a cultural center in the middle of the city, the Goethe Institute's reading room is about 150 square meters (1,615 square feet) in size and contains 8,000 books, magazines, CDs and videos.

On June 3, the unprecedented project will be opened in Stalinism's last stronghold by a German delegation that includes the Goethe Institute's president, Jutta Limbach.

Jutta Limbach auf der Frankfurter Buchmesse für Frauengalerie

Jutta Limbach was president of Germany's constitutional court before taking over the top position at Goethe Institute.

"The opening of the center is a big success for our cultural policies," Limbach (photo) said in a statement. "Culture and education can achieve many things which politics alone cannot. It is our interest to use the existing possibilities for a free flow of information anywhere in the world. It is a big step forward that we have now found partners in North Korea."

The move has been billed as somewhat of a sensation as it brings uncensored literature to the communist country, which remains virtually cut off from the rest of the world. To open the reading room, German cultural diplomats had to fight hard with North Korean bureaucrats, who still insist on their country's absolute independence from the capitalist West.

Tough negotiations

It took Goethe Institute officials years to finally get permission to set up the room. Uwe Schmelter, who directs the institute's branch in the South Korean capital Seoul, negotiated the deal.

He presented Pyongyang with the idea for a reading room as a "Goethe Institute Light" after talks on an artists' exchange between North Korea and Germany in 2001. "Almost a year later, the North Koreans approached us and said: 'We want to have something like that,'" Schmelter said, adding that once the decision had been made things couldn't happen fast enough for North Korean officials.

Despite this, it still took a whole year to finalize the deal. "It was all very collegial and harmonious," Schmelter said, adding that there were some problems -- "especially regarding principles that we consider non-negotiable."

Among the sticking points were unrestricted access to the reading room as well as uncensored and open presentation of the materials, Schmelter said.

Half of the reading rooms 8,000 items will be of a scientific nature and don't present a problem. But Goethe Institute officials insisted on choosing the others freely and cover all areas "necessary to present a current and complete picture of Germany," Schmelter said.

Free access for all?

Anti-amerikanisches Plakat aus Nordkorea

A North Korean soldier holds "shells" to blow up the Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in this poster released by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency in 2003. The Korean Banner read: "Ruthless Punishment to U.S. Imperialism."

The room will be run by North Koreans, but Schmelter, who functions as the de facto director, is optimistic that Pyongyang will stick to the agreement of free access. "We'll monitor this closely," he said, adding that some Germans were already in the North Korean capital. "The contract is clear on this."

It's also clear that North Koreans have a special relationship with Germany as the two countries share a history of division, Schmelter told DW-WORLD. Many North Koreans also speak German because exchange programs existed with communist East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

There's also hope that the reading room will be followed by other projects: At a dinner following the signing of the contract, a North Korean official in charge of cultural cooperation with other countries said she hoped Germans would see the deal as her country's willingness to open up.

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