The Goethe Institute in Pyongyang comprises of 150 square meters packed with 8,000 books, newspapers, CDs and videos stored in a cultural center in a space located deep in the heart of the city. In that sense, the cultural center could be just like any other -- if it weren't located in the North Korean capital.
On June 3, a delegation led by the president of the Goethe Institute opened the first Western cultural institution in the Stalinist state. The move has been viewed as controversial, since North Korea still remains almost completely shut off from the rest of the world.
After years of preparation, North Korean officials opened the door for the Goethe Institute and its cultural undertaking. Uwe Schmelter, who heads the Goethe Institute in neighboring South Korea, led the negotiations, which began in early 2001. He found the atmosphere of the talks surprisingly good.
"The negotiations were not easy," says Schmelter, "but they were very friendly and harmonious. At stake were the necessary requirements -- at least from the Goethe Institute’s perspective -- of opening and running such a reading room." This, Schmelter adds, includes "the free and open access for all North Koreans and the uncensored and accessible viewing of all media."
A balancing act
These stipulations, a hallmark of the Goethe Institute's work, were at first hard to accept for the North Korean authorities, who aim to prevent information from overseas from reaching the country. But at the end of the negotiations, a delicate compromise was reached.
Under the agreement, 50 percent of the Goethe Institute's literature will focus on science and technology, with the other 50 percent devoted to general media that provides a complete and up-to-date view of Germany.
Although North Korean authorities agreed to give the Goethe Institute complete control over which media to feature, the new reading room in Pyongyang is to be run entirely by local North Korean staff. But Schmelter is optimistic that the authorities will adhere to their agreement to allow uncensored and free access to everyone.
Schmelter also describes what he views as North Koreans’ affinity towards Germans.
"The shared fate of living in a divided country for 40 years makes Koreans feel very close to Germans," he says. "In a way, North Koreans even consider Germans to be their chosen relatives."
For some like Schmelter, this historical parallel is reason enough to see the opening of the Goethe Institute in North Korea as a source of hope for the future.
In a statement, Germany's Foreign Ministry said the opening of the institute marked an "important expansion of (the country's) cultural presence" in North Korea, a place where very little information is available about Germany. The Goethe Institute is the main arbiter of German culture and language abroad, with 127 institutes in other countries.