Alexander Liebreich is artistic director and principal conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra. The musician talked with DW about his experiences as a festival director in South Korea, and as a lecturer in North Korea.
DW: Mr. Liebreich, you often travel to North Korea. How have things changed since you first went there in 2002?
Alexander Liebreich: The country has changed a great deal. Last fall, surprisingly, there was a clear sense of change in the air, of things opening up in how people dealt with each other. In 2002, communicating with students and with officials was a lot more difficult. Last fall, we were pretty relaxed with one another. And life on the street has a lot more vitality to it.
North Korea is a very poor country. Many suffer from hunger and lack various things. Do you see that during your trips?
My trips normally take me to Pyongyang. Getting a sense of the entire country is difficult because you cannot travel through it. Pyongyang has a special status because it's a showcase city. What I've heard from my colleagues who travel there more is that the hunger situation has been mitigated since the end of the 90s - even if there's still a lot of poverty there.
South Korea is famous for producing musical talents. Is North Korea the same?
Yes. I think that Koreans in general are an incredibly musical people. I'm a festival director in South Korea. There are many very good Korean singers; people sing together in private settings a lot. Singing plays a big role when working with students.
Do you feel you've been able to contribute to the dialogue about the system or culture in Korea through your artistic work?
One shouldn't overrate things. It's a valid question: "What can I achieve through art?" We have an international orchestra here. Just like there. And art reflects life like a parable. The unique thing about working there is that I could speak quite privately with the young students about their fears, emotions and attitudes, and also about politics. And the issue isn't even talking about the system, but about what isolation, loneliness, fear and love mean in art. Because those are the issues that are important - regardless of what the system is like.
Music is often viewed as an expression of freedom. How does the North Korean regime treat music? Is it part of an ideological scheme?
You would have to ask the regime that; I don't know. We make and teach classical music, and to some extent, pop music. In countries that are completely sealed off or have totalitarian regimes, the avant-garde is always pushed somewhat to the periphery. But we were also able to do contemporary music there; colleges and universities are very open to that, unlike the state.
How do you view the recent conflicts surrounding North Korea? Should one be worried, or is it something that just flares up every few years?
I was in South Korea at the end of March - precisely at the time that the military rhetoric was at its peak. From the outside, of course, one wonders whether we're on the brink of war. In South Korea, though, people view the situation in a more relaxed fashion. In the South, President Park Geun-hye reached out her hand when she assumed office in February this year. And in the North, there's a very emotional connection to her brothers in the South. If you view it all outside a political context, there's a strong feeling of common Korean identity.
Alexander Liebreich is a guest professor in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and a festival director in South Korea. He taught for the first time in 2002 at the University of Music and Dance in Pyongyang on an exchange with DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service.