Editor’s Fanfare Vol. I, No. 5


Realist, Idealist or Optimist.

Which to Be in the World of Circus?


On April 20, 2012, The Fédération Mondiale du Cirque (The International Federation of Circuses) announced, with an apparent sense of satisfaction and pleasure, that the Acrobatic Association of Korea (AAK) had joined the Federation as its newest member.  The AKK, it noted, was created in Pyongyang to bring together and represent the circus artists from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (known in the West simply as North Korea).  The announcement was made symbolically on World Circus Day in Pyongyang by Federation president Urs Pils.

It became a bit difficult to share the Federation’s enthusiasm  a day when the government of North Korea announced its intention to turn South Korea into ashes.

In rationalizing its acceptance of the North Korean association into membership the Federation’s Board of Directors invoked the principle that the arts must be treated apolitically and that the Federation itself must remain non-political.  Worthy sentiments, without doubt.  Equally without question is the North Korean’s remarkable achievements in the art of the flying trapeze.  “The AKK will bring important expertise and interest to the Federation,” Pilz noted, hopefully.

I wonder if that will, in fact, come to pass.  For the foreseeable future, one is only likely to meet up with one of the North Korean troupes at a festival in communist China or perhaps the Monte Carlo competition.  I observed one of the North Korean flying troupes at one of China’s festivals.  Although all the artists and guests took every meal together, the Koreans came to the dining room either before or after the others had eaten, and they ate in their tight group without any interaction with the other artists.  This was also true backstage.  I presume that was because their handlers did not want them to comparing notes with artists from free countries.

The last time a North Korean flying act appeared in Monte Carlo it was unofficially barred from winning any prizes because of what appeared to most observers as child abuse in making the troupe’s tiniest female flyer, who could not have been more than fourteen years old at most, try again and again to complete the quad.

The Federation’s goal is to build bridges and connect the circus community.  So what is the likelihood of the AKK truly joining the international community of circus artists, given its past history of isolationism?

No doubt it could be argued that joining the federation could be the first step to a greater openness.  The only problem with that is the isolationism the North Korean government has imposed on its people, and judging from what I have seen of it in the past, it is rigidly controlled and unlikely to be eased in the near future.

Finally any objection to accepting the AKK to membership would have to answer the question as to what is gained by denying them participation.  And to answer that, I am afraid, we must step into the political arena.

New York Times Editor Bill Keller who has written extensively about the United States’ relationship with China and North Korea points out that there are two ways of dealing with these two countries.  The first is guided by idealism.  “Idealists believe, he has written, that “a consistent, patient mix of pressures and incentives, public and private, can nudge an authoritative regime in a civilized direction.”  The incentive here would be membership.

The realist on the other hand, “whose reigning philosopher is that master of realpolitik Henry Kissinger, believes that if we stand firm we can have our diplomacy and our self-respect.  It is good Kissinger realism to show yourself strong in support of your own values.”

I suppose the first thing we have to do if  we wish to be realistic is decide what our values are.  And once identified, we must ask if those values are shared by the people we are welcoming into membership.

I have no doubt that the North Korean circus performers are anything but hard working artists, dedicated to arriving at the highest levels of their art.  But could there be political motivation behind their trainer’s desire to excel regardless of the human cost?

So many questions to ponder in this complicated world.  Would that it were as simple as declaring one’s self to be non-political, in believing that art is pure and uncorrupted by national ambitions which may or may not be evil in intent.

I hope the North Korean artists, as members of the Federation, will truly join the circus community and have their eyes opened to the oppression that exists in their homeland, and learn what it means to be free politically as well as artistically, and then carry that message home to their countrymen.  But then again, how likely is that?  For that one needs to be an optimist.