Our human species is helplessly drawn to mystery, the unknown, the exotic. We’re geared to gawk at any light shed, no matter how narrow or dim, into any black box where darkness and uncertainty rein.
So when it became apparent that North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik would compete in this year’s Winter Olympics, we were bemused to realize that someone – and certainly more than one – at CIA headquarters in Langley would be tasked with watching these two figure skate on NBC.
Anything for a glimpse inside the Hermit Kingdom. Heck, many at “the company” surely tuned in just like us. And that’s for the simple reason of having the chance to see a couple North Koreans move about in a public forum, as much as it was to glean messaging, symbolism or motivations the “Supreme Leader” may have primed these two well-groomed, culture attaches on blades to ferry forth.
They had a great skate, placing 11th – a personal best. But it was more what they skated to that stuck with us: The soundtrack to their short program was guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck’s instrumental version of the Beatles’ “Day in the Life.”
Yes, Jeff Beck, the British guitarist whose dexterous handling of his instrument and panoply of sonic expression he wrenches from it make peers no less accomplished than Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page seem like clunky underachievers in comparison. Nearly every line Beck plays sounds strikingly innovative. Although “Day in the Life” is not the best example of that because Beck stays surprisingly faithful to the original tune, doing little more than rotely signifying the lyrical lines.
Still, it’s Jeff Beck and the Beatles and the North Koreans. On ice. Some must-see, bird of another feather TV for the peacock channel. Every guitar player in America who has ever tried to shred took note of the song choice.
But what does it mean?Jeff Beck might say it simply reflects the widespread appeal of Jeff Beck. And the Beatles. But the choice, whoever made it, carried with it a cultural wink of universality that says, ‘…hey, great song, great guitarist, right?!…’
And thus we glimpsed something familiar in the dark black box. Something relatable.
Given how tightly controlled the North is, it’s conceivable Kim Jong-un chose the track. But if so, to what ends? Is it meant to woo the South, trick the world, get Jeff Beck to do corporate-rate private gigs in Pyongyang?
Is the intent to accumulate more power, prestige and weapons or is Kim Jong-un leaning on his love of Western art to end the cycle of recrimination with the U.S. and walk out into the daylight?
Being hawkish on North Korea is an old tradition, nearly as American as apple pie. Traditionalists at Langley will tell you: Don’t be fooled.
But what if male skater Kim Ju-sik chose the tune. He plays guitar after all. Partaking in such a freedom would be progress in and of itself.