Dennis Rodman and I actually have something in common: we’ve both been to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, whose president, Kim Jong-un is supposed to be having a summit with Donald Trump. I went there in 2008 as the co-producer of the live television production of the New York Philharmonic’s concert there.

While I shouldn’t comment on the diplomatic aspects of the meeting, I know a lot about the staging of the event.  We’re not likely to see much of the summit.

North Korea invited the Philharmonic’s visit and performance. The Bush State Department agreed because it fit into what might have been a thaw in relations between the two countries. The trip was run by Zarin Mehta, then the President of the Philharmonic, and Eric Latzky and their staffs, who made an advance trip to Pyongyang to set things up.

North Korea approved the trip for several “delegations”—their term—including the orchestra members and orchestra staff, Philharmonic donors and directors, our television production company’s technical and executive personnel, and a large number of press many of whom had covered North Korea but never been admitted. The North Koreans did not quite understand that these artificial “delegations” they admitted spoke to each other and had constant interactions, i.e., orchestra to press; donors to production company, etc.

When I got to Pyongyang I soon learned that the entire country was effectively a concentration camp. I had been behind the Iron Curtain and had the usual furtive inquiries about America from many I met. Not so in Pyongyang. All spoke of their leader Kim Jong-il, the current Kim’s father, with almost religious adoration. They repeated the phony stories of his birth in a log cabin in the North. Actually, he was born in Moscow where his parents fled to escape the Japanese during World War 2.

North Korea’s leaders, then and now, do not make casual public appearances and are only seen in tightly controlled circumstances. Although the Philharmonic’s concert was a major event in North Korea, King Jong-il did not attend. I told the press that he would not come.

The reason: our production controlled the cameras. Thus, whatever angles and shots (and possible nose-picking) of the leader that we selected  would go out to the world live.  That was an impossibility for the North Koreans.

Each of our “delegations” had minders. All spoke excellent English. Because the production company is German, we also had minders fluent in German. I displayed some of my worst bad-boy behaviors while trying to evade our minders and jokingly mocking them. At one point, Zarin, the Philharmonic’s President, told me, “If you keep this up they are going to keep you here.”

How to connect the Philharmonic’s visit to the summit? The two leaders’ meeting will be vastly different from the Philharmonic’s trip because it will not take place in North Korea.

Applying my experience to the proposed Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, here are some suggestions:

  1. The location favored by both North and South Korea will be the meeting rooms in Panmunjom/DMZ, the no-man’s-land between North and South, where conferences regarding the armistice are held. It’s roughly 45 minutes from each of Seoul and Pyongyang. To say the least, the facilities are spare.
  2. Kim Jong-un is not a Geneva kind of guy (or Paris, for that matter) so don’t look for the summit to take place someplace grand and elegant. If he leaves North Korea, he has well-founded fear of a coup. His father famously traveled to Beijing in a heavily armored train, but his young son was at home to machine gun those making coup attempts (there were none).
  3. Other than maybe a spray (and that’s a stretch for the North), there will be no live media coverage. Any live walk-and-talk or conference hits will be recorded by the WHCA for the White House and its North Korean equivalent for later use. Outside the meeting will be by pool: pictures of the small buildings but no entrances and exits. There’s no place to stay in Panmunjom/DMZ so press and media will stay in Seoul or Pyongyang. Trump will do his act in Seoul, probably at the Ambassador’s residence, now available because we have no Ambassador there, or maybe at a hotel.
  4. Television equipment for all accredited media will be trucked in from Seoul including mostly South Korean technicians and some key personnel from the accredited countries.
  5. The North will object to daily communiques, so Sarah won’t have much to do.
  6. South Korea will manage the event


The North Korea I visited was frightening. There were no private telephones or mail; this was at the workplace. There were no private bank accounts. Workers and their families could be reassigned on short notice to new jobs in cities or towns selected by the regime.

Kim Jong-il liked the Philharmonic visit because it was a cultural exchange that showed Americans crediting and affirming the international legitimacy of his regime.

Similarly, just the fact of the proposed summit is a big win for North Korea.