The New York Philharmonic Tries to Strike the Right Notes In North Korea

Will this interlude of musical diplomacy make a difference?


North Korea was tearing down anti-American propaganda as part of unprecedented accommodations for the New York Philharmonic's two-day visit to Pyongyang.

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Call it musical diplomacy—unofficial, to be sure—but Tuesday's historic concert by the New York Philharmonic in North Korea nonetheless represents an attempt by officials from both the United States and North Korea to bring a warmer tone to a relationship plagued by a stubborn nuclear dispute and still technically in a state of war.

The concert was attended by some 1,500 of the Communist regime's elites; perhaps more important, it was broadcast live on North Korean state television and radio, giving at least some people in the isolated, hypercontrolled state a taste of western culture served up by musicians from the very nation routinely portrayed as the North's mortal and ever-imperialist enemy.

The Philharmonic's visit this week, said its music director, Lorin Maazel, might make a "tiny contribution" toward bringing the two bitter antagonists together. Added Maazel, "We may have been instrumental in opening a little door."

The broader hope—one shared by the U.S. policymakers promoting negotiations with North Korea and, apparently, the North Korean officials who issued the symphony invitation—is that a friendly bit of cultural exchange will do something to lower the rancor and distrust that have lingered for well over half a century.

The top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said earlier that it would "signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell." He quipped that if North Korea doesn't like American policy, perhaps it will like some American music.

Still, the Bush administration sought to dampen expectations. The White House Tuesday all but ruled out further cultural exchanges until North Korea reveals all of its nuclear programs. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, herself a classically trained pianist, offered a cool assessment recently, saying, "I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea."

The North Koreans appeared intent on welcoming the symphony and its accompanying entourage—a group totaling nearly 300, making it the largest group of Americans to visit Pyongyang since the U.S. Army briefly occupied the city in the Korean War.

Beyond a well-stocked banquet, a city tour, and other welcoming stagecraft, North Korean officials allowed a few journalists to tour its partially disabled nuclear reactor complex at Yongbyon. Their hope, it appears, is to portray the North as doing its part under a stalled deal to end its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid and political concessions. The Bush administration, by contrast, contends that Pyongyang has failed to deliver a complete declaration of all its nuclear assets—a critical step toward the goal of full denuclearization.

The audience at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, many wearing dark suits and badges with a picture of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, applauded the back-to-back playing of the North Korean national anthem and then the "Star-Spangled Banner." Not in attendance was Kim's reclusive son, the current dictator, Kim Jong Il.

The orchestral program was carefully selected for the occasion, featuring Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony—written during the Czech composer's time in the United States—and George Gershwin's famed "An American in Paris." The Philharmonic also played "Arirang," a beloved Korean folk song. The concert ended with a five-minute standing ovation, with some musicians cheering and others moved to tears.

This week's concert has drawn plenty of comparisons to past episodes of cultural or sports diplomacy, including visits in the 1950s by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic to the Soviet Union, as well as the "ping-pong diplomacy" by American athletes to Beijing in 1971 that fostered movement toward restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and China.

The North Korean government, it turns out, has also invited English rock star Eric Clapton to perform in the future.

But such visits, even when graciously received, don't necessarily pave the way for a diplomatic breakthrough. A visit by American wrestlers to Iran 10 years ago went well at the time but produced no enduring political progress.