News

New York Philharmonic heads to N. Korea

Bay Fang
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

BEIJING - The largest contingent of Americans to visit North Korea since the Korean War heads Monday into the heart of the country, often considered the most closed society in the world, as the New York Philharmonic brings its delegation of musicians, technicians and others for a highly unusual concert hosted by secretive leader Kim Jong Il.

Tuesday's concert will include George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, also titled "From the New World" - both tributes to the American spirit. In addition, the orchestra will play "The Star-Spangled Banner" alongside the North Korean national anthem. The regime has agreed to broadcast the concert live nationally. Such a live national telecast has never before occurred under the communist regime, Korea watchers say.

Whether these unprecedented measures indicate a new openness on the part of the hermit kingdom is not clear, but some people are hopeful.

"For the people at the highest levels of the (North Korean) government to facilitate a cultural event that represents a country traditionally viewed as an enemy, is trying to signal something positive," said Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat in South Korea. "If the broadcast goes off as planned, thousands, perhaps millions, of North Koreans will get a sense of America as a country of culture and history."

Revere is president of the New York-based Korea Society, which was instrumental in arranging the concert.

The plan was hatched last fall, when six-party talks were moving forward with the expectation that North Korea would fully disclose its nuclear capabilities by year's end. Pyongyang had agreed to disable its main plutonium-making facilities and disclose all its nuclear programs in exchange for energy aid and normalization of diplomatic relations with the United States. But since then the talks have stalled, with the U.S. saying the North's accounting was not complete and Pyongyang insisting it was.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived Sunday in Seoul on the first stop of her own Asian tour, attending the inauguration of the new South Korean president and meeting with members of the new administration to try to resolve the impasse over the North's nuclear program.

Progress on such issues is far more important than a concert, even a historic one, experts say.

"This production is on a scale that we haven't seen before, and it is an important event for (U.S.-North Korea) relations," said Victor Cha, a former U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang who is now at Georgetown University. "But in reality, cultural exchanges are not an engine for progress on denuclearization. Denuclearization is the engine for progress on everything else."

The Bush administration is acutely sensitive to this. While the State Department put its imprimatur on the performance, helping with the logistics and even suggesting the program, it has pointedly refused to send any senior officials to the concert. Rice decided earlier this month that neither she nor her deputy Chris Hill, the chief negotiator on the six-party talks, would attend, although they are in the region.

"We cannot pretend that problems don't exist when they exist," said Hill during a visit to Seoul last week to discuss the nuclear issues. He added, "The New York Philharmonic visit is very much in keeping with the New York Philharmonic's role in many countries, where it has gone to very unusual places and has played music, and in many ways has been a kind of precursor to American diplomacy in that regard."

Some said North Korea's invitation to the orchestra may have been designed to boost Kim politically.

"As far as they are concerned, any visit to Pyongyang by a foreign delegation is a tributary visit, and they see the orchestra as being sent by the Bush administration," said Brian Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea. "The North Korean media will portray this as an acknowledgment that `we are a nuclear nation and the Americans are coming to honor us.'"

The North Koreans have provided the logistics. Not only did Pyongyang build an acoustic sound shell for the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theater especially for the performance, but for 48 hours there will be a stream of communication from the country to the outside world as some 80 journalists cover on the historic event. A scarlet Steinway piano is being rolled in for the occasion, and temperature-controlled trucks for transporting equipment are being sent from Seoul across the demilitarized zone, which requires military approval.

Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who now chairs the Korea Society, said that in some ways this visit dwarfs the 1971 visit by the U.S. table tennis team to China, which helped set the stage for normalized relations. Gregg called it a "broadside of soft power being fired into the hearts and minds of the North Korean people, and way up the scale from ping-pong diplomacy in terms of the number of people and the logistics involved."

But North Korea is far more closed today than China was then, and some see a disconnect between the cultural and political engagement of the U.S. and North Korea.

"The concert may signal they are serious about improving relations with the U.S., but it does not signal a readiness to compromise on the nuclear front," said Joel Wit, a former diplomat now at the Johns Hopkins University's U.S.-Korea Institute, who visited nuclear sites and spoke with officials as part of a delegation in North Korea this month.

Other experts pointed out that North Korea remains a secretive country with a cult of personality around an all-powerful leader. It celebrated Kim's 66th birthday this month with exhibitions of Kimjongilia, a roselike flower named after the "Dear Leader," and synchronized swimmers performing to a tune called "Our General Is Best."

The New York Philharmonic, which entertained a Chinese audience Sunday during a stopover in Beijing, will perform in front of a North Korean audience that will be provided with concert programs assembled and translated by the Korea Society. The programs will provide detailed descriptions of the pieces, including the fact that Dvorak wrote his symphony as a tribute to the U.S. But they will be seen only by an audience presumably composed of vetted members of the elite.

"We will not know until the event itself how North Korean broadcasters are going to frame it and what message the North Korean people are receiving," said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and author of "Korea after Kim Jong Il." "The idea that anyone in North Korea will have any comprehension of the sly import of the Dvorak and Gershwin pieces is absolutely ridiculous."


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