White House plays down significance of North Korea concert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House played down the significance of a performance on Tuesday by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, and focused instead on North Korea’s nuclear program.

“I think at the end of the day we consider this concert to be a concert, and it’s not a diplomatic coup,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

North Korea must fully declare its nuclear programs and provide an accounting of proliferation activities, she said.

“They have a ways to go in order to meet those obligations. Once we get to those we might then be able to see normalized relations begin, and part of normalized relations would include possible cultural exchanges, like the one you saw today,” Perino told reporters.

When asked directly whether future U.S. cultural visits should not take place until North Korea complies, however, she said: “No.”

The oldest U.S. symphony orchestra played the unprecedented concert in Pyongyang in hopes of bringing a little harmony to relations between the bitter Cold War foes. It was broadcast live on North Korea’s single television station.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was visiting China to discuss the North Korea issue, said future cultural exchanges with North Korea would be a positive development.

“I think cultural exchange is a good thing. It’s a society that certainly needs ways to open up,” Rice told reporters. “I would like to see North Koreans come to the United States. North Korean students, others.”

“I know that we focus overwhelmingly on denuclearization and that is clearly the issue here. But the United States is also concerned about the North Korean people,” Rice said.

The concert was arranged after a private invitation from North Korea last year as progress was made in the nuclear talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

If the concert spurs North Korea to move forward on curbing its nuclear program, then looking back it would mean the cultural exchange was helpful, Perino said.

“But today I don’t think we can say whether or not it was helpful. I would just say it was probably neutral.”

Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Arshad Mohammed in Beijing; Editing by David Storey