NY Phil tries Dvorak diplomacy with North Korea

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - The New York Philharmonic arrived in a snowy Pyongyang on Monday to play the symphony “From the New World” in an overture to thaw still frozen ties from the Cold War era between the United States and North Korea.

The unprecedented visit comes as international pressure mounts on the communist state to stop dragging its feet and stick to its side of a deal to eventually discard its nuclear weapons program.

The oldest U.S. orchestra will stay in North Korea for about 48 hours in a visit that will culminate in a concert on Tuesday featuring the works of Antonin Dvorak’s New World symphony and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”.

“I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact. It is neutral, it is emotional,” the philharmonic’s music director, Lorin Maazel, told reporters at the airport.

If well-received, the concert would make a “tiny contribution” toward bringing the United States and North Korea closer together, Maazel said.

There is no word on whether the North’s enigmatic leader Kim Jong-il will attend the concert, but analysts said the North’s propaganda machine is almost certain to spin the event as U.S. homage to a man Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism.

“This is a sign of prestige. It can be presented to the public as Westerners paying tribute to the Dear Leader,” said Andrei Lankov, of South Korea’s Kookmin University, who is a specialist on North Korea.

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The philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang on a South Korean chartered plane from Beijing and was greeted by North Korea’s vice-culture minister.

Leaving the airport, they rode in convoy of buses road for several kilometers on empty roads where they passed more ox-carts than motorcars.


At night, energy-starved North Korea lit the streets of Pyongyang for the motorcade of buses carrying some 350 people from the orchestra, its entourage and media covering the event.

As the buses pulled away, the street lights went out behind them. Through the rear-view mirror, one lit sign could be seen, which read “crush the American imperialist aggressors”.

Lankov, who has studied in the North, said the visit was not likely to change the views of the generals and leading cadres expected to be in the audience, but could change perceptions among the small intellectual elite in the impoverished country.

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“North Korea needs isolation to control their population,” Lankov said. “I am not saying the North Korean regime will collapse or be frightened by one such visit, but hundreds and thousands of exchanges like that will greatly contribute to promoting change within North Korea.”

The two states have no diplomatic ties, are technically still at war and have troops staring each other down across the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a ceasefire.

“It is a bold step, one that we have thought about carefully. What is the alternative? I think it would have been a great mistake not to accept their invitation. We are looking forward to making music here,” said Maazel.

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The North Koreans put on a magnificent show of traditional song and dance for the visitors that remained free of political ideology until the final dance number -- about a woman guerrilla fighter bathed in the red light of the communist government.

Not to be outshone by the arriving orchestra, North Korea’s KCNA news agency reminded its readers on Monday of the value -- political rather than melodic -- of indigenous music such as the “The Leader Is Always with Us” symphony.

It was, KCNA said, the world’s first symphony on the theme of the immortality of the communist country’s founder Kim Il-sung who died in 1994 but who has remained president for eternity.

“(It) well represents the imperishable revolutionary feats of the President and the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean people to successfully carry forward the revolutionary cause of Juche (self-help) pioneered by him to accomplishment.”

And “Pyongyang Is Best”, another symphony, “gives a profound symphonic rendition to the idea that socialist Korea centered on the popular masses is the best in the world”, KCNA said. (Editing by Bill Tarrant)