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N.Y. Philharmonic plays concert in North Korea

The New York Philharmonic performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and North Korea’s anthem for Pyongyang’s communist elite Tuesday — a historic feat of musical diplomacy aimed at improving ties with the isolated nuclear power that considers the U.S. its mortal enemy.
Image: New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang, North Korea
Music director Lorin Maazel, center, faces the audience after the New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Tuesday.David Guttenfelder / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The New York Philharmonic performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” and North Korea’s anthem for Pyongyang’s communist elite Tuesday — a historic feat of musical diplomacy aimed at improving ties with the isolated nuclear power that considers the U.S. its mortal enemy.

The Philharmonic is the first major American cultural group to perform in the country and the largest delegation from the United States to visit its longtime foe.

The unprecedented concert, shown live on television inside North Korea, represents a warming in relations between the nations that remain technically at war and locked in negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.

The country’s tentative cultural ties to the West may be expanding. On Tuesday, a North Korean diplomat in London told The Associated Press that Pyongyang has invited rock guitarist Eric Clapton to perform. The diplomat, who did not give his name, confirmed reports in the British media that Clapton had been officially invited to Pyongyang — the first such invitation to a Western rock star to the country.

With the U.S. and North Korean flags at opposite ends of the flower bedecked stage, the Philharmonic began with “Patriotic Song” — North Korea’s national anthem, then played the U.S. anthem. The audience stood during both anthems and held their applause until the conclusion of the second.

“My colleagues of the New York Philharmonic and I are very pleased to play in this fine hall,” Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel said in English. Then in Korean, he told the audience: “Please have a good time.”

Other works included Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” written while the Czech composer lived in the United States and inspired by native American themes; Wagner’s Prelude to Act 3 of “Lohengrin”; and Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

“Someday a composer may write a work entitled ’Americans in Pyongyang,”’ Maazel said in introducing the Gershwin, drawing warm applause.

'Opening a little door'
When the concert ended with a final encore of the traditional Korean folk song “Arirang” — beloved in both the North and South — the orchestra received a five-minute standing ovation, with many audience members cheering, whistling and waving to the beaming musicians.

“There may be a mission accomplished here. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door,” Maazel said after the concert.

North Koreans in attendance — men in suits and women in colorful traditional Korean dresses — fixed their eyes at the stage. Many wore badges with a portrait of Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il. Kim was not in the 2,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theater.

Ri Gun, North Korea’s deputy nuclear negotiator, sat next to former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who called the performance a “historic moment” and remembered how close the countries came to war in 1994 amid an earlier nuclear crisis.

“This might just have pushed us over the top,” Perry said of the concert. “I hope so. ... You cannot demonize people when you’re sitting there listening to their music. You don’t go to war with people unless you demonize them first.”

Traveling in China, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the North Korean people should have more opportunities to engage the world.

“It’s a society that certainly needs ways to open up ... but it’s a long way from playing that concert to changing the nature of the politics of North Korea, but I think it’s a good thing,” she said.

Pyongyang urged to speed up denuclearization
In Washington, the White House urged Pyongyang to live up to its agreement to end its nuclear weapons program. “We need them to move faster on denuclearization. We need a full and accurate report from them. And we also need a report on all their proliferation activities,” press secretary Dana Perino said.

The U.S. government has supported the Philharmonic’s visit, agreed upon last year when efforts to end the North’s nuclear weapons program were making unprecedented progress. The country shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and has started disabling it so it cannot easily be restarted under the eyes of U.S. and international experts.

However, disarmament has stalled this year because of what Washington says is the North’s failure to give a full declaration of its atomic programs to be dismantled, as Pyongyang promised to do under an international agreement.

In a bid to show that it is complying with the disarmament accord, North Korea last week opened its main reactor to foreign media for the first time.

Before the concert, Maazel said the orchestra has been a force for change in the past, noting that its 1959 performance in the Soviet Union was part of that country’s opening up to the outside world that eventually resulted in the downfall of the regime.

“The Soviets didn’t realize that it was a two-edged sword, because by doing so they allowed people from outside the country to interact with their own people, and to have an influence,” he told journalists in Pyongyang. “It was so long-lasting that eventually the people in power found themselves out of power.”

When asked if he thought the same could happen in North Korea, he said: “There are no parallels in history; there are similarities.”

Still, he said, the concert could spark other cultural and social exchanges.

“We are very humble. We are here to make music,” he said.

Kim Cheol-woong, a North Korean pianist who defected to South Korea in 2002 because of the lack of musical freedom, said last week that regular citizens in the North were prohibited from listening to or playing foreign music produced after 1900.

Visit publicized, but not front-page news
On the streets of Pyongyang on Tuesday, North Koreans said they were aware of the orchestra’s visit. But the trip was not front-page news: A picture of the orchestra’s airport arrival was printed on page 4 of the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper, along with brief stories.

At the Grand People’s Study House, the country’s largest library said to include 30 million volumes, journalists saw North Koreans looking up information in an electronic catalog, reading industrial journals and attending language and science classes.

In one boisterous classroom, teacher Jeon Hyun Mi led students through an English lesson using materials from an American-designed program. Her students enthusiastically shouted out “yes” or “no” to her questions and gave brief replies.

The teacher said she welcomed the orchestra’s visit as a way to bring the people of the two countries together, implying it was only the governments that harbored differences.

“We think we have good relations, people are very close,” Jeon said. The trip “is a gesture of improvement.”

Ri Myong Sop, an electrical engineering student walking outside a subway station, repeated the country’s official line that the U.S. started the Korean War, which ended in a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty.

“At present, if the United States takes the decision of a more encouraging policy toward the North then we can embrace the United States,” he said.

Inside the concert hall, audience member Pak Chol said the concert was “not only just an art performance.”

“I think the concert is just a wonderful gesture for greater understanding between the peoples of the U.S. and the DPRK,” said Pak, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.