By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 25, 2008
BEIJING, Feb. 25 -- Orchestral diplomacy premiers this week in North Korea, as the New York Philharmonic flies into the capital, Pyongyang, for a controversial concert in a Stalinist state that human rights groups call the world's largest prison camp.
The 130-member orchestra is scheduled to arrive Monday and perform Tuesday night before an audience of high-ranking North Korean officials. Eighty journalists will accompany the musicians to a country that is almost always closed to the outside world.
The performance is scheduled to be broadcast live on North Korean state television. For North Koreans, watching an American orchestra perform in their own country will be unprecedented -- and politically dissonant. State-controlled media have demonized the United States since the Korean War.
The audience Tuesday night may or may not include Kim Jong Il, who controls almost everything of consequence in North Korea. A fan of movies and South Korean soap operas, he is not known to be an aficionado of classical music.
The official Korean Central News Agency explained last week that music "of revolution and struggle" is closest to Kim's heart, mentioning as examples "My Song in Trench," "Our Leader Will Always Be with Us" and "On the Road to Decisive Battle."
The New York Philharmonic's program for Tuesday includes George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Antonin Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and Prelude to Act III of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem are also on the program, which will be shown on public television in New York on Tuesday and two days later on PBS.
Zarin Mehta, president and executive director of the orchestra, said the journey to Pyongyang "is a manifestation of the power of music to unite people."
The visit has received enthusiastic backing -- and diplomatic and logistical assistance -- from the Bush administration.
North Korea exploded a nuclear device in October 2006 but agreed last fall to disable and disclose all its nuclear weapons in return for energy aid and the lifting of diplomatic sanctions.
That deal, though, has gone sour. The Kim government has delayed the disabling of its reactor at Yongbyon in protest of what it calls the failure of the United States and other countries to fulfill their commitments.
The orchestra's visit to Pyongyang can only help ease the tensions, said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator in talks with the North.
"They are alleging that we have a hostile policy and that's why they need nuclear weapons. The presence of the New York Philharmonic argues against that," Hill told the Los Angeles Times editorial board last week. "I don't see any downside to this."
But others have criticized the trip as appeasement of a government with one of the world's worst human rights records. Trying to escape the country is a crime punishable by death, and human rights groups say hundreds of thousands of people are held in labor camps.
Lorin Maazel, music director of the orchestra, stirred up criticism by comparing U.S. treatment of detainees at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with North Korea's treatment of its citizens.
"People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country -- the United States -- is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated?" he said in an interview with the Associated Press when the orchestra left for Asia.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, Chuck Downs and Richard V. Allen, who was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, said they feared the visit would "hand Kim Jong Il a propaganda coup." They are on the board of a nongovernmental group called the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Some analysts say it is difficult to see how Kim's government could benefit from a national television broadcast that shows friendly Americans playing lovely music in a highly professional way. They say the broadcast could undermine years of anti-American propaganda.
"I don't see why Kim is doing it," said Andrei Lankov, a professor who specializes in North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. "If I were him, I wouldn't do it."
In any case, North Korea is ready for this week's American musical invasion, according to the Korean Central News Agency. It said the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre "is fully prepared for the successful performance. Sound reflection boards have been newly manufactured and installed so as to ensure the reverberation effect of the symphonic music on the highest level."
Before its stop in North Korea, where the orchestra is expected to stay just 48 hours, it performed in Beijing and several other cities in China.