Symphonic Diplomacy, With Odd Overtones

The New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang on Monday for an unprecedented three-day visit whose centerpiece will be a concert on Tuesday. The plane carrying orchestra memberstouched down at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport in the afternoon. Video by AP
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

PYONGYANG, North Korea, Feb. 26 -- For the New York Philharmonic, the formalities for entering this sealed police state began with the surrender of all mobile phones.

Stripped of these items, which are illegal in North Korea, members of the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States were required to fill out what may well be the world's strangest customs declaration form. It asks whether a traveler is carrying a "killing device," an "exciter," "artistic works" or "publishing of all kinds."

Monday was a memorably surreal day of meet and greet for the New York Philharmonic and the government of Kim Jong Il.

Kim's Stalinist dictatorship has spent decades vilifying Americans as "imperialist warmongers," but on Tuesday night it will broadcast live on state television a concert by what is arguably the most famous of all American orchestras. The concert will include "The Star-Spangled Banner" and George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

On an afternoon darkened by fog and blanketed with late-winter snow, the 130-member orchestra arrived by jumbo jet from Beijing to begin a 48-hour musical diplomacy tour, despite criticism from human rights groups that North Korea keeps hundreds of thousands of its citizens in labor camps, shoots people who try to escape the country and presided in the 1990s over the starvation of an estimated 2 million people.

Minutes after he stepped onto the tarmac at Pyongyang's airport, Lorin Maazel, music director of the New York Philharmonic, was surrounded by the horde of Western journalists traveling with his orchestra and pressed to justify the visit. Critics have described it as a public relations bonanza for Kim's government, which is eager for trade with and aid from the West.

"Obviously, it is a bold step," Maazel said. "But what is the alternative? It would have been a great mistake not to accept this invitation."

North Korea invited the orchestra last August, at a time when its relationship with the United States was gradually improving. That improvement has since stalled, with the North delaying the disabling of a nuclear reactor here, asserting that the United States and other countries have not delivered on promises to provide energy aid and lift diplomatic sanctions.

Still, orchestral diplomacy has forged ahead, with the approval of the Bush administration, whose officials have said the concert would help improve the image of Americans here.

Maazel said that for closed societies such as North Korea, "we are a lifeline to the outside world."

But he played down the political significance of the orchestra's visit. He also seemed purposefully grim through a long evening of appearances with his North Korean hosts.

It would be "presumptuous," Maazel said, to predict any historical importance for the concert. "It may or may not be of significance outside the musical arena," he said.

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