In North Korea, Breaking a Barrier With Sound

The 130-member New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang on Feb. 25 and performed Tuesday night before an audience of high-ranking North Korean officials. The controversial concert won bravos and standing ovations and was broadcast on North Korean state television.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

PYONGYANG, North Korea, Feb. 27 -- Symphonic diplomacy won bravos and standing ovations here Tuesday night, as the New York Philharmonic performed a concert without precedent in this shuttered Stalinist state that has long considered the United States to be its prime enemy.

Swinging from a rollicking rendition of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" to a moving interpretation of Korea's beloved folk anthem "Arirang," the concert delighted a mostly male, standing-room-only audience of North Koreans. Nearly all of them were wearing lapel pins bearing the face of their leader, Kim Jong Il, or of his late father, Kim Il Sung, who created this heavily armed communist nation.

Broadcast live here on state television and radio, the concert opened with the national anthems of both countries, as the audience of Communist Party members and supporters stood for the playing of their own "Patriotic Song" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Although Kim did not attend the evening performance -- concert hall security was light throughout the day, a telltale sign -- it was quickly characterized as a musical and diplomatic triumph by Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic's music director.

"Little could we know that we would be drawn into orbit by this stunning reaction," Maazel told reporters minutes after the concert, which was supported by the Bush administration but criticized by some because of human rights issues in the North. "I think it is going to do a great deal for Korean-U.S. relations. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door."

Asked if he was disappointed that Kim had not attended, Maazel responded: "I have yet to see the president of the United States at one of my concerts. Sometimes politicians are too busy."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a one-day visit to Beijing, said the concert was a good thing but cautioned against trying to portray it as a diplomatic breakthrough. "North Korea needs ways to open up," she said. "This is positive. But it's a long way from changing the situation of North Korea."

One prominent American who was in the audience here, William J. Perry, a defense secretary in the Clinton administration, shared Maazel's view that the concert could become a milestone for U.S.-North Korea relations, which bottomed out in October 2006 when the North detonated a small nuclear bomb.

"You cannot demonize people when you are listening to their music," said Perry, who as a private citizen has worked to improve U.S. relations with Kim's government. "And you don't go to war unless you have demonized them first. The concert was sublime, historic and may have pushed us over the top."

The eruption of applause at the end of the concert, which continued until nearly the entire orchestra had left the curtainless stage, seemed spontaneous and genuine.

But events offstage throughout the day pointed to the undertow of strangeness, fakery and fear that infects life in this country, where authorities confine hundreds of thousands of citizens in labor camps and sometimes shoot those who try to flee over its borders.

Tuesday's concert was supposed to have ended with a "surprise" -- six North Korean musicians coming onstage to play an encore with the Philharmonic.

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