By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 28, 2008
PYONGYANG, North Korea, Feb. 27 -- It felt historic inside the concert hall. American musicians got goose bumps and wept when North Koreans leapt to their feet to cheer.
But will the first-of-its-kind performance of the New York Philharmonic here this week help unlock this hermit state? Signals are maddeningly mixed.
North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, did not attend the concert Tuesday evening, but he did allow it to be broadcast live on state television and radio.
Tuesday's evening news on state television did cover the visit of the U.S. orchestra, but only after six tedious reports on such events as an undated tour by Kim of a wire factory, children viewing Kim's drawings and fish swimming in an aquarium.
North Korea's main daily newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, covered the concert that made front pages around the world. But it did so on Wednesday, with a brief article on Page 4.
And so it goes, with North Korea taking a step or two toward engagement with the outside world and then taking a step or two toward inscrutability, fist-shaking at the West and repression of its own people.
In 2006, Kim's government stunned the United States by detonating a small nuclear bomb. But since last fall, it has made what the Bush administration characterizes as genuine progress in backing away from a nuclear confrontation.
It has partially disabled its nuclear facility at Yongbyon, allowing U.S. experts to observe and take part in the work. Last Friday, for the first time ever, it invited a Western television news team to shoot video showing the progress it has made in complying with a disarmament agreement with the United States and four other countries.
Still, North Korea has failed to honor its promise to produce a comprehensive list of its nuclear programs, and it declines to discuss any past transfers of nuclear material or technology to other countries.
The United States, in response, has delayed lifting diplomatic sanctions that isolate North Korea. As a result, the disarmament process that was a source of widespread optimism three months ago has become gummed up, infuriating the North Koreans and worrying the United States.
In Japan on Wednesday, a day after the spirit-lifting orchestral performance in Pyongyang, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice detailed her concerns.
"Whenever you have a nuclear program that is as advanced as the North Korean nuclear program in a country that is as opaque and has had very little contact with the outside world, you need to worry about proliferation as a near-term and a long-term concern," Rice said.
North Korea's overriding problem now and for the foreseeable future is a collapsed communist economy.
The central government's ability to deliver food, medicine and other services has disappeared in much of the country in the past decade, according to a number of analysts.
The U.N. World Food Program said last week that about a third of North Korea's children and mothers are malnourished, while only 10 to 20 percent of the population always has enough to eat.
The well-fed minority includes the Communist Party elite in Pyongyang, as well as the military, which is the fourth-largest in the world, with about 1.21 million men and women under arms, according to the State Department.
Food shortages could soon become much worse because of severe flooding last year that destroyed much of the rice and corn crop, the World Food Program said. The nutrition gap this year will amount to a quarter of the food needed to feed the country's 23 million people -- about 1.8 million metric tons, the agency said.
Amid these grim numbers, there's strong evidence that Kim's government -- in a major break from its defiant tradition of isolation -- is opening up the country's long-neglected deposits of coal, minerals and precious metals to investors from China, South Korea and other countries.
But as in nearly all of the North's dealings with the outside world, there is an alternating pattern of outreach and paranoia. Chinese and South Korean businessmen say mining operations in the North have been delayed and sometimes halted by government officials, who enthusiastically recruit outside investment but insist on complete management control over resulting operations.
Perhaps it will be different in music.
The New York Philharmonic flew to South Korea on Wednesday afternoon, following a 48-hour visit that is without precedent in the North.
Before leaving, music director Lorin Maazel led a rousing rehearsal performance by the North Korean State Symphony Orchestra, an experience he described as "amazing, totally amazing."
Maazel conducted as the orchestra played Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger": Prelude to Act One, and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Overture-Fantasy. Nearly every musician in the orchestra was male, and they all wore suits with lapel pins bearing pictures of Kim or his father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
"They were very focused, very well prepared and very emotional," Maazel said. "We know so little about music in the country. This was a revelation to all of us."
The artful professionalism of North Korea's elite orchestra may soon become much better known.
In what would be its first trip to Western Europe, it has accepted an invitation to perform this fall in Britain, according to David Heather, a British businessman who is helping organize that trip.
Heather told reporters here that North Korean officials have told him they are also open to allowing the orchestra to perform in the United States.
"I think there is willingness to do it on both sides," he said, referring to the governments of North Korea and the United States. "It is a question of funding."