WITNESS: In Pyongyang, a tale of two concerts

By Jon Herskovitz
Saturday, March 1, 2008; 7:40 PM

Jon Herskovitz has been chief correspondent for Reuters in South Korea for three years. He has served as an Asian affairs correspondent for Reuters based in New York and as a reporter in Tokyo, and ran the Dallas bureau before heading to Korea. He has travelled to parts of the North three times but made his first trip to Pyongyang when he joined media covering the New York Philharmonic orchestra's unprecedented concert in the North Korean capital last week.

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - In one concert hall, North Korea's elite opened their arms for the warmest embrace yet to people from their mortal enemy. In another, children sternly avoided eye contact with visiting Americans.

Last week's unprecedented concert by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang showed one of the world's most isolated states can be far more open than imaginable. But another concert the next day put that display into perspective.

Reclusive North Korea rolled the dice by allowing in the New York Philharmonic with the largest ever contingent of about 80 Western journalists, including myself.

One question on everyone's minds was, why this openness now?

For years I have had to cover North Korea from the distance of Seoul: reading its state news reports, watching its TV, speaking to refugees who left and to experts who have devoted their professional lives to trying to understand the place.

Pyongyang has interacted more internationally since a 2005 agreement to abandon its contentious nuclear weapons programs, but that accord has become bogged down, and the country is almost as hermetically sealed as it was at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war.

So the official attitudes to visiting journalists were a surprise: when we came through the airport, they didn't even run us through customs and immigration -- although I am sure our bags were checked along the way.

They gave us unfettered broadband Internet access, did not block us from taking pictures, and even allowed us to interview people on the streets -- with minders and security agents hovering nearby.

Perhaps the visit was a compromise between those who want to keep the country closed, and those who feel a little engagement with the outside world can help its battered image.

The country's poverty is evident even in Pyongyang, where semi-opaque tape blocks views into mostly empty stores that close at nightfall, because there is not enough electricity to keep them lit.

Yet neon propaganda signs illuminate the night sky. A system that keeps its leaders in power by closing out the world and stamping out dissent is reflected in the countless faces that bow to the pavement when foreigners pass.

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