Musical Diplomacy Resonates With N. Korea as Official Efforts Stall

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 13, 2008

North Korea's orchestras are eager to travel to the United States and replicate the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's bravura performance in February in the North Korean capital. The negotiations for such a visit that are underway between North Korean officials and American music leaders indicate that informal cultural diplomacy is advancing beyond government-sponsored efforts to ease tensions between the two nations.

The Philharmonic's president and executive director, Zarin Mehta, who led the orchestra's trip to Pyongyang, said North Korean music leaders have asked if they can bring an orchestra to play for American audiences. The New York-based Korea Society is brokering discussions among North Korea's U.N. mission, the State Department and the Philharmonic with a goal of bringing 160 performers from Pyongyang's State Symphony Orchestra to New York's Lincoln Center next year, according to a spokesman in Mehta's office.

The Korea Society's executive director, Frederick F. Carriere, who is planning how to raise the estimated $750,000 cost of the proposed visit, said the State Department gave its tentative approval in October. The trip, he warned, depends on whether U.S.-North Korean relations do not deteriorate further.

"We are aware that the Korea Society is considering this project and have discussed their plans with them," said a U.S. State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

Asked how the failure this week of the six-party talks to reach agreement on how to verify the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program could affect a North Korean orchestra visit, the official said, "I think everything is under consideration, but we support cultural exchanges."

Carriere said North Koreans were always interested in a bilateral musical exchange. North Korea's U.N. mission called Carriere within a week of the New York Philharmonic's concert in Pyongyang, which continues to be broadcast frequently on state television.

"They were able to connect," said Mehta, the brother of world-famous conductor Zubin Mehta, about the orchestra's enthusiastic reception in Pyongyang. "We could have gone on burying our heads in the sand, but by playing, we showed there is another side to us and to what American culture is all about."

The Bush administration removed North Korea from its list of terrorism sponsors in October. But human rights organizations have criticized the ongoing six-party talks for neglecting what they call the North's abysmal record on rights. Many of those groups hope the incoming Obama administration will sharpen the focus on the issue in the isolated communist country, where the government holds an estimated 200,000 people in prison.

North Korean pianist and dissident Cheol Woong Kim, who said he fled his famine-plagued country in 2001 because he was hungry not for food but for music, told a Washington audience last month that he believes in music's persuasive power.

"It is said Kim Jong Il likes music," he said, referring to the North Korean leader. "Maybe the light of its beauty will reach his heart."

"In dealing with human rights in North Korea, the cultural approach is a very powerful force," the pianist continued. "That is what the New York Philharmonic was able to do. Though it is not visible to the naked eye, somewhere in the recesses of the brain, I am certain something happens."

Before the Philharmonic's visit, foreign music was considered evil in North Korea. Richard Clayderman's piano version of "Autumn Leaves" triggered Cheol Woong Kim's harrowing escape from his homeland. He said he was overheard practicing the work, which he hoped to play as he proposed to his girlfriend, and was reported to the authorities. They demanded he write a 10-page essay on the wrongs of playing scores composed after the 19th century, he said.

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