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From North Korea, Discordant Messages

Reaction to Philharmonic's Performance Underscores Contradictions in Pyongyang's Stances

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.
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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.

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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.


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