New York Philharmonic to play in N.Korea: paper

Reuters (via Washington Post)
12/10/2007

Striking a note of musical diplomacy, the New York Philharmonic plans to visit North Korea in February — the first major U.S. cultural visit to the reclusive country, the New York Times reported on Monday.

Pyongyang’s invitation to play a concert comes as North Korea is disabling its nuclear facilities under an agreement in February, after years of six-way talks, and is beginning to see a thaw in its relations with the United States.

“It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process,” Christopher Hill, the Bush administration’s lead negotiator with North Korea, told the newspaper.

“It does represent a shift in how they view us, and it’s the sort of shift that can be helpful as we go forward in nuclear weapons negotiations.”

The daunting logistics of sending 250 people and bulky instruments to impoverished North Korea were being overcome with help from the U.S. State Department, South Korean companies and the Korea Society.

The concert is set for February 26 at the end of the Philharmonic’s planned tour of China, the paper said, with the orchestra expected to stay in Pyongyang for two nights to do some teaching and attend a ceremonial dinner.

Details of the trip, which the paper said has generated a measure of controversy among musicians and commentators, were expected to be formally announced on Tuesday.

After a faxed invitation in August by the North Korean culture ministry, the concert took its final steps towards reality late last week after a visit to South Korea’s capital by Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president, the paper said.

Hill, who plans to attend Tuesday’s news conference, said he had spoken privately to the orchestra members and believed the conditions set by the Philharmonic had been met.

The paper said those included the presence of foreign reporters, a nationwide broadcast so that not just a tiny elite would hear the concert, acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, an assurance that eight musicians of Korean origin would not encounter problems and that the orchestra could play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“PRETTY NIFTY”

The orchestra will also play a concert in Seoul after its return from Pyongyang, said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society and a former senior U.S. diplomat.

“The balance that’s being achieved here is pretty nifty,” Revere said. “It’s a nice message being sent to the peninsula that the premier American orchestra is performing in both capitals within hours of each other.”

Critics of the trip have questioned the appropriateness of visiting a country run by Kim Jong-il’s repressive regime.

“It would be a mistake to hand Kim Jong-il a propaganda coup,” Richard Allen, a former national security adviser, and Chuck Downs, both board members of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, wrote on October 28 in The New York Times.

Hill said “in a very theoretical way” any kind of opening would lend legitimacy to North Korea’s government.

“But not opening up has not had any positive effect in bringing North Korea out of its shell,” Hill said.

(Reporting by John O’Callaghan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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