NY Phil tries Dvorak diplomacy with North Korea

The New York Philharmonic arrived in a snowy Pyongyang on Monday to play the symphony From the New World in an overture to thaw still frozen ties from the Cold War era between the United States and North Korea.

The unprecedented visit comes as international pressure mounts on the communist state to stop dragging its feet and stick to its side of a deal to eventually discard its nuclear weapons programme.

The oldest US orchestra will stay in North Korea for about 48 hours in a visit that will culminate in a concert on Tuesday featuring the works of Antonin Dvorak’s New World symphony and George Gershwin’s An American in Paris.

”I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact. It is neutral, it is emotional,” the philharmonic’s music director, Lorin Maazel, told reporters at the airport.

If well-received, the concert would make a ”tiny contribution” toward bringing the United States and North Korea closer together, Maazel said.

There is no word on whether the North’s enigmatic leader Kim Jong-il will attend the concert, but analysts said the North’s propaganda machine is almost certain to spin the event as US homage to a man Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism.

”This is a sign of prestige. It can be presented to the public as Westerners paying tribute to the Dear Leader,” said Andrei Lankov, of South Korea’s Kookmin University, who is a specialist on North Korea.

Lankov, who has studied in the North, said the visit was not likely to change the views of the generals and leading cadres expected to be in the audience, but could change perceptions among the small intellectual elite in the impoverished country.

”North Korea needs isolation to control their population,” Lankov said.

”I am not saying the North Korean regime will collapse or be frightened by one such visit, but hundreds and thousands of exchanges like that will greatly contribute to promoting change within North Korea.”

The two states have no formal diplomatic ties, are technically still at war and have troops staring each other down across the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea since the 1950 to 1953 Korean War ended in a ceasefire.

The New York Philharmonic will be the biggest group from the United States since North Korea seized the US spy ship Pueblo 40 years ago and held its 82 crew members for months.

”It is a bold step, one that we have thought about carefully. What is the alternative? I think it would have been a great mistake not to accept their invitation. We are looking forward to making music here,” said Maazel.

The philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang on a South Korean chartered plane from Beijing, where the group landed in a light snowfall and was greeted by North Korea’s Vice-Culture Minister, who posed for pictures with them at the airport.

Underscoring the vast wealth gap between the orchestra’s home in New York and the North Korean capital, the road into the city was mostly empty, with more oxcarts than cars in the streets.

Not to be outshone be the arriving orchestra, North Korea’s KCNA news agency reminded its readers on Monday of the value — political rather than melodic — of homegrown greats such as the The Leader Is Always with Us symphony.

It was, KCNA said, the world’s first symphony on the theme of the immortality of the communist country’s founder Kim Il-sung who died in 1994 but who has remained president for eternity.

[It] well represents the imperishable revolutionary feats of the President and the unshakeable faith and will of the Korean people to successfully carry forward the revolutionary cause of Juche (self-help) pioneered by him to accomplishment.”

And ”Pyongyang Is Best”, another symphony, ”gives a profound symphonic rendition to the idea that socialist Korea centered on the popular masses is the best in the world”, KCNA said. – Reuters

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Jon Herskovitz
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