December 10, 2007
Philharmonic Agrees to Play in North Korea
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
Adding a cultural wrinkle to the diplomatic engagement between the United States and North Korea, the New York Philharmonic plans to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in February, taking the legacy of Beethoven, Bach and Bernstein to one of the world’s most isolated nations.
The trip, at the invitation of North Korea, will be the first significant cultural visit by Americans to that country, and it comes as the United States is offering the possibility of warmer ties with a country that President Bush once consigned to the “axis of evil.”
“We haven’t even had Ping-Pong diplomacy with these people,” said Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, the Bush administration’s main diplomat for negotiations with North Korea and the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Just last week Mr. Bush sent a letter to Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, suggesting that ties would improve if North Korea fully disclosed all nuclear programs and got rid of its nuclear weapons. Conservatives have criticized the Bush administration for engaging with North Korea when it has violated nuclear promises, and in the face of recent intelligence indicating its possible assistance to Syria in beginning work on a reactor.
State Department officials said the orchestra’s invitation from North Korea and its acceptance represented a potential opening in that Communist nation’s relationship with the outside world, and a softening of its unrelenting anti-United States propaganda.
“It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process,” Mr. Hill said. “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 Philharmonic’s trip, which has generated some controversy among orchestra musicians and commentators, will follow a venerable line of groundbreaking orchestra tours that have played a role in diplomacy, the most famous one, perhaps, taking place in 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon’s historic visit and amid what came to be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, went three years later.
Of the Philharmonic’s excursion, Mr. Hill said, “I hope it will be looked back upon as an event that helped bring that country back into the world.”
The Philharmonic, led by its music director, Lorin Maazel, has been considering the visit since an invitation arrived by fax in August. It was a typed letter from the North Korean culture ministry, in English, accompanied by a cover letter from a private individual in California who said he was acting as an intermediary. The orchestra had the invitation authenticated by the State Department, which has provided advice and help in negotiating the terms of the visit. Mr. Hill said that he did not know how the invitation had come about. But its timing was significant, after a series of breakthroughs in a decade-long effort to have North Korea halt its nuclear program.
In February North Korea agreed to shut down its main reactor in exchange for economic aid and other inducements. The reactor was switched off in July, a month before the invitation. And in September the Bush administration said that North Korea had agreed to disable its main nuclear fuel plant and give an accounting of its nuclear facilities, fuel and weapons by the end of the year. Progress toward the Philharmonic’s visit accelerated when orchestra executives and a State Department official visited Pyongyang in October.
The final major logistical pieces of the concert fell into place late last week, after a visit to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, by Zarin Mehta, the orchestra’s president. The Philharmonic’s spokesman, Eric Latzky, confirmed that the trip was on, but he declined to discuss details publicly until a news conference at Avery Fisher Hall tomorrow, when it is to be formally announced.
Mr. Hill, who was in Pyongyang last week delivering Mr. Bush’s letter and inspecting nuclear facilities, said he planned to attend the news conference. He has spoken privately to the orchestra members. Even more surprising, the Philharmonic said that Pak Kil-yon, North Korea’s representative to the United Nations, would also attend, a rare public appearance by a North Korean diplomat. Mr. Hill said he believed that the conditions sought by the Philharmonic had been met. They included the presence of foreign journalists; a nationwide broadcast to ensure that not just a small elite would hear the concert; acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater; an assurance that the eight Philharmonic members of Korean origin would not encounter difficulties; and that the orchestra could play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Once the orchestra members had given their approval, the major stumbling block became transportation. The orchestra, staff members and journalists are expected to number about 250. A plane that can also carry the many large instruments had to be found. Asiana Airlines, a South Korean carrier, offered such a plane, provided that financing could be secured, said Evans Revere, a former senior United States diplomat who is president of the Korea Society, which helped plan the visit.
MBC, one of three main broadcasters in South Korea, offered to pay for the charter in exchange for the rights to broadcast an extra concert by the Philharmonic in Seoul on its return from Pyongyang, Mr. Revere said.
“The balance that’s being achieved here is pretty nifty,” he 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.”
One of the remaining loose ends is the procurement of climate-controlled trucks to transport instruments to and from the airport. One possibility is arranging for South Korean trucks to be driven across the border. The North Korean government can be unpredictable, and there is always the possibility that the visit could be derailed.
The concert is planned for Feb. 26 at the end of a previously planned tour in China. The orchestra is expected to stay in Pyongyang for two nights, with some teaching and a ceremonial dinner thrown in.
Some questions have been raised about the appropriateness of visiting a country run by one of the world’s most repressive governments. North Korea’s policies have been blamed in part for the famine-related starvation of perhaps two million people and it confines hundreds of thousands of people in labor camps.
If the orchestra goes to Pyongyang, “it will be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime,” Terry Teachout, an arts critic and blogger, wrote on the online opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal in late October.
Richard V. Allen, a national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and Chuck Downs — both board members of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea — made a similar point on Oct. 28 on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. “It would be a mistake to hand Kim Jong-il a propaganda coup,” they wrote.
Mr. Hill acknowledged that “in a very theoretical way” any kind of opening lends legitimacy to the North Korean government. “But not opening up has not had any positive effect in bringing North Korea out of its shell,” he said.
Mr. Latzky declined to discuss the concert program, but orchestra officials have said from the beginning that it would probably include American music.