US Orchestra to Play in North Korea

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(SEOUL, South Korea)—The oldest U.S. orchestra is using the power of music to pierce North Korea's isolation, playing a historic concert in the communist nation as the two countries struggle to resolve a protracted standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

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The New York Philharmonic will be the most prominent American cultural group to travel to North Korea since the peninsula's division after World War II. The orchestra departs Monday for the North following a tour of the greater China region, and will perform Tuesday evening at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater in a concert to be televised internationally and live inside the country.

"Our hope is to bring this great music to as many people living there as possible, people who may not otherwise be exposed to such a performance, and touch their lives in the way that this music so often touches ours," Philharmonic President Zarin Mehta said in a statement this week.

The performance comes amid a U.S. diplomatic push to engage North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's October 2006 nuclear test that cemented its status as a nuclear-armed state.

The U.S. government has supported the concert, and the main American negotiator at nuclear talks with Pyongyang lobbied Philharmonic musicians to make the trip — stressing the need to reach out to the North.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said Wednesday that the concert was in line with U.S. efforts to show North Korea that Washington harbors no hostile intentions, as Pyongyang repeatedly claims.

"Sometimes the North Koreans don't like our words; maybe they'll like our music," he said in Seoul.

Hill was touring the region to prepare for a trip next week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be in South Korea for the Monday inauguration of the country's new president and also travel to Japan and China. U.S. officials have said she will not go to Pyongyang for the concert.

It is not known whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will be in the audience, which will consist of the capital's elite who are largely insulated from the hardships that face most of the country's 23 million people.

North Korea invited the Philharmonic last year amid rare optimism in the nuclear negotiations that began in 2003. In July, North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor and has since begun disabling it.

However, the gloss of those achievements has faded since the North missed a Dec. 31 deadline to give a complete accounting of its nuclear programs, which the U.S. hopes could be dismantled this year. Hill met his North Korean counterpart this week and said they agreed to try to move beyond the latest impasse.

As is custom for a traveling orchestra, the Philharmonic will perform the national anthems of the host country and the United States — bringing "The Star-Spangled Banner" to North Koreans who are daily implored by state propaganda to maintain vigilance against a possible U.S. attack.

The orchestra will then open its program with Richard Wagner's prelude to Act 3 of "Lohengrin" followed by Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, written by the Czech composer mostly in New York and premiered with the Philharmonic in 1893.

The concert will end on a distinctly American note with George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," a piece the composer refers to as a "rhapsodic ballet" that includes elements of jazz — a form of music essentially banned in North Korea.

Kim Cheol-woong, a North Korean pianist who defected to South Korea in 2002 because of the lack of musical freedom, said regular citizens in the North were prohibited from listening to or playing foreign music produced after 1900. He was punished in 1999 for playing jazz in a vacant symphony hall.

"I think the concert will change ordinary North Koreans' view of Americans to some extent," Kim said of the Philharmonic's trip. "It could soften their negative views of the United States, who they have been taught to view as imperialist forces."

The country's state-run media will likely portray the concert as a tribute to the greatness of North Korean leader Kim, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert who studied there and teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University.

Still, Lankov said the event would help open the eyes of people in the North.

"In order to survive, they have to keep their population as ignorant as possible. Any kind of contact with the outside world is poison," Lankov said. "If you want to bring changes to North Korea, you should encourage exchanges of all kinds even if any particular project looks like a concession to the 'dear leader,'" Lankov said, referring to the title often used for Kim in state propaganda.

Others remained skeptical.

"The mere presence of happy, smiling Americans in Pyongyang is in itself not going to accomplish very much at all," said Brian Myers, an expert on North Korean propaganda at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.

He said the regime's ideology is founded on race-based nationalism that claims North Koreans are superior.

"You don't engender goodwill with people who consider you racially inferior," he said. "It's a propaganda gift to them."

At the Pyongyang Music Conservatory this week, students were preparing for the visit that will also give them the opportunity to attend master classes by Philharmonic musicians and a rehearsal.

O Yong Ah, 21, recalled her government's claims that the U.S. was at fault for starting the Korean War, a position that goes against the commonly held view outside the North.

"I have a good feeling toward the people of America, but we have a history in which we were invaded by the United States and now still we are threatened and under pressure from the United States," the music student told broadcaster APTN in Pyongyang.

But she implied the concert could help transcend the countries' bitter past.

"I think that music instills people with warmth and enthusiasm and ardor — and hope for the future," O said.

Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.

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