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New York Philharmonic Heads to North Korea


The New York Philharmonic Orchestra is heading to Pyongyang tomorrow in one of the highest level cultural exchanges ever between the U.S. and North Korea. Observers are watching and hoping, cautiously, that this is a sign that North Korea is more willing to open to the outside world.

Today the orchestra performed in the Chinese capital.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

ANTHONY KUHN: The Philharmonic led off tonight's concert with Dvorak's Symphony No. 7. It was at the new National Performing Arts Center, a futuristic titanium covered dome designed by French architect Paul Andreu and located diagonally opposite the Forbidden City.

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KUHN: For years American musicians were forbidden here in China until the Philadelphia Orchestra came in 1973, a year after President Nixon's visit. Neither could have happened without the athletic exchanges known as ping-pong diplomacy.

Today world-class Chinese and foreign musicians often perform in Beijing, although many in the audience here tonight were still new to this kind of thing.

Beijing residence Li Liun(ph) was milling around with her family during intermission time.

Ms. LI LIUN (Concertgoer): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: We brought our daughter here to experience some highbrow culture, she said. We've heard Chinese folk music before this is our first time going to a Western music concert.

Tomorrow the New York Philharmonic will set out for North Korea for a round of cultural diplomacy. Their program in Pyongyang on Tuesday night will include Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and Gershwin's "An American in Paris," as well as the American and North Korean national anthems.

With the U.S. and North Korea still technically at war the visit reminds philharmonic President Zarin Mehta of when Leonard Bernstein led the orchestra to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Mr. ZARIN MEHTA (President, New York Philharmonic): When Lenny went with the philharmonic to Moscow in '59, you didn't have the Internet and you didn't have television going live. North Korea is not as big and as important a country as Russia and China were but I think as being the last bastion of that kind of era I think it's going to mean a lot.

KUHN: Pyongyang invited the Philharmonic late last year, just days after President Bush sent a personal letter to North Korean President Kim Jong-il. In it he pledged to normalize diplomatic relations if North Korea gave up its nuclear programs. But recently the political process has lost momentum and North Korea has balked at revealing the full extent of its nuclear programs.

On Friday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice downplayed expectations for the philharmonic's visit.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): From my point of view it's a good thing that the philharmonic is going but the North Korean regime is still the North Korean regime, and so I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.

KUHN: North Korea watchers say that this symphonic diplomacy could be a distraction, or should we say a divertimento, from the more pressing issue of nuclear disarmament.

Marcus Noland is a North Korean expert at the Peterson Institute of International Economics. He says Pyongyang is waiting to see what incoming administrations installed this month and in Washington next year will bring.

Mr. MARCUS NOLAND (North Korean Expert, Peterson Institute of International Economics): Until that nuclear issue is resolved we can send symphonies to North Korea every week but it isn't going to lead to a fundamental improvement in political relationship between the United States and North Korea.

KUHN: Despite official U.S. approval for the trip, the philharmonic has come under fire from skeptics who think that it will just hand Kim Jong-il a propaganda victory.

But Zarin Mehta says that this is the musical mission that the philharmonic wants.

Mr. MEHTA: Our board has supported it, our musicians have supported. I was in 95 percent of opinion in New York and in America and around the world have supported. Yes, there are few people who think that we shouldn't have dialogue. I don't happen to believe that one should not have dialogue in any circumstances.

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KUHN: Besides the concert the Philharmonic will perform chamber music and hold master classes with North Korean musicians. North Korean television is due to broadcast the concert nationwide. Today North Korea's official news agency called the orchestra one of the world's top three, even as the ruling party's main newspaper blasted the U.S. and warmongers for holding joint military exercises with South Korea.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.