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N.Y. Philharmonic Strikes Accord in N. Korea with Concert

February 26, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The New York Philharmonic performed in North Korea Tuesday, the first major U.S. cultural organization -- and the largest contingent of Americans -- to visit the isolationist country in more than 50 years. Experts evaluate the event and its historical context.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The music was Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” but it was the particular performance that got all the attention, for these were Americans in Pyongyang.

The concert was part of a 48-hour trip to North Korea by the New York Philharmonic, the first major American cultural organization and the largest contingent of Americans to visit the communist country since the Korean War began in 1950.

The 105 orchestra members, joined by several hundred helpers, supporters and journalists, were allowed a bit of sightseeing, but always with minders nearby, and last night were themselves treated to a concert by North Korean performers.

Several Americans gave master classes to Korean students.

Today’s concert by the American orchestra began with the national anthems of both countries and was broadcast live on North Korea’s one television station.

The philharmonic’s assistant concertmaster, Michelle Kim, who was born in South Korea, said she’d been wary before the trip but was glad she’d come.

MICHELLE KIM, Assistant Concertmaster, New York Philharmonic: I wish I could stay longer. I felt the warmest greetings from everybody here. I feel that not as North and not as South Koreans, but as Koreans, I was very, very delighted to be here and I feel just incredible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lang Young Gul, considered the top cellist in North Korea, said he hoped today’s concert may open an opportunity for him to play in the U.S.

LANG YOUNG GUL, Cellist (through translator): I expect to play there, but I just wish that we could have better relations so I can go there and perform.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. State Department had helped plan the trip, but no official meetings were held during the visit, which came even as the U.S. continues to push North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

The philharmonic’s conductor and music director, Lorin Maazel, told reporters he’s no politician, but hoped the trip could do some good.

LORIN MAAZEL, Music Director, New York Philharmonic: We may have been instrumental in opening a little door. And we certainly hope that if that’s true that in the long run it will be seen as a watershed, you know, a moment in history, why then others will follow, and there will be a normalization over, you know, maybe two decades. These things never happen at once.

JEFFREY BROWN: The philharmonic concluded today’s concert with a performance of a famous Korean folk song revered on both sides of the border. The audience responded with a standing ovation that lasted five minutes.

Emotional experience for performers

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Landers was at the concert. He's been covering the philharmonic's trip for the Wall Street Journal and joins us by phone from Pyongyang.

Also with us from Los Angeles is Mike Chinoy, a longtime Asia correspondent for CNN and others. He's visited North Korea many times and is currently writing a book about its nuclear program, while serving as a fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Well, Peter Landers, you were there. Tell us about this unusual concert. Who attended? And what did it feel like?

PETER LANDERS, Wall Street Journal: It was North Korean officials, most of them in dark blue suits.

And it just felt like a magical moment when the stars and stripes was played at the beginning of the concert, to think that North Korea has been an enemy of the United States and its people are taught to hate the United States, and to fear it, and to fear a United States invasion and even a nuclear attack.

And this was, I believe, the first time the U.S. national anthem was ever played in North Korea. And the audience listened respectfully, standing up, and they clapped at the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: There had been some conjecture that Kim Jong-Il himself might show up. I gather he did not.

PETER LANDERS: He was not there. And I spoke with the culture minister of North Korea. I asked him why that was. And he said, "Well, Kim Jong-Il is very busy and it means nothing that he was not there."

But we do hear that perhaps he decided not to attend after he learned that Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, also would not be at the concert.

JEFFREY BROWN: It seems clear that the American musicians were quite moved by this. Were you able to talk to any North Koreans or gauge in some fashion how they responded?

PETER LANDERS: I think they responded emotionally, as well. I felt that most strongly, as I'm sure others did, at the concert seeing them at the end, the clap and wave to the orchestra members on the stage, who waved back. And it was back and forth.

And they didn't seem to want the concert to end. It seemed like they wanted to stay in that hall, that very nice, warm hall and such an elegant location, for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter, we said in our set-up that this was televised live. What does that actually mean in North Korea? How many people might have been able to watch it?

PETER LANDERS: I don't know how many people have television sets here. It was also broadcast live on radio, and I think more people probably have the radio.

So how many people listened? They don't have Nielsen ratings in North Korea. I don't know. But I did get the sense, I did talk to some people on the street. They knew the philharmonic was in Pyongyang. They were interested in the concert. And so I suspect a fair number of people may have listened.

Signs of opening-up

Mike Chinoy
Pacific Council on International Policy
I think the North Koreans intended this to be of considerable political significance. It was the North Koreans who last August initiated this idea and proposed that the New York Philharmonic come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Chinoy, let me bring you into this, from afar now, how do you see the significance of this event?

MIKE CHINOY, Pacific Council on International Policy: Well, I think the North Koreans intended this to be of considerable political significance. It was the North Koreans who last August initiated this idea and proposed that the New York Philharmonic come.

The North Koreans bent over backwards to accommodate virtually everything that the philharmonic requested, in terms of both logistics, access for journalists, the live transmission inside North Korea.

Clearly, the government in Pyongyang was trying to send a signal to the American public that the North Koreans are not monsters, to counteract years of very negative propaganda.

I think perhaps more importantly is the signal that they were trying to send their own people, by showing it live on television and broadcasting it on radio. This is a population that, since the North Korean regime was established, has been taught to see the United States as an enemy.

Every time you go, on all of my visits, you hear endless complaints from North Koreans about what they call the hostile policy of the United States. People constantly make reference to Pyongyang having been flattened by American bombs during the Korean War.

The society has a kind of siege mentality when it comes to the way it looks at the United States. So for a leading American cultural institution to come, to play both the North Korean and American national anthem, and for the people of North Korea to be allowed to experience this, I think, is a way for the government to begin the process of undoing some of those years of brainwashing as part of what Kim Jong-Il clearly hopes will eventually be a broader rapprochement between the two countries.

Criticism of N. Korean policies

Mike Chinoy
Pacific Council on International Policy
The critics argue that the human rights record in North Korea is abysmal, that the country is a rogue state, and that the presence of an organization like the philharmonic would simply be legitimizing an oppressive regime.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mike, staying with you, as you know, there had been some criticism here of the philharmonic going and whether that's playing into the hands of what is, after all, a very repressive regime. Tell us about that debate.

MIKE CHINOY: Well, this cuts to the heart of a debate that's gone on for a very long time over, how do you deal with a place like North Korea?

The critics argue that the human rights record in North Korea is abysmal, that the country is a rogue state, and that the presence of an organization like the philharmonic would simply be legitimizing an oppressive regime.

But the counterargument to that is that many years of attempting to isolate North Korea, to pressure North Korea, to try and bring the regime down, which was an approach that characterized the first five or six years of the Bush administration, failed to do the job.

Instead, the North Koreans defied all American pressure and went off and declared themselves a nuclear power and tested a nuclear bomb. And so the options, in terms of realistically forcing change on North Korea through that approach, based on the experiences of recent years, have proved not to be very successful.

So the counterargument is that even if you have to hold your nose and engage them that gradually prying the North open to outside influences may be a catalyst for change.

And it's important not to see this event in isolation. There are consistent reports from travelers and diplomats and other foreigners who've been going in and out of North Korea of a kind of incremental opening.

You have a profusion of free markets, as the state-run economies begins to erode and the central government's control over society in certain areas begins to erode.

You have North Koreans talking with Americans about academic exchanges. You have hundreds of thousands of North Koreans who've fled into China, some of whom are coming back into North Korea, bringing with them more information and ideas about the outside world.

And I think part of the response to the concert was not only North Koreans pleased at being accepted and legitimized by a major American institution, but also there is a real thirsting to have greater contact with the outside.

And I think the hope is that this event will accelerate that, although whether that will lead to any broader progress on the nuclear issue is another question entirely.

Attitude toward the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me go back to Peter Landers. Were you able to see any of that on the ground?

PETER LANDERS: Absolutely. It's interesting to compare it to Mike's experience in his trips to North Korea. This is my first. But I did not hear a lot of -- any, really -- anti-U.S. rhetoric or sort of fulmination against U.S. imperialists.

Of course, there are signs that say that, but my guides avoided the subject. In speeches that officials gave at banquets and so on, they did not mention politics at all. They never said anything about the U.S. being an imperialist power or anything like that.

And in fact, one time I raised the subject with my guide. I asked why the subways were built so deep underground. I asked, "Was it to prevent attack?" He said, "Yes, it's because we think we might be the victim of a nuclear attack," but then he changed the subject.

He was not comfortable talking about that. And he asked me whether I had a cold. So it was a difference from what Mike had experienced on his trips.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter, there was an announcement after the concert that North Korea has invited Eric Clapton, the great rock guitarist, to come to perform in North Korea. Was there any sense on the ground there of where this might all be leading?

PETER LANDERS: Well, I think the Eric Clapton thing is still a little bit up in the air. There's no formal invitation yet according to -- or announcement yet, according to Eric Clapton's side.

But, clearly, they're looking for more exchanges, orchestras perhaps coming to the United States, and more American artists coming to North Korea. I think that will happen, if they get their way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Peter Landers and Mike Chinoy, thank you both very much.

PETER LANDERS: Thank you.