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New York Philharmonic Orchestra Performs in North Korea

Members of the New York Philharmonic are in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, for the first performance by a U.S. symphony orchestra in the communist state. The event has been a magnet for global media attention, and many people see it as a small opening into an isolated, impoverished nation. VOA's Kurt Achin in Seoul reports.

New York Philharmonic's performance in Pyongyang includes the "Star-Spangled Banner", the U.S. national anthem. That is a first in North Korea, where government propaganda has always portrayed the United States as a hostile aggressor.

Kwon Soo-hyun, one of the Philharmonic's violinists, is originally from Seoul. In comments broadcast on the orchestra's website, she says she feels both excitement and a little trepidation about the performance.

"It is an exciting opportunity to see a place where very few people have gone, I think. It is very important for us to be a cultural ambassadors, because that is what we do - regardless of where we go," she said.

The Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang has drawn huge media interest. It is the largest cultural program from the United States to North Korea, one of the world's most isolated states. More than 100 performers and several journalists made the trip to Pyongyang for the concert.

The Philharmonic's offerings, featuring Western classics such as George Gershwin's "An American in Paris," are a stark departure from Pyongyang's usual musical fare.

The North Korean military anthem - typical of the music broadcast on the North's official media - includes the lyrics, "raise the red flag before the warrior's corpse cools and his blood dries."

North Korea's authoritarian government usually forbids music not approved by officials. As a result, jazz, rock, and most Western classical music is forbidden. Human rights activists say entire families have been sent to prison camps after one member commits a simple offense like humming a South Korean pop song.

Kim Cheol Woong is a North Korean pianist who defected to South Korea in 1999 to play music without restrictions. He thinks the Philharmonic's performance could help his homeland.

He says when he was young, North Korean students were drilled in anti-American slogans. He adds this performance is likely to give them reason to see the U.S. from a new perspective.

South Korean experts widely agree that despite the North's human rights abuses, much has begun to change there since the two Koreas held their first summit in 2000. They say expanded contacts have increased the flow of information about the outside world into the North. Many experts see events like the Philharmonic performance as making inroads into the isolated North.

However, critics say Pyongyang will use the concert for propaganda purposes, to help legitimize North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's defiance of the international community. The performance is also controversial because of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang is two months overdue on declaring all its nuclear facilities, as promised to the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Those countries have pledged aid and improved diplomatic relations if North Korea abandons all its nuclear programs.