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New York Philharmonic Receives Standing Ovation in North Korea


North Koreans applauded the historic first performance in their capital by a U.S. symphony orchestra. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin looks at an event some call a watershed in thawing chilled ties between the two countries.

Members of the New York Philharmonic brought the North Korean audience to their feet from the first few notes, when they played the communist state's anthem.

Then, they moved on to what many view as a historic first; the orchestra played the U.S. national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, as the event was broadcast live to television and radio audiences all over North Korea.

North Korean government propaganda has always portrayed the United States as a hostile aggressor. The orchestra's visit is being widely described as a form of music diplomacy, with similarities to ping-pong diplomacy opened by the Nixon administration toward China in the 1970s.

After playing Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony", Philharmonic Conductor Lorin Maazel used humor to introduce a performance of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

"Someday a composer may write a work entitled 'Americans in Pyongyang," said Maazel.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il did not attend the performance. Other senior North Korean officials were in the audience.

The repertoire concluded with an arrangement of Arirang - a Korean folk song that doubles as a sort of unofficial national anthem in both North and South Korea.

Experts point out that much has changed in North Korea since it began dramatically increasing contacts with South Korea, beginning with a summit in 2000. They say the country is not as isolated as it once was, and events like the Philharmonic performance make vital inroads in opening the North even further.

But Brian Myers, a specialist in North Korean official propaganda at South Korea's Dongseo University, says the concert was more about giving Americans an illusion of rapprochement than changing North Korea. He points out that months after the event was confirmed, Pyongyang's official media still called for a "blood reckoning" with the United States.

Myers says Kim Jong Il needs anti-American sentiment to shift the blame for the North's extreme poverty, caused by decades of economic mismanagement.

"If he surrenders his anti-Americanism he simply puts himself in the position of being somebody who is simply directing the distribution of aid from overseas, and that is not a charismatic position for a leader to be in," explained Myers. "And, it eliminates all reason for North Korea to exist as a separate state."

South Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement praising the concert as a chance to improve mutual understanding and trust between North Korea and the United States.