A Concert Aims for Perfect Harmony

Kim Jung Rok's ears pricked up when he heard that the New York Philharmonic would play in Pyongyang as guests of his government. "I wanted to hear the live broadcast [on radio], but my electricity cut off and so I couldn't." Even so, Kim declared it "an historic event." Which is significant given that Kim is a colonel in the North Korean military, and gatekeeper to an icon of Washington-Pyongyang enmity: the American spyboat USS Pueblo, which was attacked and captured in January 1968 not far from Korean shores. Kim says he personally apprehended the ship's captain, "who was on the floor, trying to hide," and that he'd been "enraged at the sight of the American flag." Though the surviving 82 U.S. crew members— and the remains of another who had died in the battle—were ultimately returned to the United States, the Pueblo remained Pyongyang's cold-war trophy, glorifying the moment when valiant North Korean soldiers "brought brazen-faced U.S. imperialists to their knees," according to a DVD played in the ship's frigid mess hall. What would Kim have told the U.S. musicians, had they visited his floating museum? "I would have said, 'Welcome to Pyongyang. We don't hate the American people'." Would North Korea ever consider giving the Pueblo back to America? "If relations would strengthen between our two countries, anything's possible," Kim, 67, told NEWSWEEK with a smile as the setting sun burnished his shoulder boards and the Kim Il Sung button on his greatcoat.

Harmony is often easier to achieve in music than in diplomacy. Washington downplayed the warm response given to the U.S. orchestra. "We consider this concert to be a concert," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. "It was not a diplomatic coup." Yet for a moment last week, the American orchestra's unprecedented presence in North Korea muted the bellicosity that has so often characterized exchanges between the United States and the nation President Bush has dubbed part of the "Axis of Evil." The standing ovations by the North Korean audience could mark a "milestone," said former Defense secretary William Perry, one of several U.S. VIPs in the audience. And it appeared to blur the frontier where music stops and diplomacy begins. An aide to Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill (the chief U.S. negotiator in the multilateral effort to dismantle Pyongyang's nukes) assisted the Philharmonic's planning and even suggested it play the traditional Korean folk song "Arirang." "Sometimes the North Koreans don't like our words," Hill said before the performance. "Maybe they'll like our music."

As it turned out, many did. When the Philharmonic launched into "Arirang" as an encore, the 1,500-member audience of Pyongyang's elite started to buzz. "Arirang" is popular on both sides of the DMZ and an anthem of Korean reunification. By the end of this attempt at musical diplomacy, the communist VIPs in the balcony in the East Pyongyang State Theater were on their feet. The buttoned-up audience below took a cue from their officials' enthusiasm—which is how life works in North Korea, isn't it?—and cheered and waved to the musicians, many of whom were moved to tears. "They played 'Arirang' just as our musicians would have," said interpreter Pak Chung Su, who had gasped when the music began. Pak Chol, another listener, said, "We have deep feelings for this piece, especially hearing it performed by Americans."

But the big question of this East-meets-West trip was whether the musical success could jump-start a diplomatic one. Many people think a door has been opened. Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel, who sprinkled his comments to the audience with Korean phrases, said he felt the crowd warm to the music when he introduced "An American in Paris"—Gershwin's ode to the joy of discovery in a foreign land—and suggested that someday a composer might write "Americans in Pyongyang." The orchestra played both "The Star Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem, and the two nations' flags flanked the stage. After the performance, Perry called the moment "historic" and said, "I hope this has pushed us over the top" in terms of resolving the prickly disagreements. Invoking the '70s-era "Ping-Pong diplomacy" that ushered in Sino-U.S. rapprochement, as well as the exchange of American and Russian musicians during the cold war, Perry said, "You cannot demonize people when you're sitting there listening to their music. You don't go to war with people unless you demonize them first."

The concert was broadcast live on North Korean TV and radio, which was "a very unusual event, almost unheard of," said Philharmonic president Zarin Mehta. "This is a quantum leap above Ping-Pong diplomacy," said former U.S. ambassador to Seoul Donald Gregg, citing the large number of people affected by it. Just before the concert, he and Perry met North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, and urged Pyongyang to fulfill its obligations to the nuclear-disarmament pact. "He didn't fight me off. His body language was 'Yes, I recognize it is a great time [to move forward]'," said Gregg. (He also revealed that, in 2002, Kim had warmed to Gregg's suggestion that Pyongyang return the Pueblo to America as a good-will gesture, but the idea languished after Pyongyang was found to be secretly enriching uranium, Gregg said.) North Korean Vice Minister of Culture Song Sok Hwan declared that the concert had "opened the hearts of the Korean people." Yet there was a telling postscript to this chapter of cultural diplomacy. While the American media covered the concert lavishly, the party newspaper in North Korea carried its smallish story on page four. On the front page: a piece about how Kim Jong Il had sent flowers to Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's retirement. Music may, as they say, soothe the savage breast, but in North Korea, that may take a while.