When the New York Philharmonic launched into the traditional Korean folk song "Arirang" as an encore, I heard an involuntary intake of breath from the North Korean interpreter sitting next to me. Murmurs of wonderment emanated from the 1,500-member audience, comprised of Pyongyang's elite. "Arirang" is popular among Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, and an iconic anthem of Korean reunification. By concert's end, North Korean VIPs in the balcony were on their feet, clapping vigorously. Taking the cue from their officials' enthusiasm, the audience down below cheered, exclaimed with pleasure, and waved fondly at the America musicians—many of whom were moved to tears. "They played 'Arirang' just as our musicians would have played it," said interpreter Pak Chung Su, who'd begun tapping his fingers in time to the music halfway through the performance. Another audience member, Pak Chol, said, "We have deep feelings for this piece, especially hearing it performed by Americans."
It was an emotional climax to a journey dogged by politics and uncertainty—"a stunning, stunning reaction," as music director Lorin Maazel put it. "The orchestra had walked offstage and people continued to cheer." Maazel, who sprinkled his comments to the audience with Korean phrases, felt the crowd begin to warm to the music when he introduced George Gershwin's "An American in Paris"—and suggested that someday a composer might write a song titled "Americans in Pyongyang." Hearing his suggestion, the audience clapped heartily.
The evening was full of firsts. Despite the lack of diplomatic ties, the orchestra played both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the North Korean national anthem. The two nations' flags flanked the stage. The concert was broadcast live on North Korean TV and radio, which was "a very unusual event, almost unheard-of," said New York Philharmonic president Zarin Mehta. At a final banquet capping the evening Mehta declared, "To say I'm over the moon would be an understatement."
The big question was whether the night's musical success can act as a catalyst for a diplomatic one, too. Washington-Pyongyang relations have been clouded recently by a tussle over the terms of North Korea's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. After the concert former U.S. defense secretary William Perry called the moment "historic" and said, "I hope this has pushed us over the top" in terms of resolving the prickly disagreements. Evoking the "ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s, which 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."
Another American VIP who attended the concert was equally upbeat. "This is a quantum leap above ping-pong diplomacy," said Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul and chairman of the Korea Society. He cited the number of people involved, the cost and logistics, as well as the number of North Koreans impacted by the concert's live broadcast. "This is a big deal. [There's] momentum building toward improved relations." North Korean vice culture minister Song Sok Hwan seemed to agree. He told orchestra members their concert had "opened the hearts of the Korean people [and] serves as an important occasion to open a chapter of mutual understanding between the two countries."
Just to get to the concert, Perry and Gregg had made history. On Monday they attended the inauguration ceremony for South Korean president Lee Myung-bak in Seoul—and then were permitted by North Korean authorities to make the unusual trip to Pyongyang by road, through the DMZ. Gregg said he was struck by the pragmatic tone of Lee's inauguration speech, saying it was unexpected coming from "someone who came to office with a hardline reputation" vis-à-vis Pyongyang. The combination of Lee's election and the U.S. State Department's willingness to negotiate seriously with North Korea over the nuclear issue made the orchestra's concert "a golden moment" for further diplomatic progress, said Gregg. "The New York Philharmonic has fired a broadside of soft power into the heart [of North Korea]."
The echoes of Sino-U.S. ping-pong diplomacy have resounded ever since our chartered aircraft touched down on the snow-dusted tarmac of Pyongyang airport Monday. The North Korean capital in 2008 struck me as remarkably similar to Beijing three decades earlier. The stolid Stalinist terminal, the huge red letters spelling out the city's name, the empty wintry vastness surrounding the facility. Except for a gigantic portrait of late North Korean supremo Kim Il Sung on the terminal building, this could have been Beijing airport in the 1970s.
As our cavalcade of buses snaked toward the center of Pyongyang—passing through empty intersections where traffic cops acted as if there were traffic—the first question was, where are all the people? I took a closer look. Actually, there were people out there, trudging along or walking their bikes alongside the snow-slickened road. It's just that most people were dressed in such drab clothing—gray, black, navy—that they blended in with the wintry fields.
Entering the city, I noticed a young woman in a bubblegum-pink down jacket that jumped out of the wintry dusk. Then another pink jolt. And another and another. Clearly pink is the new black in Pyongyang, just as fashionable Beijing women in the late '70s sprouted bright red sweaters and magenta ankle socks.
Before the New York Philharmonic's groundbreaking concert, critics had denounced the trip to what many see as the largest gulag in the world. But if the musicians could do for Washington-Pyongyang relations what ping-pong diplomacy did for Sino-U.S. relations, history would judge it a very good thing. "Music is a unique language. We are promoting exchange and friendship," said Lady Yoko Nagae Ceschina, the diminutive Japanese-born countess who sponsored the trip. She told NEWSWEEK she didn't know if the orchestra's visit might be similar to the Beijing-Washington breakthrough, but in both cases "the key is opening up contact."
The resemblances between today's Pyongyang and '70s-era China aren't just physical. I also sensed the same public unquestioning acceptance of authority—even a brutal and autocratic one—among North Koreans that was so characteristic of the Chinese in the '70s. At Monday evening's dance performance to welcome the visitors, one member of the audience apparently had heard many good things about the American orchestra. "The New York Philharmonic is the best orchestra in the world, so it's good for me to participate any way I can in their visit," said Pak Mi Song, as lights from a gigantic chandelier in the performance hall glinted off the Kim Il Sung button pinned to her flowing pastel-colored Korean gown. Will the ubiquitous Kim buttons and portraits someday be sold at auction, the way Mao portraits—which once adorned all Chinese government offices and airport terminals—are fetching high prices today?
The bottom line is this: if the Pyongyang regime decides it's time to get serious about rapprochement with the U.S., the North Korean people seem prepared to embrace their one-time enemy.