As you might imagine, Americans are a rare sight in North Korea. But on Monday, arguably the largest contingent of Yanks since the Korean War—when U.S. troops briefly occupied Pyongyang in 1950—will land in the North Korean capital. The occasion is an unprecedented performance to be held Tuesday by the New York Philharmonic orchestra. The 130-member orchestra and staff, plus at least 80 foreign media, diplomats, technicians and assorted camp followers, are slated to travel on a specially chartered Air Asiana Boeing 747 for the Philharmonic's 48-hour visit.
On the eve of our departure for Pyongyang, orchestra members were by turns excited, curious and, yes, a little bit "tense" about what they might encounter in one of Asia's most isolated countries, said a Pyongyang-based foreign diplomat who briefed orchestra members in Beijing the day before their departure. North Korea –which is officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—has been dubbed a member of the "Axis of Evil" by U.S. President George W. Bush
"Most North Koreans have never seen an American before; you'll be something very exotic," the diplomat told me during the intermission of the philharmonic's Sunday-evening performance in Beijing at the futuristic new National Center for the Performing Arts, which looks like a gigantic titanium-skinned egg. "The people you meet there will be telling their relatives and friends what Americans are like, based on your trip. It'll be a big adventure for them, too."
The trip is supposed to be about music, not politics. But political controversies have been erupting from day one. Philharmonic representatives consulted the U.S. State Department after receiving Pyongyang's invitation. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill rooted for the trip; he's Washington's special envoy to the Beijing-sponsored Six-Party Talks, which are focused on North Korea's dismantling of its nuclear-weapons program. He's all in favor of showing American culture in a positive light as the antiproliferation negotiations entered a crucial–and troubled–phase.
But critics have lambasted North Korea's human-rights record, denounced its grim gulag, and criticized the orchestra's trip. The debate heated up when Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel alluded to Washington's own tarnished image over the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
Just before the orchestra's departure for Asia, Maazal said in an Associated Press interview that "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country—the United States—is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated?" (In a Feb. 18 statement he clarified his statement, saying, "The hope expressed in the quotation ascribed to me is that we as a nation will continue to meet the highest moral and ethical standards in our own actions in the arena of human rights. By doing so, we will have far greater power to come to the aid of the persecuted around the world.")
One big question everyone kept asking Sunday was this: what happens if some of the American visitors try to walk out of the hotel without a North Korean handler in tow? The answer: "A local official will likely come running after you saying 'Please come back'," the diplomat says, "They will want to keep track of everyone in the group."
Journalists will be put up at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, located on an island in the Taedong River—all the better for guards and minders tasked with preventing visitors from making a break for the bridges leading to the rest of the city. On the other hand, the 48-story establishment is said to have great views, a casino and hot water. (In Pyongyang, where temperatures are hovering below the freezing point right now, that last amenity is not a given.)
Other handy tips on navigating the East-West divide. Tipping is considered rude. The Tuesday concert will have no intermission and will start at 6 p.m., the usual start time for entertainment events in North Korea. Our personal cellphones will be collected at Beijing airport before takeoff, and returned after departure from Pyongyang. We're supposed to wear warm shoes for our flight because the floor of the Pyongyang airport arrival hall is like ice.
Another big—and still unanswered—question is whether North Korea's secretive leader Kim Jong Il might attend the Tuesday concert. The North Korean media is revealing little. The state-run Korean Central News Agency confirmed that the New York Philharmonic will perform only last Friday, even though the trip was announced in the United States in mid-December. The wire-agency article went on to praise the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, where the performance will take place, as "an edifice of culture … Perfect are the harp-shaped walls of the seating hall, the stage and latest sound facilities."
Kim reportedly has taken a keen personal interest in the event. But the protocol-conscious autocrat may not show unless high-level U.S. officials are also there. (Pyongyang has authorized Western VIPs–including some retired U.S. government officials—who are attending the Monday inauguration in Seoul of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to cross the DMZ and travel to Pyongyang for the concert.) U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Assistant Secretary Hill are slated to attend Lee's inauguration in Seoul, but Hill has thrown cold water on rumors that they might pop up at the concert, too. For one thing, Pyongyang's dismantling of its nuclear program has been stalemated, so a high-level U.S. official visit may seem inappropriate.
In a briefing in Washington before her departure for Asia, Rice she acknowledged it was "a good thing" for the North Korean people "to have some access to the outside" with an event such as the orchestra visit. But she cautioned, "The North Korean regime is still the North Korean regime … I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea."
The orchestra has chosen to perform music that is American to the core, including Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World," which was written while the Czech composer was in the U.S., as well as George Gershwin's "An American in Paris." The program also includes the Act III prelude to Wagner's "Lohengrin," the traditional Korean folk song "Arirang" and "The Star-Spangled Banner"—the performance of which was a prerequisite for orchestra to make the trip. For a regime that still occasionally refers to the United States as a "warmonger"—and which recently called retiring Cuban leader Fidel Castro its "closest comrade-in-arms [who] triumphantly advanced the socialist cause in Cuba despite the U.S. persistent sanctions and blockade"—the cultural overture is a breakthrough. Maybe even Kim Jong Il will find it's music to his ears.