American Culture in the Capital of Communism

I'm halfway around the world today, in a country where everyone has been raised to think of the United States as an enemy, but where, in just a few days, it will hear one of our premier orchestras play.

On Feb. 26, the New York Philharmonic will play a groundbreaking concert in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea -- a place that has been called "Hermit Kingdom" for its desire to stay separate from the world. This unusual opportunity began with a surprising fax the Philharmonic received from the North Korean government last August, inviting it to come and perform.

After much debate, and long discussions with the U.S. government, the Philharmonic accepted the invitation and is now on its way to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) -- that's the country's formal title -- and I will be joining it to cover this historic moment.

Without a doubt, it's going to be a memorable experience for all of us, but for a few of the Philharmonic's members, this groundbreaking concert brings mixed feelings. That's because this concert will be in North Korea, and these orchestra members were raised in South Korea, hearing tales of the Korean War throughout their childhoods.

"My father actually does not like the idea," says Lisa Kim, the Philharmonic's associate principal second violin. Kim's father was injured during the Korean War, while her mother's town was invaded by the North Korean army. In spite of this, she says, her mother urged her to go.

"I think I'll be very sad and emotional at first," says violinist Soohyun Kwon, whose father also fought in the Korean War. Kwon was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, and eventually moved to New York to attend the Julliard School. "It's very strange that I'm going there. It's a place where very few people have gone, so I'm very excited to go, but still I have a bit of trepidation."

The Philharmonic's concert, just one day after Condoleezza Rice will be in Seoul, means that the United States may be inching closer to a new relationship with leader Kim Jong Il and his country.

This week marks a return for me, as I am back in North Korea for the first time since 2005, when I was lucky enough to be one of the very few journalists allowed into the DPRK.

Back then, we wanted to know about North Korea's nuclear program; the country has acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons and says it tested one in October 2006. At the time, we asked repeatedly to view a nuclear facility but were denied access. This time, the country wanted to show us that it had been working to disarm, so we were able to do what no Western reporter or film crew has been allowed to do -- visit and film inside a North Korean nuclear facility (link to video).

That's also partly what this concert is about. It's scheduled for the day after South Korea inaugurates its new president. South Korea, and the rest of the world, will be watching the DPRK and its promises to disarm. As it showed me, it is working to take apart its nuclear program, but it is moving much more slowly than the United States and other nations had expected.

On Feb. 26, at the insistence of the Philharmonic, the DPRK has agreed to broadcast the concert live within the country, so North Koreans will be listening along with the rest of the world. The orchestra pushed for this because it thought it was important that North Koreans be able to at least see real Americans, playing music. Back in 2005, most people I met said they had never seen an American before.

It's not like this is the first time "cultural diplomacy" has opened a door. Leonard Bernstein conducted the Philharmonic in 1959 behind the Iron Curtain in the USSR. And American Ping-Pong players were the first to travel to communist China, back in 1971.

Nobody can argue that symphony music, or Ping-Pong, has political content. Nobody knows, too, what kind of difference a concert like the one on the 26th will make.

Thanks for reading, and I'll keep posting over the next few days as we continue our trip here.

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