New York Philharmonic Arrives on Unprecedented Visit to North Korea

The New York Philharmonic arrived in North Korea on Monday on a historic trip as the most prominent American cultural institution to visit the nuclear-armed country, run by a regime that keeps its impoverished people among the world's most isolated.

North Korea made unprecedented accommodations for the orchestra, allowing a delegation of nearly 300 people, including musicians, staff and journalists to fly into Pyongyang on a chartered plane for 48 hours.

The Philharmonic's concert Tuesday will be broadcast live on North Korea's state-run TV and radio, unheard of in a country where all events are carefully choreographed to bolster the personality cult of leader Kim Jong Il.

The Philharmonic accepted the North's invitation to play last year, with the encouragement of the U.S. government, at a time of rare optimism in the long-running nuclear standoff involving the two countries. After successfully testing an atomic bomb in October 2006, North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor in July and is working to disable it in exchange for aid and removal from U.S. terrorism and sanctions blacklists.

But disarmament has stalled this year because of what Washington says is North Korea's failure to give a full declaration of its atomic programs to be dismantled, something it promised to do under an international agreement.

The visit came as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended Monday's inauguration of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak. She said before leaving Washington she had no plans to stop in Pyongyang during a trip that also takes her to China and Japan.

"I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea," Rice, a classical pianist herself, said Friday, while conceding the benefit of the event in giving North Koreans a window to the outside world.

The concert will feature Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 and "An American in Paris" by George Gershwin. Among the encores planned is the Korean folk song "Arirang" — beloved in both the North and South.

The performance will begin with the orchestra playing both countries' national anthems, and the U.S. and North Korean flags will stand together on stage, said the Philharmonic's president and executive director, Zarin Mehta.

Ahead of their arrival, North Korea was even tearing down the anti-American posters that line the streets of Pyongyang, Mehta said Sunday, citing a diplomat based there who briefed the orchestra before its departure from Beijing, the last stop on a tour of the greater China region.

Such posters typically portray iron-faced North Korean soldiers with rifles poised to strike cowering Americans or crushing Washington's Capitol dome, the U.S. flag in tatters.

Mehta told reporters Monday before leaving Beijing that politics was not part of the trip.

"We are going to do master classes. We'll do chamber music, rehearsals ... that's what we're there for. Politics is not our game. We play music," he said.

Besides the master classes for North Korean students, members of the orchestra will also play chamber music with members of the North's State Symphony Orchestra.

The Asiana Airlines plane carrying the orchestra from South Korea landed in overcast conditions with light snow. APTN footage showed North Korean officials putting a staircase next to the plane and holding a discussion for several minutes before people started to disembark.

It was not known whether North Korean leader Kim would attend the concert, and Philharmonic spokesman Eric Latzky said the group had not directly extended an invitation to him.

The Swedish Embassy, which handles U.S. interests in the North because the countries have no formal diplomatic relations, was discussing the guest list for the event with the North Korean Foreign Ministry, he said.

Musicians preparing for the trip said they hoped personal contacts with North Koreans could help bring the countries closer.

"I think the openness is the most important issue here, and this is going to be the groundbreaking start of the whole thing. We're making music together and playing for the people and I think that this will be a great, great contribution," Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow said at the Beijing airport.

But some worried their performance would fail to bring any positive change in the country where famine in the 1990s is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people.

"I've had a lot of moral reservations based on wondering what a concert for the elite is going to do to help the people starving in the street," said Irene Breslau, 58, a violist.