North Koreans, French prepare for major Paris concert

A North Korean and a French orchestra held a daylong rehearsal on Tuesday ahead of a landmark concert in Paris, a sign of warming ties between Pyongyang and the West following years of tensions.

Pyongyang's Unhasu Orchestra and Radio France Philharmonic make their debut together on Wednesday -- under the baton of renowned South Korean conductor Chung Myung-Whun, who organized the event.

Most of the 90 North Koreans -- many of them under 30 -- will be performing with a Western ensemble for the first time. The lead violinist Mun Kyong Jin spoke of his excitement at being in the French capital, where the group is spending a week.

"Paris is well preserved. The scenery and the streets are very pretty even if they are narrow," he said through a translator.

The event is also an opportunity for French musicians to learn about their Korean counterparts.

"We were quite ignorant about their musical background," said Radio France violinist Mirelle Jardon.

"We don't know their learning methods, who their teachers are, but I think their level is very high. They are young, they can improve even more," Jardon said. "And with this collaboration, (North Korea is) opening itself to the world."

The concert comes as relations between Pyongyang and the West thaw after years of antagonism over the North's nuclear program. Last week, the United States and North Korea announced a deal that calls for Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities in exchange for food aid, and a senior North Korean nuclear envoy was in the U.S. to attend a university forum.

Paris and Pyongyang do not have formal diplomatic relations, but France opened an office in Pyongyang last year to foster cultural exchanges.

"This joint concert is a historical event for the bilateral relations of our two countries," Kwon Hyok Bong, the head of the North Korean delegation, said during a rehearsal break.

The Seoul-born Chung hopes the concert will also lead to improvements in ties between the two Koreas through musical diplomacy. North and South Korea have been rival states since civil war forced them apart in 1953.

Chung said that a pan-Korean folk song called "Arirang" will open the performance in the famed Salle Pleyel concert hall.

"There is not one single Korean who would not know this song," he told The Associated Press during rehearsals. "And I mean in the whole of the north and south."

He said he explained the music to the French musicians, saying that it "starts very quietly, nostalgically when you go back in time into your childhood, into the past, when there was no division and we could all just be free."

The piece ends on an exuberant note that the South Korean-born conductor said could be interpreted as a carrier of hope for reunification.