Page last updated at 01:09 GMT, Monday, 25 February 2008

From ping pong to Pyongyang

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

One of America's premier orchestras is tuning up to perform a politically charged concert at the heart of a country the US president once consigned to the "axis of evil".

Lorin Maazel
Overture of friendship: Lorin Maazel foresees "peaceful interchange"
The New York Philharmonic - at the invitation of the North Korean regime - will, in the words of conductor Lorin Maazel, showcase the vitality of American music.

The East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, more used to staging operas depicting the country's struggle against imperialist oppressors, will resound with the strains of Dvorak's New World Symphony, George Gershwin's American in Paris, and even the Star-Spangled Banner.

This is the latest attempt by the US to reach out culturally to a nation that has been taught for decades to hate or fear it.

Ahead of the 24-hour trip to Pyongyang, Mr Maazel argued that "bringing peoples and their cultures together" can lead to "roots of peaceful interchange."

Diplomatic harmony

The assumption is that culture - particularly music, a universal language - can be life-changing, powerful enough to help build understanding between the two countries.

Nixon in front of the Great Wall of China
Table tennis paved the way for Nixon's groundbreaking visit
Cultural diplomacy has never been regarded as a replacement for nuts-and-bolts diplomacy but the view that it can help break down barriers is widely held.

In 1971, China and the US had its famous "ping pong diplomacy". The US table-tennis team were invited to play in China, making them the first American group allowed into the country since the Communist takeover in 1949. This helped pave the way for Richard Nixon's historic trip a year later.

US orchestras have a long history of making ice-breaking trips into politically hostile territory.

"The US wanted to win the Cold War with violins and trumpets," says Jonathan Rosenberg, professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

"During the 1950s, the trips were organised by the State Department. The US wanted to show a better, softer face."

In 1956, The Boston Symphony Orchestra made a groundbreaking trip to the Soviet Union. The musicians were given an overwhelming welcome on the tarmac at Leningrad airport and a 10-minute ovation at the first performance in Moscow.

'Human face'

Three years later, The New York Philharmonic made its own landmark visit. The Soviet Union's top musicians then began to perform widely in the US.

Violinists with the New York Philharmonic

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra made a big splash when it became the first US orchestra to tour the People's Republic of China, performing in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

Mr Rosenberg acknowledges that the Cold War continued after the tours had ended: "They were not in and of themselves transformative, but they were part of a larger process," he says.

But he argues that they are a good way of putting a human face on a relationship defined by mistrust.

"In terms of the North Korean visit," he says, "it is one way to highlight what liberal capitalism can produce - to show that a society that has no doubt been portrayed as awful and brutal, can produce beautiful music and that Americans are not as alien as some may imagine."

At the request of the orchestra that the "average citizen" should be able to enjoy the performance, the regime has said it will broadcast the concert. It is not clear, however, how many North Koreans have access to radio or TV sets.

US optimism

In the US, the tour has been the subject of fierce debate, with critics arguing that it will simply hand the country's leader Kim Jong-il a propaganda coup.

Kim Jong-il
Kim Jong-il extended the invitation to the New York Philharmonic
One supporter of the trip, US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill, said it would "signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell."

"It does represent a shift in how they view us, and it's the sort of shift that can be helpful as we go forward in nuclear weapons negotiations," he said.

But Professor Brian Myers, a North Korea expert at Dongseo University in South Korea scoffs at this.

He argues there is nothing groundbreaking about playing Dvorak and Gershwin in Pyongyang.

"North Korea isn't a country that tries to block its people off from all traces of Western cultural influence," he told the BBC News website.

All visits by foreign VIPs are presented in the media as pilgrimages
Professor Brian Myers
"Kim Jong II has never had any particular problem with the type of light classical music that will be played by the orchestra. People are very used to instrumental soundtracks to Hollywood movies - it is not something that is considered to be ideologically subversive."

He believes the invitation was extended by North Korea out of cynical self-interest.

"All visits by foreign VIPs are presented in the media as pilgrimages by people who want to curry favour with the North," he says.

"The concert will be presented as an effort on behalf of the paper tiger that is the US to ingratiate itself with the Dear Leader."

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