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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 February 2008, 19:29 GMT
Diary: US orchestra in N Korea
John Sudworth
The BBC's John Sudworth is travelling with the New York Philharmonic orchestra to North Korea for a performance that is as much about cultural diplomacy as music.


Korean children
Performance at the Mangyongdae School Children's Palace
A very un-Korean breakfast of moussaka and gratinee potatoes for me this morning.

It's served in the sumptuous dining hall of the 47-storey Yanggakdo Hotel, where we've all been staying for the past two nights.

Then it's time to check out. All bills have to be settled in euros, the currency of choice for a government in charge of a severely cash-strapped command economy.

Before heading to the airport, the orchestra has been invited to see a performance at the Mangyongdae School Children's Palace, a regular stop on the itinerary of visiting tourists.

The music, dancing and acrobatics on display from the tiny children are breathtaking. But there's something surreal about the colourful, choreographed stage show, involving sung tributes to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

It's the drilled quality of it all perhaps, the knowledge that no one gets this good without hours and years of practice. For some of these kids, that must mean just about their whole lives, and that gives it all a strange mix of beauty and sadness combined.

On the way to the airport, I ask my government minder, Mr Kim, if he'd like to listen to the radio report I'd compiled for last night's PM programme.

I never thought I'd actually find myself offering a North Korean government official the opportunity to scrutinise my work.

But I've come to like Mr Kim, and anyway, he'd kindly agreed to star in the PM package by granting me a little interview. I was interested to know what he thought.

Sudworth with government minders
Me and my minders - Mr Kim is first on the left
He listened and said he liked it, but objected strongly to the use of the word "totalitarian" to describe the North Korean state.

I told him I felt it described well a one-party system of total control, but Mr Kim believes the term has unfair connotations in the case of North Korea.

We say goodbye to each other at the steps of the plane, preparing for an extremely rare direct charter flight to Seoul, where the New York Philharmonic are due to play their next concert.

There have been many critics of this visit, from people concerned that North Korea's human rights record doesn't make it an ideal concert venue.

But as we board the plane I think the musicians will be pleased they came. It has made headlines around the world and many commentators have concluded that an attempt to reach out through music is probably a good thing.

I've certainly enjoyed my chats with Mr Kim. While I disagree with him, he is thoughtful and informed, and his opinions about the unfairness of the Western media are genuinely held.

Like any society, North Korea is a complex and nuanced place, and it is important to speak to, and to try to understand, the insiders as well as the voices of dissent.

It's just that as journalists we don't often get the chance.


I had the pleasure of sitting next to my government minder, Mr Kim, for tonight's concert. It was nice to share in his obvious excitement.

A standing ovation for the orchestra
The orchestra received a standing ovation

Of course the orchestra's insistence on opening the concert with the Star Spangled Banner has been well documented, so there was a lot of anticipation in advance.

But it wasn't the US anthem in the end that created the biggest sense of occasion. The significance of this concert inside the world's most closed country grew slowly, throughout the performance.

A few months ago the whole idea would have seemed impossible but now here we were, sharing the jazz and blues inspirations of George Gershwin's An American in Paris, with a theatre full of North Koreans.

Mr Kim seemed to be thoroughly enjoying it. After the Gershwin piece was over, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it had sounded fun.

The favourite moment for most North Koreans was undoubtedly the performance of the Korean folk song Arirang. This brought the loudest applause and the most spontaneous standing ovation.

At the press conference afterwards some of the orchestra admitted to having been moved to tears.

But how to judge the success of all this cultural diplomacy? The orchestra's music director, Lorin Maazel, holds out the hope that this might prove to be the first tiny opening.

Seasoned North Korea-watchers doubt it though. The North Korean communist dynasty has proven remarkably resilient to change, and is unlikely to be rushing headlong into a conversion to liberal democracy because of a few notes of Dvorak.

Kim Jong-il himself was nowhere to be seen tonight. But the orchestra did not seem to mind. "I've yet to see the US president at one of my concerts," Mr Maazel told the press conference.

Another breakfast banquet tomorrow no doubt, then we all prepare to take a highly unusual charter flight direct from Pyongyang to Seoul.


Journalists seeing the sights in Pyongyang
Contact with ordinary North Koreans is difficult

The BBC's first ever live video broadcast from North Korea. It's for the Ten O' Clock news bulletin on BBC1. Only for us, nine hours ahead of London as we are, it means stamping around in the thin layer of snow trying to keep warm on a freezing morning.

We weren't even allowed to bring our mobile phones with us to Pyongyang but now we're suddenly beaming ourselves live via satellite link to Europe. It's a sign perhaps of the importance the North Korean government is giving this concert that it has agreed to allow such broadcasts.

A few hours later we're on a bus, touring the Pyongyang sights. I fall into conversation with one of the North Korean minders who accompany us whenever we leave the hotel. Mr Kim is a friendly and educated man, who speaks fluent English and has visited London, an extremely rare journey for a North Korean.

It seems a bit surreal to be driving through the streets of Pyongyang discussing the US presidential election. Mr Kim is well informed, but says he doesn't have an opinion on who he'd like to win.

Traffic policeman in Pyongyang
With a thin layer of snow, there was little to do for the traffic police

The bus trip reminds me of a safari. Foreign journalists, with camera lenses the size of dustbins, snapping anything that moves through the glass. We barely stop, and it's almost impossible to talk to Pyongyang's citizens in the street, busy living their lives around us.

We stop for a tour of a library. Grand marble staircases and more statues and portraits of North Korea's dynastic rulers. Here there are a few North Koreans who we can speak to. But we pounce on them in such numbers, and they answer our questions under the heavy gaze of our minders so there's little chance of a free exchange of views.

One young student was asked what he thought of the New York Philharmonic visit. It took him three nervous gulps before he could stammer out an answer. "I wish them a successful concert," he told us.


North Korean performers
North Korean artists performed for the US orchestra
The New York Philharmonic doesn't perform here until tomorrow evening. So tonight, the North Koreans got their musical retaliation in first with a remarkable display of the beauty and subtlety of this country's art and culture.

We were taken to the 500-seat Mansudae Art Theatre. North Korean musicians played the kayagum, a traditional instrument, while others floated and swayed with grace and mirror-like symmetry across the stage. It was beautifully choreographed, technically brilliant, and moving.

And for the invited American guests, the majority musicians themselves, perhaps this is why they're here. For once, an exchange of friendship and culture, rather than mistrust and menace.

But the uncomfortable questions remain... this is a country that denies millions the basic rights and freedoms taken for granted in the West, and it is a country of devastating poverty and hunger.

A sumptuous banquet follows tonight's musical performance.


Officials wait for the orchestra to disembark
A huge welcoming committee was in place for the visitors
Unlike China, or indeed the former Soviet Union, North Korea is a country still firmly positioned behind one of the world's last Cold War frontiers.

And landing in Pyongyang you couldn't pick a more unlikely place on the planet to welcome the members of a distinguished American orchestra.

Some people on the plane were saying that this would be the largest contingent of American citizens to arrive here since the hasty US retreat from this city during the Korean War. They're probably right.

Pyongyang air-traffic controllers must have a quiet life. There are just a handful of rather sorry-looking planes on this vast airfield. After disembarking, orchestra members and officials, journalists and North Korean policemen thronged the tarmac, taking photos. Many must have wondered at just how remarkable an event this was.

And then on the bus ride to our hotel, like all Western visitors to North Korea, we found ourselves staring from the window, trying to make sense of a cityscape that has few familiar points of reference and no real meaning for foreign eyes.

Where are the shops? The bus ride reveals an unfamiliar cityscape
There are so few shops in this capital city, and seemingly little in the ones that there are. There are no real signs of commerce at all... no roadside stalls, no advertising, and the roads are almost empty of cars. People are walking and cycling to their destinations purposefully enough, but where are they going?

Trade is the glue that makes our cities function - everything is bought and sold in billions of daily transactions defining our human experience and interaction. For us it's like breathing, dipping a hand into a pocket to buy something that in passing has taken our fancy. So what can life be like without that impulse?


Media on flight
Journalists had phones taken off them for the flight
Once upon a time, a New York Philharmonic concert in Beijing would have been a remarkable event. Not any more of course.

China is a country gambolling open-armed into a chaotic and dizzying market economy. And last night's "NY Phil" performance in the spectacular, egg-shaped, National Centre for Performing Arts, was well attended, but compared to where the orchestra is going next, completely unremarkable.

So this morning we're meeting at Beijing airport with the orchestra and a group of more than 50 international journalists. Our bags are checked and tagged, and our mobile phones are confiscated. Where we're going is just a two-hour flight and half a world away.

There's been some stinging criticism of the New York Philharmonic's decision to accept the invitation of the North Korean government to perform in Pyongyang.

New York Philharmonic during a performance at the National Grand Theatre in Beijing 24.02.08
Performing in Beijing is not as controversial as it once was
One New York newspaper has called it "a disgrace", concerned that the visit is an ill-timed folly that hands the government there a propaganda coup.

I get a chance to talk to Stanley Drucker, the orchestra's principal clarinet and its longest serving member.

He joined in 1948 at the age of 19. Stanley was on the 1959 tour of the Soviet Union, conducted by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, one of the early groundbreaking attempts at this kind of cultural diplomacy.

"We didn't know what to expect then," he tells me. "One hopes for the best, but I think it can only have a positive appeal for whoever hears our music."

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