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US concert diplomacy in N Korea

26 February 08 12:19 GMT

One of the most eminent US cultural institutions, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, has performed a landmark concert in North Korea.

The concert included music by Western composers and a Korean folk song, and was broadcast live on local television.

The visit entailed the largest US presence in the reclusive state since the end of the Korean war.

It coincided with a visit to China by the US Secretary of State, to discuss Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament.

The US and N Korea have a long history of mutual distrust, and analysts say the concert is a remarkable display of cultural diplomacy.

The concert in East Pyongyang Grand Theatre began with the North Korean national anthem Patriotic Song, followed by America's Star Spangled Banner.

The audience - made up of North Korea's elite, as well as musicians and foreign guests - stood throughout both anthems, while the countries' flags were displayed on the stage.

Conductor Lorin Maazel said he and his colleagues were "pleased to play in this fine hall" and told the audience in Korean to "have a good time".

The orchestra then played an opera prelude by Wagner followed by Dvorak's Symphony Number Nine - known as the New World Symphony - and George Gershwin's An American in Paris.

Mr Maazel told the audience that there might one day be a piece called An American in Pyongyang.

The orchestra finished by playing the much-loved Korean folk song Arirang, and received a lengthy standing ovation.

North Korea's elusive leader, Kim Jong-il, did not appear to be in the audience.

'Extra-musical values'

The concert came at the same time US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited China to exert pressure over North Korea's nuclear programme.

Ms Rice welcomed the orchestra's visit - which came about after an invitation from North Korea - but said it would probably not lead to dramatic change.

"I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea," said Ms Rice, herself a classical pianist.

The US State Department had authorised the orchestra's trip, despite deadlock on the issue of North Korea's nuclear programme.

The BBC's John Sudworth, who is travelling with the musicians, said the concert was the most prominent cultural exchange between the US and North Korea in the isolated country's history.

Pyongyang made unprecedented attempts to accommodate the orchestra, allowing a delegation of nearly 300 people to fly to Pyongyang for a 48-hour period.

Even the anti-American posters that usually line the streets of Pyongyang have been taken down, the Philharmonic's executive director, Zarin Mehta, told the Associated Press.

Propaganda coup?

The concert came amid the ongoing diplomatic push to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

The visit has been compared to US orchestral visits to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the so-called "ping pong" diplomacy with China in the 1970s.

But in an interview, the orchestra's conductor said "there are no parallels in history, there are similarities".

The US government gave its blessing to the trip, and analysts have pointed out that, if nothing else, the event has allowed North Koreans to listen to something from the outside world - a rarity in a country where all events are carefully choreographed in praise of leader Kim Jong-il.

But others argue that a visit by such a distinguished institution as the New York Philharmonic has given the North Korean state an air of respectability it does not deserve.

One New York tabloid called the venture a "disgrace" that has handed Kim "a propaganda coup".

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