On to Pyongyang -- Part 1

On Feb. 26, the
New York Philharmonic will play Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, From the New World – in North Korea! Or, rather, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And Donna and I will be there also, along with some fellow board members, a few other curious parties, and 50 members of the world press.

Time Ping Pong
From Ping Pong Diplomacy in 1971 to Pyongyang Philharmonic Diplomacy in 2008. Ten months after 15 American table tennis players arrived in Beijing, Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit China while in office. The Ping Pong visit also marked the first thaw in Sino-American relations since the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949.

Our frosty relations with North Korea are not dissimilar to those we once had with China. Except in the case of North Korea, the estrangement has lasted over half a century.

So the question arises: Will this cultural exchange in February be a harbinger of improved relations with North Korea, much as the 1971 event presaged a new era of U.S.-China relations? Will it help North Korea re-enter the community of the world and emerge from its figurative and literal darkness? The 2003 satellite image below illustrates the literal darkness of the North versus its southern neighbor.

Korea at night

There are at least two data points suggesting an affirmative answer. First, the Philharmonic trip is being strongly supported by Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and our chief negotiator in the Six-Party agreement regarding the North Korean nuclear program. Second, President Bush recently sent a personal “Dear Mr. Chairman” letter to Kim Jong-il, leader of a state that was a founding member of Bush’s “axis of evil.”

Most people we’ve talked with are highly supportive of the Philharmonic trip. Yes, North Korea is a totalitarian government with a miserable human rights record. And yes, they’ll probably get some sympathetic press coverage for hosting this visit. But the benefit to us in starting a dialog with the guys we’re at odds with seems like a good step in narrowing our differences. There’s not much to be gained by talking just to our friends.

Nonetheless, there is opposition, even within the cultural world. An example of this contrary viewpoint is found in the writings of Terry Teachout, theater critic for the Wall Street Journal. Excerpts from a recent blog of his:

It horrified me--no other word is strong enough--to see them [the Philharmonic management] sitting next to the smirking representative of Kim Jong Il, the dictator of a brutally totalitarian state in whose Soviet-style prison camps 150,000 political prisoners are currently doing slave labor.” [The trip is] "a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime."

As for me, I see this as an historic opportunity. As the old saw goes, even the longest trip begins with a single step. I plan to document the trip with photos and video. Which will lead to Pyongyang, Part 2. Maybe even Part 3.

Tehran, anyone?


Scenes from the New York Philharmonic Dec. 11 press conference formally announcing the trip to Pyongyang.