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N.Y. Philharmonic heads to N. Korea

Orchestra's decision a cultural breakthrough

The New York Philharmonic has decided to perform in North Korea, a cultural breakthrough as tense relations between the United States and the reclusive Communist nation ease, the orchestra’s president said Monday.

The concert will be Feb. 26, said Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s president and executive director. He declined to provide further details, saying a formal announcement of the trip is scheduled for Tuesday.

North Korea’s Ministry of Culture sent the orchestra an invitation in August. In October, Mehta spent six days in North Korea exploring venues and other arrangements for a potential concert in Pyongyang.

The regime of Kim Jong Il has been accused of torturing and starving its people. President Bush once branded it a member of the “axis of evil.” Tensions reached a peak in October 2006, when North Korea tested a nuclear bomb.

But relations have been improving since Pyongyang started disabling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in July, and two other nuclear installations last month.

Last week, Bush took the unprecedented step of writing a personal letter to Kim, raising the possibility of normalized relations if he fully discloses his nuclear programs by year’s end.

While some may see the Philharmonic’s trip as a further warming of relations, others argue the orchestra’s presence lends legitimacy to its leaders.

In an Oct. 27 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, arts critic Terry Teachout wrote that the Philharmonic would “be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime.”

Tuesday’s formal announcement will be attended by North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Philharmonic Chairman Paul B. Guenther and Mehta.

By accepting North Korea’s invitation, the Philharmonic is following a path cut by orchestras that played a role in diplomacy. In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon’s historic visit. In 1956, the Boston Symphony became the first American orchestra to perform in the Soviet Union.

The North Korea concert follows the Philharmonic’s previously planned concerts in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Philharmonic’s decision to go to North Korea was first reported by The New York Times.

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