NEW YORK (Reuters) - Striking a note of musical diplomacy, the New York Philharmonic said on Monday it plans to perform in North Korea -- the first major U.S. cultural visit to the reclusive country.
North Korea's invitation to play a concert came as the reclusive communist country was beginning to disable its nuclear facilities and starting to see a thaw in relations with the United States.
The orchestra said details of the trip will be announced on Tuesday by Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Pak Gil Yon, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, and Paul Guenther, the orchestra's chairman.
"It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process," Hill was quoted as saying Monday in The New York Times.
"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."
The U.S. State Department, South Korean companies and the Korea Society were helping with the logistics of getting 250 people and bulky instruments to impoverished North Korea, the Times reported.
The performance is set for February 26 at the end of the Philharmonic's planned tour of China, the Times said, with the orchestra expected to stay in Pyongyang for two nights to teach and attend a ceremonial dinner.
The United States' oldest symphony orchestra said in August it was considering an official invitation from the North Korean government to perform in Pyongyang.
North Korea turned off its nuclear reactor in July and has agreed to disable its main nuclear fuel plant. Hill delivered a letter last week from President George W. Bush to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il -- their first direct communication.
Hill told The New York Times he believed the conditions set by the Philharmonic had been met.
The paper said those included the presence of foreign reporters, a nationwide broadcast so that not just a tiny elite would hear the concert, acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, an assurance that eight musicians of Korean origin would not encounter problems and that the orchestra could play "The Star-Spangled Banner."
From Pyongyang, the orchestra will go to Seoul, South Korea, said Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society.
"The balance that's being achieved here is pretty nifty," Revere told the Times. "It's a nice message being sent to the peninsula that the premier American orchestra is performing in both capitals within hours of each other."
Critics of the trip have questioned the appropriateness of visiting a country run by Kim Jong-il's repressive regime.
"It would be a mistake to hand Kim Jong-il a propaganda coup," Richard Allen, a former national security adviser, and Chuck Downs, both board members of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, wrote on October 28 in The New York Times.
The New York Philharmonic has performed in at least 418 cities worldwide since 1930, including in South Korea.
The orchestra was founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians and plays about 180 concerts a year. In late 2004, the Philharmonic gave its 14,000th concert -- a milestone unmatched by any other orchestra in the world.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols and John O'Callaghan; Editing by Doina Chiacu