February 27, 2008 / 12:02 AM / 10 years ago

New York Phil gets muted reaction in North Korea media

PYONGYANG (Reuters) - The unprecedented concert of the New York Philharmonic made the world’s front pages on Wednesday, but in North Korea merited only brief mention in the main communist daily.

Members of the New York Philharmonic wave to the audience after finishing their concert at the Grand Theatre in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, February 26, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray

North Koreans, more used to music that extols the virtues of their leaders, gave a standing ovation to the performance by the oldest U.S. orchestra on Tuesday night in a concert both sides had said they hoped would ease tension between the long-time Cold War foes.

Many musicians spent their final day in Pyongyang watching North Korean school children do song and dance numbers that praised the fatherly love of the North’s eternal president Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il.

A story on the concert was on page four of the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun with a picture of the event. The front page was reserved for news that leader Kim Jong-il had sent congratulatory flowers to the new president of Cuba.

The newspaper report on the concert was heavy on who among the North’s elite attended and called the concert “very sophisticated and sensitive.”


Members of the Philharmonic were still giddy from the concert as they boarded a chartered 747 jumbo jet with international journalists, U.S. officials and supporters that took them on a flight of about 50 minutes to Seoul.

“I don’t think I could ever say that we have been moved so deeply by the response and the feeling coming from audience. It is beyond what we ever expected,” said bass player John Deak.

Some orchestra members met North Korean musicians while others headed to the Mangyondae School Childrens Palace to see a performance that included young girls in white shirts and red scarves singing: “Generalissimo Kim Il-sung danced with us.”

Philharmonic members were flanked in the audience by school children who were not allowed to talk to any foreigners. The show included traditional dance, accordion music, and a Korean version of “Jingle Bells” sung by girls in pink Santa Claus hats and fixed smiles.

The finale was a song and dance number called “We are Faithful Only to General Kim Jong-il” that included lyrics such as “You make us happy. You safeguard our happiness.”

In South Korea, the media reaction was effusive, some editorials saying the concert could signal a thawing of ties between Washington and Pyongyang.

“An overture to peace between the North and the United States,” was the headline of the mainstream JoongAng Ilbo daily’s editorial.

“Considering the brainwashing by the North all these years that the United States is the arch enemy, this is a sensational change.”

The concert came a day after South Korea inaugurated its new conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who has vowed to be far less tolerant than his predecessor of the North’s behavior, promising aid and investment only if it completely gives up its efforts to be a nuclear weapons power.

The concert was born out of talks last year on ending the impoverished North’s nuclear arms program in exchange for aid and allowing the ostracized state to join the world economy.

The Bush administration in public played down the event, the White House saying that any future cultural exchanges depended on North Korea’s cooperation on the nuclear issue.

North Korea last year agreed to an international deal towards dismantling its atomic weapons program but is two months past a deadline to give a full account of what it has actually done so far to develop an arsenal.

“I think at the end of the day we consider this concert to be a concert, and it’s not a diplomatic coup,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

(Take a look at the Reuters Global News Blog for more on the NY Philharmonic's visit:blogs.reuters.com/global/)

Editing by Jerry Norton

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