Orchestra visit puts America in harmony with 'Axis of Evil'

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The Independent Culture

The traditionally discordant music between the United States and North Korea a founding member of George Bush's "Axis of Evil" may find unexpected notes of harmony early next year with a planned visit to the reclusive communist state by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

The planned engagement at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre has been set for 26 February and comes as relations between the regime of Kim Jong Il and Washington have begun to thaw.

Officials of the orchestra confirmed that an unsolicited invitation was received via fax from the Culture Ministry in Pyongyang in August. Two months later, executives of the Philharmonic, including its president, Zarin Mehta, toured the North Korean capital to explore the feasibility of the trip. They were accompanied to North Korea by officials of the US State Department.

The plan has already won the support of Christopher Hill, the US special envoy who helped push North Korea earlier this year to accepting an aid-for-disarmament deal, under which the regime has turned off its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and promised to disclose all of its nuclear activities by year's end.

Mr Hill will attend the formal announcement of the trip today alongside Mr Mehta, Paul Gnther, who is the chairman of the Philharmonic, as well as the North Korean envoy to the United Nations, Pak Gil Yon, who will be making a most unusual public appearance.

Cultural exchanges can hardly replace nuts-and-bolts diplomacy and indeed there have been some warning signs that Pyongyang may not meet the end-of-year deadline to come clean about all its past nuclear programmes. Only last week, President Bush for the first time sent a personal letter to Mr Kim promising improved relations on condition that his regime meets the promises made this year.

Moreover, the visit is likely to draw a stern rebuke from critics who argue that Mr Bush has given too much credence to the commitments made by North Korea. They point in particular to recent intelligence indicating that Pyongyang may have helped Syria to build a reactor of its own.

Yet, there is a history of American orchestras making ice-breaking visits to adversaries of the US. In 1956, the Boston Symphony played in the Soviet Union. Then in 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra travelled to China shortly after the historic visit to the country by Richard Nixon.

"I hope [the Pyongyang visit] will be looked back upon as an event that helped bring that country back into the world," Mr Hill told The New York Times.