The New York Philharmonic arrived in North Korea yesterday, becoming the most prominent US cultural institution to visit the nuclear-armed country, run by a regime that keeps its impoverished people among the world's most isolated.
North Korea made unprecedented accommodations for the orchestra, allowing a delegation of nearly 300 people – including musicians, staff and journalists – to fly into Pyongyang on a chartered plane for a 48-hour visit.
The Philharmonic's concert tonight is to be broadcast live on North Korea's state TV and radio, an event unheard of in a country where events are choreographed to bolster the personality cult of the leader, Kim Jong-il.
Last year, the Philharmonic accepted the North's invitation to play, with the encouragement of the US government, at a time of rare optimism in the long-running nuclear standoff involving the two countries.
After testing an atomic bomb in October 2006, North Korea shut its main nuclear reactor in July and has been disabling it in exchange for aid and removal from US terrorism and sanctions blacklists.
But disarmament has stalled because of what Washington says is North Korea's failure to give a full declaration of its atomic programmes to be dismantled, as Pyongyang promised.
The music director, Lorin Maazel, said if the music moves the audience, "we will have made whatever contribution we can make to bringing our peoples just one tiny step closer". The concert will include Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No 9 and An American in Paris by George Gershwin. Among planned encores was the Korean folk song "Arirang", beloved in the North and the South.