Will Philharmonic's Korean concerts build a lasting bridge?

The New York Philharmonic played Thursday in Seoul. Can their Korea tour restart the dismantling of North's weapons program?

David Guttenfelder/AP
Bravo: The crowd cheered for South Korean pianist Son Yeol-eum after her performance with the N.Y. Philharmonic in Seoul Thursday.

The visit to Pyongyang this week by the New York Philharmonic – and American patrons of the orchestra – provided their North Korean hosts with an unaccustomed show of defiance.

During one of the carefully scripted tours of the capital prior to Tuesday's concert, two dozen well-to-do Philharmonic patrons surprised their omnipresent guides by refusing to toss flowers before the enormous statue of the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, father of the current leader, Kim Jong Il.

"They offered us flowers at the hotel to put in front of the statue," says G. Chris Andersen, founding partner of GC Andersen Partners, a New York investment banking firm. "We declined that opportunity, saying we don't do that in our country."

That small act of defiance was one sign of an ambivalence shared by many of the more than 100 musicians, who flew to South Korea to give the final concert of the tour Thursday. While deeply moved by extraordinary displays of hospitality as well as the cheers of the audience, some of the musicians were uncomfortable about playing in a nation suffering from lack of food as well as political persecution.

"How many millions of people could be fed with all they spent on us," asks Enrico DiCCecco, a violinist in his 47th year with the orchestra. "What killed us," he says, is knowing that Kim Jong Il "is starving his own people."

Mr. DiCecco says he and some of the other musicians initially balked at going to Pyongyang and asked about human rights abuses at a briefing in New York by the US envoy, Christopher Hill. Mr. Hill, he says, called the performance "part of getting the ball rolling" toward reconciliation.

A trip to Pyongyang by three former top US officials coincided with the concert. Former Defense Secretary William Perry; Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea; and Evans Revere, former second-ranking official in the US Embassy in Seoul, had a lunch meeting with North Korea's nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, before the concert. Mr. Perry reportedly stressed the need for North Korea to complete disabling its nuclear facilities before President Bush steps down next January. North Korea has slowed the process – and also not provided a list of its nuclear inventory – while pressing the US for "action for action," including its removal from the US list of terrorist states.

Like Kim Jong Il, Kim Kye Gwan and most other top North Korean officials watched the performance on television. Kim Jong Il never met the visitors.

North Korea's leader might have attended had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flown to Pyongyang after Monday's inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. But Ms. Rice went on to Beijing and Tokyo. Kim Jong Il found attending "too difficult" since Rice didn't visit, probably because "the North's declaration of its nuclear programs remains at a stalemate," says Kim Yong Hyun, professor at Dongguk University.

Assistant Secretary of State Hill stayed in Beijing Wednesday, a day after Rice left, to discuss with Chinese officials how to restart the stalled process of dismantling North Korea's nuclear programs.

Under a year-old, six-nation agreement, North Korea agreed to shut down, disable, and dismantle its main nuclear facility and provide a complete accounting of all of its nuclear activities, including its transfer of technology and know-how to other countries. In return, Pyongyang's negotiating partners would provide it with fuel oil, remove sanctions, normalize relations and sign a peace deal.

The Philharmonic musicians left Seoul Thursday night with a sense of having done all they could. "Now it's up to the three [the US, North Korea and South Korea] to take it from there," says orchestra chairman Paul Guenther. Adds clarinetist Stephen Freeman, "If it's not followed up, it's a waste of time."

• Material from Associated Press used in this report

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