The New York Philharmonic Orchestra has arrived in North Korea ahead of a controversial performance in Pyongyang, which is being compared by some to the "ping pong diplomacy" that preceded US President Richard Nixon's landmark trip to the People's Republic of China in 1972.
The trip comes as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tours the Far East urging regional leaders to pressure North Korea to fulfil its promise to reveal all its nuclear activities. She will not travel to North Korea.
The orchestra's trip has proved controversial. Some say it's an exercise in diplomacy; others say it will do little to change the behavior of a repressive regime, which has remained evasive about its development of nuclear weapons.
The trip has been slammed "a disgrace" by the New York Post. But North Korea has welcomed the orchestra as "a clashing cymbal of détente," cautioning that "we trust that your second violins are not disguised fifth column," according to The Times of London.
The 130-member orchestra is scheduled to arrive Monday and perform Tuesday night before an audience of high-ranking North Korean officials. Eighty journalists will accompany the musicians to a country that is almost always closed to the outside world.
The performance is scheduled to be broadcast live on North Korean state television. For North Koreans, watching an American orchestra perform in their own country will be unprecedented – and politically dissonant. State-controlled media have demonized the United States since the Korean War.
Reports from Pyongyang suggest that anti-American propaganda is being pulled from the streets in anticipation of the orchestra's rendition of George Gershwin's "An American in Paris" and Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony, as well as both the North Korean and American national anthems.
The trip, coming 18 months after North Korea's underground nuclear tests and in the middle of renewed diplomatic attempts to defuse the weapons program crisis, is "heavily charged with symbolism," says The Times of London.
The United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea and has only sent a handful of envoys to visit the country since the end of the Korean War, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Not since 1950 when the U.S. Army briefly captured Pyongyang during the Korean War have so many Americans descended on the world's most reclusive, anti-US capital. This time, though, the invasion is not military, but musical.
"This journey is a manifestation of the power of music to unite people," [the Philharmonic's executive director Zarin] Mehta said ahead of the trip. "It is our sincere hope that these concerts will aid in the beginning of a new era between the peoples of our nations."
The Los Angeles Times says the US government has given its backing to the visit.
The trip, arranged through private channels, has received the support of the State Department because it will offer a positive image of the United States at a time of negotiations over dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.
"They are alleging that we have a hostile policy and that's why they need nuclear weapons. The presence of the New York Philharmonic argues against that," said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.
The current talk of cultural diplomacy has led other observers to point out other nonpolitical exchanges between the US and seemingly hostile countries that have opened the door to dialogue in the past, says the BBC.
In 1971, China and the US had its famous "ping pong diplomacy". The US table-tennis team were invited to play in China, making them the first American group allowed into the country since the Communist takeover in 1949. This helped pave the way for Richard Nixon's historic trip a year later.
US orchestras have a long history of making ice-breaking trips into politically hostile territory.
"The US wanted to win the Cold War with violins and trumpets," says Jonathan Rosenberg, professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra itself became the first US orchestra to tour China.
However, not all observers have reacted to the trip with enthusiasm. Human rights groups have criticized the decision to engage with the Stalinesque country, in which hundreds of thousands of people are held in labor camps.
In a New York Times op-ed, two members of a committee on human rights, Chuck Downs and Richard V. Allensaid they feared the visit would "hand [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il a propaganda coup." The New York Post says "The Philharmonic's visit was always ill-advised – a starry-eyed attempt at 'sunshine' diplomacy by State Department idealists."
And according to The Times of London:
There is, however, very little chance, argue veteran Pyongyang watchers, that "sing-song diplomacy" will succeed where the talks on Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament have, so far, stalled. Although the talks produced an apparent breakthrough last year, the North has now missed a deadline where it was to provide a full account of its nuclear programmes.
"It's a good thing that the Philharmonic is going. But the North Korean regime is still the North Korean regime," Rice said. "I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea."
There can be little argument about the power of music to free minds. But the power of information is even greater. Breaking Pyongyang's near-absolute authority over information is key to empowering North Koreans to understand the truth about their country, and to seek freedom.