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New York Philharmonic to amaze North Korea with American-inspired musical program

The New York Philharmonic with an American-inspired musical program will perform in North Korea.

Details of the historic visit to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Feb. 26 were discussed at a news conference in New York attended by North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon.

"This visit will surely deepen the understanding and cultural relations of the two countries," the ambassador said, adding that he was not able to discuss the political implications of the visit or whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would attend the concert or have any contact with the musicians.

Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's president and executive director, said the Philharmonic will play the national anthems of both countries in a musical program inspired by America, including Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, known as the "New World Symphony" because it was composed during the composer's visit to the United States.

During the 48-hour visit, Mehta said, the Philharmonic members would conduct master classes with North Korean musicians and perform an open rehearsal before an evening concert.

The orchestra's decision to perform in North Korea has received rave reviews from scholars, Korean-Americans and human rights advocates who said the concert will promote openness in the reclusive Communist regime.

"In a closed country such as North Korea, the more exposure they have to the outside world, the better," said Charles Armstrong, a professor of modern East Asian and international history at Columbia University.

The announcement came four months after North Korea's Ministry of Culture sent the orchestra an invitation. In October, Mehta spent six days in North Korea exploring venues and other arrangements for a concert in Pyongyang.

Kim's government has been accused of torturing and starving its people, and U.S. President George W. Bush once called it a member of the "axis of evil." Tensions reached a peak in October 2006, when North Korea tested a nuclear bomb.

But relations have improved since Pyongyang started disabling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in July, and two other nuclear installations last month.

Suk Woo Kang, a spokesman for the South Korean consulate in New York, called the concert "a very positive signal."

Not everyone was applauding.

In an Oct. 27 online opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, arts critic Terry Teachout wrote that the Philharmonic would "be doing little more than participating in a puppet show whose purpose is to lend legitimacy to a despicable regime."

The North Korea concert follows the Philharmonic's previously planned concerts in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

According to The New York Times, which first reported the story Monday, North Korean officials agreed to a set of conditions including the presence of foreign journalists; a nationwide broadcast to ensure that not just a small elite would hear the concert; and assurances that the eight Philharmonic members of Korean origin would not encounter difficulties.

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