SEOUL - The high note of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's evening of glory
in Pyongyang reverberates in a cacophony of debate over the legacy of the
visit, what it did or did not achieve, and how long will the music play in the
echo chamber of negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program and the future
of US relations on the Korean Peninsula.
No one disputes that the concert on Tuesday was a musical triumph, from the
strains of the national anthems of both nations to the heart-tugging Korean
folk classic "Arirang", but the question remains whether it was just another
curious episode in
dealings with Pyongyang or will it have a serious impact on policy both there
and in Washington.
Even as Koreans, North and South, were watching the whole show live on
television, opinions differed sharply over the significance of the event. As
Brian Myers, North Korea watcher and dean of international studies at Dongseo
University in Pusan, South Korea, noted, "It is much easier to invite an
orchestra than to make concessions on the nuclear front." He saw the event as
part of a continuum "of conflict and lessening of conflict" masterminded by
Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who no doubt saw the concert as "a perfect way to make
the Americans happy for another few months".
Against this view, Edward Reed, an agricultural specialist who has visited
North Korea a score of times since 1991, saw the concert as further evidence
that North Korea "wants to improve policy with the US".
North Korea, after a decade of South Korea's Sunshine policy of rapprochement,
"is no longer a sealed estate", Reed observed. The North by now is "relatively
much more open", he argued, "and they have a fairly good idea of the outside
world". Above all, "They know they have to change to survive."
As the evening wore on, however, it became increasingly clear that the Dear
Leader was not likely to condescend to join the handpicked elite in the East
Pyongyang Grand Theater. His non-appearance, if nothing else, could well be
seen as a sign of displeasure with the American response to his demands of
"action for action" before the North fulfills terms of last year's agreements
to give up its nukes.
"Kim Jong-il missed a golden opportunity by failing to attend the concert,"
said a commentary in the conservative Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's
biggest-selling paper. "Though it was a cultural event on the surface, the
concert was a highly political performance for which the US Department of State
complied with the requests of North Korean authorities."
By not showing up, Kim managed to convey a message as surely as that of the
good-will implicit in the playing of Gershwin's "American in Paris" - the
jazz-age classic that conductor Lorin Maazel introduced with the
headline-grabbing remark that perhaps some day someone would compose "Americans
Indeed, none of the country's top leaders joined the 1,500 other North Koreans
in the audience, unless you count Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of the
presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly. North Korea's chief nuclear
negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, was highly conspicuous by his absence, giving the
task to his deputy, Li Gun, chief of US affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
Kim Kye-gwan, though, was busy making the most of the proceedings. A
conversation he had with CNN's Christiane Amanpour was the visible
manifestation of confidential meetings with William Perry, who had been defense
secretary under Bill Clinton during the crisis of the early 1990s that resulted
in the failed 1994 Geneva framework agreement, and two former senior diplomats,
Donald Gregg and Evans Revere.
Gregg, Korea Society chairman, former Central Intelligence Agency station chief
and later US ambassador to South Korea, has been noteworthy in recent years for
his enthusiasm for the Sunshine policy engineered during the presidency of Kim
Dae-jung. Revere, former number two in the US Embassy in Seoul, succeeded Gregg
last year as Korea Society president after differing with official US policy on
It's safe to assume that Kim Kye-gwan said much the same thing in private to
Perry, Gregg and Revere as he did on the record to Amanpour, who was treated to
an exclusive tour of the nuclear complex at Yongbyon two days before the
Playing the American national anthem "was a political breakthrough", an act of
"great political courage", Kim told Amanpour, but now North Korean technicians
were slowing down the process of disabling the Yongbyon complex in accordance
with "action for action". The US, he insisted, as he has many times before,
still had to remove North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism
and do away with economic sanctions.
It's not clear, when Kim Jong-il invited the Philharmonic to Pyongyang last
summer, if either the Americans or the North Koreans had then anticipated the
reversal in the pattern in which North Korea was on the way to abiding by the
terms of the six-nation agreement of February 13 of last year.
Finally, after having gone well beyond the 60-day window in which North Korean
technicians were to have started shutting down the facilities at Yongbyon for
developing nuclear warheads with plutonium at their core, North Korean
technicians had begun the intricate task with American technicians looking on.
Then, while Roh Moo-hyun, in his final months as president of South Korea, was
in Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-il in early October, North Korea signed
on to another six-nation timetable in which it was to provide details not only
on all its nuclear gear and materiel but also of its dealings with Iran, Syria
and other clients for nuclear technology and missiles.
As has happened with unsettling regularity since the Korean War ended in an
armed truce in July 1953, disillusionment set in as it became clear North Korea
was stalling first on the timetable and then on disablement at Yongbyon. The
New York Philharmonic performance in Pyongyang, far from turning into a
celebration of fulfillment of the nuclear agreement, provided a great chance
for North Korea to publicize its demands.
The occasion would have been an unqualified success for Kim Jong-il if only US
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had diverted to Pyongyang. With Condi at
his side, Kim would surely have shown up for the concert just as he did in
October 2000 with Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, beside him at a
mass propaganda display before more than 150,000 in the May First Stadium.
Kim had to have selected the date for the Pyongyang concert, Tuesday, February
26, with full knowledge that it fell the day after the inauguration of a new
South Korean president, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, who had defeated a Roh
protege by a landslide. The concert, according to this adroit timing, would
strip the inauguration of its luster and also fall right into the schedule of
the top US representative at the inauguration. Until a succession of State
Department denials made clear Rice had no intention of going to Pyongyang,
rumors were rife in Seoul that she would surely stop over en route to Beijing.
The administration of President George W Bush, in the transition from
confrontation to engagement with North Korea, has gone far toward temporizing
in off-again, on-again talks. There was no way, however, that Rice could
consider a stop-off in Pyongyang after the new South Korean president in his
inaugural address promised to "further strengthen friendly relations" with the
US while holding out the lure of generous aid to North Korea only if the North
"abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness".
True, Lee, when he saw Rice before she took off for Beijing, agreed with her on
the need to pursue six-nation talks on getting the North finally to give up its
nukes, but his address set the stage for a new chapter in up-and-down dealings
with North Korea. If the concert suggested the goodwill that could overcome
barriers, optimism was clearly premature.
As far as the North Koreans are concerned, "You either come to Pyongyang with
ill intent or on a pilgrimage," said Myers. "North Korea is a hardline
nationalist state. All foreigners are immoral, not to be trusted."
Far from the madding crowd in the Grand Theater, Kim Jong-il and his highest
aides were no doubt glued to the concert on television. Seeing the Americans as
having come to pay homage, they presumably searched the faces of the foreigners
in the audience for signs of support for concessions that neither the US nor
the new South Korean president are ready to make, at least for now.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.