In three weeks, Donna and I will take off from Beijing, along with the New York Philharmonic, 60 members of the world press, several more board members and a number of other interested parties in a chartered Asiana 747. Our destination -- Pyongyang, North Korea.
What started as an invitation out of the blue from the North Korean Ministry of Culture last summer will culminate on February 26 with a concert performance by the Philharmonic in Pyongyang.
Here’s what we know so far about the event:
It has engendered tremendous media interest. Besides the 60 accredited members of the press attending, hundreds more sought to come, but logistical issues limited the number attendees who could be accommodated.
The concert will be televised worldwide by an international consortium of broadcasters and shown live in those countries with convenient time zones, and on tape in the others.
The agreement with the North Korean Ministry of Culture calls for it to be televised in North Korea. Whether that actually happens remains to be seen, but that is the understanding.
The program will begin with the national anthems of both countries, followed by a Wagner overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and An American in Paris. A few encores will ensue, including one folk tune dear to both North and South Koreans.
Nine members of the Philharmonic are South Korean, and will be making the trip.
A number of master classes will be held with Philharmonic musicians and North Korean students during the two-day trip.
The initial hall for the concert that was proposed by the North Koreans seated only a few hundred people. That was rejected by the Phil – simply too small. So a larger hall was mutually selected, but it turned out to be unsuitable acoustically for a classical music concert. So the Philharmonic requested that an acoustic shell be built to the Philharmonic’s specification and placed in the hall. The shell has been built, sited, and meets specs.
Staff members of the Phil who have made preparatory trips to Pyongyang report that everyone is “minded” while there, that everyone they have contact with is fluent in English, and that liberal helpings of Scotch whiskey helped break the ice after evening meetings with the hosts.
The only foreign currency accepted is the euro. And no credit cards.
No cell phones are permitted in the country.
There will be a media communications tent with telephone and Internet facilities, and I plan to blog live from there during our two days.
No one yet knows whether Kim Jong-il will attend the concert.
The recently elected new president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, will be inaugurated in Seoul on February 25, the day before the concert. A lot of dignitaries from around the world will be attending the inauguration, including high-ranking U.S. diplomats. And Pyongyang is only 120 miles from Seoul.
The State Department is solidly supporting the Philharmonic trip. Whether this latter-day version of Ping Pong diplomacy aids our sticky Six-Party nuclear negotiations with North Korea remains to be seen. But one might keep in mind that some months after the U.S. Ping Pong team visited China in 1971, Nixon himself went there “opened up” China.
So President Bush, if you do decide to go to Pyongyang during your final year in office, remember, no cell phones, and euros only.