In a controversial decision among the orchestra musician community and some art critics, the New York Philharmonic will perform at the North Korean capital on Feb. 26, in the country President Bush once called a member of the “axis of evil.” By accepting North Korea’s invitation, the Philharmonic is following a path cut by orchestras that played a role in diplomacy. In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit. In 1956, the Boston Symphony became the first American orchestra to perform in the Soviet Union.
“We haven’t even had Ping-Pong diplomacy with these people,” said Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, the Bush administration’s main diplomat for negotiations with North Korea and the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Just last week Mr. Bush sent a letter to Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s leader, suggesting that ties would improve if North Korea fully disclosed all nuclear programs and got rid of its nuclear weapons. Conservatives have criticized the Bush administration for engaging with North Korea when it has violated nuclear promises, and in the face of recent intelligence indicating its possible assistance to Syria in beginning work on a reactor.
State Department officials said the orchestra’s invitation from North Korea and its acceptance represented a potential opening in that Communist nation’s relationship with the outside world, and a softening of its unrelenting anti-United States propaganda.
“It would signal that North Korea is beginning to come out of its shell, which everyone understands is a long-term process,” Mr. Hill said. “It does represent a shift in how they view us, and it’s the sort of shift that can be helpful as we go forward in nuclear weapons negotiations.”