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Diplomacy through music

The New York Philharmonic's North Korea concert is the latest cultural outreach.

December 17, 2007|Anne Gearan | Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- China had its pingpong players, the Soviet Union its ballet dancers, Iran its soccer players.

Now the New York Philharmonic is making a musical overture to North Korea.

Arts and sports can open doors abroad that diplomatic jawboning might not, although the record is mixed. The Philharmonic will perform Feb. 26 in one of the most closed societies in the world, a Stalinist nation whose leader rules by decree and is accused of starving and torturing his people.

Like the pingpong diplomacy that helped lay the path for President Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, cultural outreach to a nation that President Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil" is meant to put a human face on a relationship defined by suspicion and mistrust.

China's invitation

The U.S. Table Tennis team accepted a surprise invitation from China in 1971, making the group the first Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949. The story captivated Americans and Chinese in a way that seems quaint in today's era of direct flights between Washington and Beijing.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and other U.S. officials were in China last week for the kind of trade-and-business talks that have been commonplace.

Sports exchanges and cultural diplomacy haven't gotten as far with Iran, whose soccer team charmed Americans by giving the U.S. players flowers before defeating them 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup. A brief blossoming of academic, cultural and other outreach followed but dried up amid political shifts in Iran and the United States.

The United States and Iran have been estranged since the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and neither side appears close to standing down. Although the Bush administration insists it wants to resolve a nuclear conflict with Iran through diplomacy, even some U.S. allies fear a second U.S.-led war in the Middle East.

The Bush administration has been trying to increase cultural and other nonofficial ties to Iran, but it's sometimes a tough sell. Ten of 14 Iranian artists who got special visas to show their work in the United States in the spring refused to be photographed with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she toured the exhibition.

Such exercises have value, however, in building individual bonds and trust, said Karim Sadjadpour, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"You are less sanguine about advocating war against a country when you've visited it and had positive interaction with its citizens," Sadjadpour said.

"Ideally, these cultural exchanges would lead to diplomat exchanges, but so far they haven't. Alas, musicians, artists and athletes do not devise policy."

Iran may also host a U.S. orchestra tour similar to the one scheduled for North Korea, although there are no firm plans.

The New York orchestra visit carries a risk that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il will use it as propaganda, and some of Bush's advisers worry that such niceties dull U.S. leverage over a brutal regime.

There were similar critiques of U.S. and Soviet cultural swaps in the 1970s, but defections of Soviet stars turned the tables in the propaganda wars.

North Korea's overture

North Korea's Ministry of Culture sent the orchestra an invitation in August. In October, orchestra President Zarin Mehta spent six days in North Korea exploring venues and making other arrangements for a potential concert in Pyongyang.

That makes Mehta one of only a small number of Americans who have visited North Korea, which last year shocked the world by successfully testing a nuclear bomb.

Another recent visitor is Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, Bush's chief envoy in nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, who played mailman this month to deliver a personal letter from Bush to Kim.

Bush once called the short leader a "pygmy," and Kim regularly claimed that the United States wanted him dead.

The unprecedented letter, offering the promise of normal relations with the United States if North Korea gets rid of its weapons and explains its covert program, was the clearest sign yet that the Bush administration hopes to leave the insults and threats behind.

Some optimism

Rice used to snort or roll her eyes when asked if she, like predecessor Madeleine Albright, might make a visit to Pyongyang. Although no one is packing yet, such a trip is no longer out of the question.

Asked last week whether the United States might normalize relations with the North before Bush leaves office, Rice said she does not know.

"But I think we're on a path that if North Korea is prepared to verifiably denuclearize, that this is a country that could finally break out of its isolation," Rice said during a Women's Foreign Police Group luncheon. "And yes, indeed, break out of its isolation with the United States too."

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