North Korea Permits Anthem, But Anti-US Rhetoric Continues

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(Editor's note: Includes correction in 14th paragraph and additional information in the 20th paragraph.)

( - "The Star-Spangled Banner" rang out this week on a Pyongyang stage flanked by the American flag, but North Korean state media were insufficiently moved by the New York Philharmonic's unprecedented visit to take a break from America-bashing.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the performance "exquisite and refined," but elsewhere in the same bulletin it railed against U.S. policies.

One 280-word dispatch alone used terms like "warmongers," "bellicose," "brazen-faced" and "conservative hard-liners" to describe U.S. policy-makers. Reacting to the signing of an agreement restructuring the way U.S. Marines and South Korean Marines operate in the future, Pyongyang's mouthpiece accused the U.S. of "extremely provocative and adventurous moves," "undisguised military provocation" and "intolerable criminal" acts.

Another KCNA dispatch, on the recent U.S. Navy shoot-down of a disabled satellite, called the U.S. "a harasser of world peace and stability." (Other items in the bulletin included such headlines as "Exploits of Kim Jong-il Lauded" and "Kim Jong-il's Immortal Exploits Praised.")

The anti-U.S. hostility was in contrast to the standing ovation given to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra by the audience at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater Tuesday, after a program that began with the playing of the two countries' national anthems. At the insistence of the orchestra, the concert was broadcast live. (According to Library of Congress research, there are about 55 television sets for every thousand people in North Korea, and about 4.7 million radio sets in a country of 23 million people.)

Contrary to earlier speculation, Kim Jong-il did not attend the invitation-only concert, although other senior regime figures did, including the vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly -- the most powerful body in the one-party state's legislature.

The orchestra's visit to North Korea has been widely described as the most important cultural exchange ever between the U.S. and the reclusive Stalinist nation. President Bush has called the regime "evil" and Kim Jong-il a "tyrant," and the two countries are locked in an ongoing standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons.

In Seoul, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow said the concert may prompt North Koreans to "think that there is a possibility of a different kind of relationship with the United States."

"I hope the political leaders of Pyongyang draw the same conclusion," the Yonhap news agency quoted him as saying in an interview.

Although media organizations in South Korea and elsewhere sought to compare the visit to the "ping-pong diplomacy" between the U.S. and communist China in the early 1970s, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in the region, played down expectations.

"I don't expect that there is going to be a real impact on the nature of politics in North Korea," she told Japan's Fuji television on Wednesday, noting that the concert was a "private" affair. "But I am in favor of opening up. I hope that North Korea will open up more. And so it was a good thing that they went."

Some human rights activists strongly disagreed.

"Somehow the New York Philharmonic Orchestra feels like this type of dialogue is appropriate with a dictator from Asia, but everyone would recoil with horror if we had done the same thing with Adolf Hitler's regime in Nazi Germany," Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, told Mission Network News.

Open Doors recently named North Korea as the world's most egregious persecutor of Christians for the sixth consecutive year, saying some 70,000 Christians are believed to be among an estimated 200,000 North Koreans in prison camps.

"The tragedy is that tens of millions of North Koreans are starving. [North Korea] is of course the number one persecutor of Christians in the world and subjects its very own people to this horrible state of life," Moeller said. "I think it's a sham that New York Philharmonic played there and none of this was ever brought up."

'Fresh air'

But a Seoul-based group, Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, took a different approach to the concert.

Although addressing rights violations in the North is one of the organization's priorities, representative Joanna Hosaniak said Thursday, "it is also important to remember that such music exchanges can stimulate freedom of thought or expression."

"Even if it is on a small scale, it brings a fresh air to people who are raised in a rigid system of philosophy and personal freedoms and who have little knowledge or contact with the outside world," she said.

This was particularly the case when citizens have been brought up viewed countries like the U.S. with hostility, Hosaniak added.

Kato Hiroshi, executive director of the Japan-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, said cultural exchanges that impact ordinary North Koreans can help to promote a better understanding of the U.S., but with an audience mostly comprising a ?selected ideological elite, how you can expect instant favorable results??

Earlier, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino played down the significance of the NYPO performance, calling it "a concert ... not a diplomatic coup."

She said Bush would continue to support the North Korean people and press the regime on shutting down its nuclear programs as well as on human rights.

"I just think that everyone needs to keep in mind that this is a regime that has brutally treated its people, there is a lot of starvation and repression, and people are not able to lead free and prosperous lives, like they could," Perino said.

Daily NK, a South Korean news hub focusing on North Korea and human rights, interviewed North Koreans based in China about the concert, and some voiced concern about a possible clampdown following the NYPO visit.

"After this performance, it is obvious that the authorities will strictly regulate and supervise the people so they do not fantasize about America," one woman was quoted as saying, while another said, "most people are more concerned about what will happen after the orchestra leaves town."

The NYPO visit was the result of an invitation by North Korea last August. At the time, six-party negotiations on the nuclear issue were going relatively smoothly, and in a deal reached in October, North Korea pledged to provide a full declaration of its nuclear programs and to disable three key nuclear facilities by Dec. 31.

In return, the U.S. and other negotiating partners agreed to make diplomatic concessions and provide economic aid, but North Korea missed the year-end deadline, and the process remains stalled.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow