Concert a Contrast to Streets of North Korea

The New York Philharmonic played a concert in North Korea on Tuesday. It was the largest U.S. presence in the Communist country since the end of the Korean War nearly 60 years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The New York Philharmonic has come and gone from North Korea. It was a triumph of cultural diplomacy, though it wasn't so smooth behind the scenes.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn sent us a few words from his Reporter's Notebook.

ANTHONY KUHN: The first surprise came as soon as the nearly 300 musicians, staff and journalists stepped off their plane and onto the tarmac at the Pyongyang airport. We reporters do what we're used to doing, which is to jockey for a camera and microphone position in an unruly media scrum. The North Koreans were not pleased at this and kept shoving people back.

The delegation was put up in Pyongyang's fanciest hotel. It's on an island, the entrances to which are all guarded, so you can forget about leaving without permission.

The government minders, whose job it was to keep us from striking out on our own, started out barking orders. Stay with the group. Be here on time. But the whole thing quickly descended into logistical chaos and the minders started to learn how to roll with the punches.

I had some good conversations with North Koreans, but too many of them were officials and too much of the time we were left to observe what we could about Pyongyang from behind the windows of buses.

Well, it looks like they didn't take all of the propaganda posters down. We just passed one with a massive fist smashing a soldier with the letters U.S.A. written on his helmet.

There are very few cars on the street in general. Most people seem to be taking buses or walking here.

Superficially, at least, I found Pyongyang in many ways looked like China when I first traveled there as a college student in 1982. There were almost no restaurants or privately owned shops. Everything shut down by 8:00 or 9:00 at night. And there wasn't much in the way of entertainment.

Pyongyang is still full of 1960s visual flashbacks, those Soviet and Chinese-style propaganda posters with the improbably muscular and ruddy cheeked workers and soldiers.

(Soundbite of music)

At the Philharmonic's concert I listened to Gershwin's An American in Paris. The music conjured up visions of 1920s New York street scenes in my head. The hustle and bustle, the entrepreneurial spirit and the lighthearted improvisation of the music was in stark contrast to the hulking Stalinist architecture in public spaces, the drab apartment blocks, and the desolate railway tracks I saw outside.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")

Unidentified woman: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Finally, this morning our North Korean hosts took us to visit a big cultural center called A Children's Palace. The kids put on some saccharin sweet song and dance acts, including a version of "Jingle Bells" almost entirely in Korean. So this was what the North Korean equivalent of soccer moms take their kids to after school.

To my relief, not all of the songs and dances were in praise of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. I thought to myself, now here's a place that's ripe for cultural exchanges. I'm sure these kids would take to break dancing like fishes to water.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Pyongyang.

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