On February 7, 2008, the New York Philharmonic embarked on a three-week tour of Asia, playing 13 concerts in Taipei, Kaohsiung, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. It was an emotional roller coaster that few of us were prepared for.
When the Philharmonic first received an invitation from the North Korean government (otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) in August 2007, our management had to consider whether it might be a prank. The matter was discussed with the State Department and the Korea Society, a non-partisan group that promotes dialogue between the two Koreas, and it was determined that the invitation was indeed serious. Management responded that we would consider such a trip only with the full support of the State Department and that we could not yet make any commitments.
Somehow, the invitation leaked into the press while the orchestra was on vacation in August, and many of us read about it in the New York Times. Most of us considered it to be one of many bizarre rumors that gets into the papers and didn’t think too much about it. When we returned from our vacation in September, Philharmonic Executive Director Zarin Mehta met with the tour committee and informed us that he was indeed considering a concert in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and that he had been in contact with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill about the potential trip. Ambassador Hill was an old friend of the Philharmonic from our previous trips to South Korea, when he had served as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. He was now serving as the head of the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. Ambassador Hill felt that progress was being made with North Korea and that the time was right to have some type of cultural exchange to help warm up relations.
Zarin decided to make an exploratory trip to Pyongyang in October. He was accompanied by tour committee member Fiona Simon, Director of Public Relations Eric Latzky, Operations Coordinator Brendan Timins, and TravTours President Guido Frakers. After they returned from their trip with a positive outlook on the potential concert, it was time to discuss it with the orchestra, which was still in the dark due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The announcement was met with a combination of shock, horror, dread, and amusement. How could we even consider a trip to a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world? What about the safety of our many South Korean colleagues? Wouldn’t Kim Jong-il use this concert as propaganda to help boost his own deadly and corrupt regime? The Philharmonic played in the Soviet Union in 1959, and the Philadelphia Orchestra made a groundbreaking trip to China in 1973; but U.S. presidents had previously visited those countries, and dialogues had already begun. Somehow, this felt very different and much more distasteful. The questions went on and on, and Zarin seemed to be caught off guard by the orchestra’s concerns. Christopher Hill agreed to speak with the orchestra, and the larger issues were put on hold until Ambassador Hill could meet with us a couple of weeks later. Frankly, many orchestra members were suspicious of Hill because of the political nature of his position, but he immediately won the orchestra over with his candor and common sense.
There were still doubts in many of our minds about the concert, but the decision was made to tag on an extra two days to our scheduled China tour in February. We had only three months to put all the details together. The orchestra made it clear that, as a condition of our performance in Pyongyang, we would have to be able to meet with local students and musicians, and the concert would have to be broadcast on television and radio within North Korea. Only 1,500 of the party elite would be able to fit into the East Pyongyang Grand Theater. Though we had no control over who would be invited to the concert, we did insist on opening up the dress rehearsal to students, musicians and teachers. We were also able to set up master classes at the music school and joint chamber music sessions with North Korean musicians.
The final issue to be settled was the flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. The North Korean airline, Koryo, was considered too unsafe for the orchestra, so we had to find a respectable charter. In January, Zarin made a final trip to China, Pyongyang, and Seoul. He was able to secure an Asiana Airlines 747 for the approximately 280 orchestra members, guests, and press for the trip. The back half of the plane would be used to transport our cargo. In exchange for the use of the plane, we added another concert at the end of the tour, this one in Seoul, for the benefit of Asiana Airlines.
With less than one month left before our departure for Taiwan, the North Korea trip was finally official, and the staff worked nearly around the clock making preparations. Amazingly, the North Korean government gave in to every request from the orchestra to accommodate our needs. They wanted this concert to happen and seemingly would do anything to make it work. Food would be flown in from China and Japan; temperature-controlled trucks would be allowed in from South Korea to transport our instruments from the airport to the hall; extra heating oil would be brought in to make sure that the gigantic and normally empty Yanggakdo Hotel would be heated; and generators would supply backup electricity in the event of one of their frequent power failures. Special equipment would even be brought in to service our aircraft, as no 747 had ever landed in Pyongyang before.
We boarded our chartered flight from Beijing to Pyongyang on February 26, after spending five nights in Shanghai and two in Beijing. The full impact of what we were facing didn’t really hit us until our 747 landed at the Pyongyang airport, and we caught a glimpse of the giant red letters spelling “Pyongyang” on top of the terminal—next to the huge portrait of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who is still president of the DPRK despite having died in 1994.
Under a light snowfall, the tarmac was filled with local and international press, and our plane also carried a large international press contingent to cover our arrival. As we walked down the ramp onto the tarmac, our cameras were aimed at the press on the ground and at the Pyongyang terminal with the huge smiling portrait of the Great Leader. Camera shutters blazed away, recording our musical D-Day invasion as the throngs merged. Orchestra members posed for a few group photos in front of the terminal, and then we were ushered onto buses to take us to the Yanggakdo Hotel.
The mood was more subdued on the dreary 45-minute ride to the hotel. We were introduced to some of our “minders,” who rarely left our sides except when we were alone in our hotel rooms or performing on stage. The minders told us that their purpose was to make our trip as enjoyable as possible, but we knew that their real purpose was to make sure that we would not have unsupervised contact with the locals or do anything objectionable. To make sure that the minders were doing their jobs, there were also minders for the minders—usually stone-faced non-English speakers.
All of the rooms in the hotel were stiflingly hot, with the heat blasting on high and the windows sealed shut. The North Koreans wanted to impress us with how well they could heat a building, but we had a horrible feeling it was at the expense of ordinary citizens who rarely had enough heat. I turned off the heat and cracked open the window. We had just enough time to drop off our bags before being shuttled to a performance of the Pyongyang Performing Arts Troupe, which was followed by a huge 19-course dinner banquet at the People’s Palace of Culture. Everything was so over the top that guilt and shame made it hard to appreciate the kind gesture and honor they extended. While there was enough food for a group ten times our size, millions of North Koreans faced starvation. We settled into our assigned tables, where my family met the four grim-looking minders who were assigned to us. (My wife and her parents came on the tour, along with many other guests.) It had all the markings of a long, agonizing evening until Ryu, one of the English-speaking minders, picked up his glass of Insamsul, a fiery liquor made with ginseng, and said, “Mud in your eye!” We burst out laughing, and after we all had a few glasses of Insamsul, even the robotic minders’ minders were smiling and having a good time.
Politics was not to be discussed, but we talked about families. We admired the pins of the Great Leader (which all citizens over age 17 were required to wear over their hearts) and learned that there were at least 12 styles of them. My wife, Lyn, was asked what she did for a living, and she replied, “psychotherapist.” The minders got excited because they thought she said “Secret Service”—but judging by the blank stares while she explained the role of a psychotherapist, she should have stuck with “Secret Service.” Ryu had worked with Madeleine Albright when she brought a delegation in 2000, but the other three minders had never really had a chance to sit down and chat with Americans before. One of the English-speaking minders, Gyong, was getting quite chummy with my father-in-law. Near the end of the long dinner, and after a lot of good laughs, one of the hard-core minders told us (through Ryu) that even though the day before we were all sworn enemies, today we are brothers and sisters. It was the first time during the trip that I was deeply moved. At the end of the evening, we gave each other slightly inebriated hugs and said goodnight. I wasn’t sure I understood what had just transpired, but I think we all surprised ourselves at how much we enjoyed each other’s company. We went back up to our rooms where the windows had again been sealed shut and the heat was blasting on high.
The next morning, after an outrageous and over-the-top breakfast buffet, we had a rehearsal in full dress for the cameras at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater. Driving through town to the hall, we passed many highly stylized posters of happy North Korean workers, soldiers, children, and, of course, the Great Leader and his son Kim Jong-il (the current head of the DPRK, known as the Dear Leader). We were told that most of the anti-U.S. posters had been taken down for our trip, but near the hall there was one large poster of a giant fist crushing an American soldier. The rehearsal was supposed to be open only to students and musicians, but it seemed to be used as another concert for the slightly less elite who couldn’t secure one of the 1,500 seats for the evening concert. After the rehearsal we met with some students and gave them gifts of strings and rosin that were generously provided by the D’Addario Company as well as woodwind and brass equipment donated by orchestra members. We also presented the students with a huge stack of orchestral scores donated by Countess Yoko Nagae Ceschina, a devoted Philharmonic patron who provided most of the funding for the trip.
Between the rehearsal and concert, some orchestra members gave master classes at the conservatory, and there was a chamber music performance with local musicians. The level of playing was very high, but little personal interaction was allowed. For the rest of the orchestra, a tour was offered of the unbelievably boring Korean Central History Museum, but it was the only opportunity to get out of the hotel and see glimpses of the town outside the bus window. (The Yanggakdo Hotel is on a conveniently isolated island, and we were told that it was highly inadvisable to walk off the island. Some managed anyway, but one of our colleagues was turned back by two machine gun-toting guards.) At the museum, our guide suggested that we all bow to a statue of the Great Leader in the entry hall, but she had to settle for a solo bow.
It was finally time for our 6PM concert. Before our trip, the orchestra had a long discussion concerning our displeasure at the thought of standing for Kim Jong-il, should he decide to attend. We decided that the best way to handle it would be to make a group entrance and remain standing to play the North Korean and U.S. anthems. That way, the Dear Leader would be forced to stand for us. First we played the North Korean anthem and then the “Star Spangled Banner.” Flags of both countries were on the stage, and the audience stood throughout. The Dear Leader did us all the favor of staying home, presumably to watch it on television. The Philharmonic has played the “Star Spangled Banner” in China, East Germany, and the Soviet Union, but this time my hair really stood on end. I could not believe we were actually playing our national anthem in North Korea. Afterwards, audience members sat down as politely as they had stood, and a very passionate North Korean hostess in traditional dress introduced the official program. The concert was performed without intermission and consisted of Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with encores of Bizet’s Farandole, Bernstein’s Candide Overture (performed without conductor, as we always have since Bernstein’s death), and “Arirang,” a traditional folksong much beloved in both Koreas. The televised show was broadcast live in both North and South Korea and shown worldwide on a tape delay. It was also available live on the Internet for those who were awake and curious.
The orchestra played beautifully. At least in the beginning, though, there was nothing really remarkable about the concert (other than the fact that it was happening at all). The audience applauded politely but sat emotionless through the Dvorak and the Gershwin. There were few smiles and no toe tapping. They seemed to liven up for the encores and appreciated our conductorless Candide. But something magical happened when we played “Arirang.” I noticed that, for the first time, the audience was really reacting, and I noticed a few people wiping tears from their eyes. I was moved by seeing this and enjoyed the repetitive beauty of the folksong. The applause was thunderous after “Arirang,” and the standing ovation lasted five minutes or so. Lorin Maazel eventually took Concertmaster Glenn Dicterow’s hand and led him off stage, and we all began to follow.
The audience was just not ready to let us go. The applause kept growing louder and louder until we had no choice but to turn around and come back on stage. Then something really remarkable happened: this audience of 1,500 of the DPRK’s most elite Communist Party members lost control, and they were really enjoying it. They waved and shouted at us with tears in their eyes, and we looked at each other on stage, stunned, and waved back. Most of us were getting teary-eyed, too. We just stood there and waved back and forth for a few minutes. I couldn’t help thinking about how, not too far away, North Korean and U.S. soldiers were pointing guns at each other across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), while here we were crying and waving to each other across a concert stage. And then I really lost it.
Back to the Yanggakdo Hotel for an over-the-top celebratory dinner banquet. Tonight it had been reduced to only 16 courses. We were all really drained from this incredible day, and dinner ended slightly early so we could get back up to our rooms, unseal the windows, turn off the heat and get some sleep.
There was another over-the-top breakfast buffet before our afternoon departure for Seoul. We had some time to hit the hotel’s souvenir shop with its large selection of English-language books, most of which were purportedly written by the Great and Dear Leaders. By far the most popular title was The U.S. Imperialists Started the Korean War. It felt strange to purchase this from the kindly matronly cashier. After that, I visited the hotel’s small grocery store. The young woman at the register clapped her hands and said, “Viola!” I was astonished—even our music director doesn’t know who I am. Much of the press went with Maestro Maazel as he led a rehearsal of the State Symphony Orchestra of the DPRK. They played the Prelude to Die Meistersinger and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. He was astonished at their high level of playing, especially knowing that Western music is considered “morally corrupt” in the DPRK.
The majority of the orchestra checked out of their rooms and were taken to the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace for the final event of our North Korean adventure: a performance of some of North Korea’s most talented young musicians, dancers, and singers, aged 7–14. They could not have been more astonishing. The precision and artistry were beyond belief. As moving and incredible as the performances were, we had to wonder what kind of lives they lived, and what would become of the talented kids who don’t make the cut to attend the programs at this school. An eight-year-old flutist, Kim Jon Ri, blew us all away with her virtuosity on a traditional wooden flute. A chorus of tiny girls sang an adorable rendition of “Clementine” and “Jingle Bells,” with a gangbusters finale of “We Are Faithful Only to General Kim Jong-il” (which included gymnastics). That last one went over especially well with the large contingent of minders and children who were in the audience, and we clapped a bit uncomfortably. As we left the theater for our bus ride to the airport, the children in the audience were very hesitant to make eye contact with us as we said goodbye.
When we arrived at the tarmac of the Pyongyang airport, it seemed less imposing than it had two days earlier. It was a sunny day, and we were now used to all of the press around us. My family and I spent our final moments saying goodbye to our favorite minders, who were clearly upset to see us go. There were no exchanges of e-mail addresses, because North Koreans are not allowed Internet access. I gave Gyong a big hug, and he had tears in his eyes. I told him he was a good friend and I hoped to see him again soon, maybe even in New York. He gave a good laugh at that, knowing it was impossible. The plane was about to leave, so we gave Ryu hurried hugs and exchanged hopes of reconnecting soon. A final goodbye wave before walking onto our Asiana 747, and our whirlwind trip to North Korea was over.
Once in the air for the short flight to Seoul (made slightly longer by the need to fly over the ocean to avoid the Korean DMZ), we were able to catch up on the news that was being streamed on the televisions. We knew that our concert was a big media event, but were amazed to see that it was the lead story everywhere. When we arrived in Seoul, we tore through all of the newspapers to catch up on the news we missed by being in the center of it. Much of the media coverage before our trip was negative, suggesting that we were being used by Kim Jong-il. Right before our trip, the New York Post headline, “New York Foolharmonic,” was only made worse by Maestro Maazel’s unfortunate remarks that the U.S. was in no position to criticize North Korea because of our own human rights abuses. Now with the North Korea concert behind us, even many of the most skeptical members of the orchestra felt that the trip had gone very well, and it was entertaining to read the reactions of pundits in Washington and the press. The White House and State Department had distanced themselves from the event, and no active high-level U.S. government official attended the concert. Perhaps it was out of a desire to maintain a hard-line stance against North Korea, or perhaps the reason was revealed in the State Department response to Condoleezza Rice’s invitation to the concert: “We regret to inform you that Secretary Rice will not be able to attend your concert in Pyongyang, China.” She was in Seoul the day before the concert for the inauguration of the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.
The question remains whether the concert was a “success.” If success is measured in immediate de-nuclearization or regime change (theirs, not ours), the concert is unlikely to be hailed as successful. But those of us who were in Pyongyang know that, at least for a brief moment, we pried open even the hardest of hearts and touched a group of people in a way that no politician or soldier can dream of. In the process, many of us returned forever changed, reminded that music and the arts, along with the freedom to express them, are perhaps the greatest gifts we possess.
Kenneth Mirkin joined the New York Philharmonic as a violist in 1982. He has served on that orchestra’s negotiating, orchestra, tour, and pension committees for as long as he can remember. He currently serves as the Philharmonic’s ICSOM delegate.