NY Philharmonic concert in North Korea

February 4, 2008 7:42:43 AM PST
Her mother's town was briefly occupied by North Korea. Her father survived the communists during the Korean War by hiding in the mountains.

So when the New York Philharmonic decided to accept an invitation to perform in the reclusive country that was a charter member of President Bush's "Axis of Evil," violinist Lisa Kim had grave doubts about going. She said she initially wanted to know if she had the right to stay home. She later decided to go.

"It just kind of feels that the stuff that happened in the past or what's going on there makes you feel uncomfortable," she said in a telephone interview.

The 106-member orchestra is leaving Thursday for a three-week Asian tour that culminates in a historic concert in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Feb. 26. The Philharmonic will spend two days in the North, a visit by an American cultural organization unprecedented since the Korean peninsula was divided in 1948.

Word of the trip came after Kim Jong Il's Stalinist government agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. The visit has elicited hopeful comparisons to the 1970s pingpong diplomacy era that led to the restoration of U.S.-China relations after a 2½-decade freeze. But it also drew criticism from those pointing to the millions of North Koreans facing starvation or imprisonment.

Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel rejects such assertions, noting that he had conducted concerts in Brezhnev's Russia, Salazar's Portugal and Franco's Spain.

"I thought I was making music and stretching out a welcoming hand to the folks who might not have been believers of the regime under which they were living. I feel this way certainly about North Korea," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Besides, he added, "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks, should they? Is our standing as a country - the United States - is our reputation all that clean when it comes to prisoners and the way they are treated? Have we set an example that should be emulated all over the world? If we can answer that question honestly, I think we can then stop being judgmental about the errors made by others."

Lisa Kim, who has been with the Philharmonic for 13 years and is associate principal second violin, was torn about the trip.

"It is exciting but it's a highly uneasy feeling at the same time," she said.

Kim, 37, was born in Raleigh, N.C., when her father was getting his Ph.D. there in material sciences. When she was 5, the family moved back to South Korea, where her father did scientific research for the government.

Years earlier, her parents suffered through the Korean War. Her mother had to hide in the face of a North Korean attack on her fishing village.

"There were bombings and people were dropping dead right next to her," Kim said. Her mother's family of six got separated for a month.

Lisa's father was in the army and was wounded during the war - she wouldn't say how. "He was hiding for a month and a half in the mountains, eating ... radishes from the ground," she said.

As word of the orchestra trip surfaced, Kim had a family meeting with her parents, who are retired and live in the United States. Her mother considered going as a guest, but not her father.

"My father actually is very resentful," she said. "He feels like we are doing a favor for Kim Jong Il rather than us trying to do something about it - sort of falling into his trap, because he doesn't believe that Kim Jong Il is going to change or do anything for the goodness of human nature. I think it's because he went through horrible things during the Korean War."

She said she decided to go after the orchestra was briefed by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy to the Korean nuclear talks. He spoke of the need to reach out to the North.

"He actually changed my mind. He was very clear and good in explaining the purpose," she said. "It made sense. I thought somebody's got to do something, culturally at least."

Still her doubts linger.

"I know the gesture has to do with opening the doors and trying to bring out more of the relations in a more harmonious way, but it still has nothing to do with us reaching out to people yet," she said. "We could be just enhancing the way the North Korean government would have the world see them - that they are willing to open. In the meantime, it's not really that they are doing that."

Some other Philharmonic musicians also felt conflicted, but seized on the idea that the trip is a chance to open up a repressive regime.

"We're not going there politically," said assistant concertmaster Michelle Kim, whose father was born in the north. "Human rights are the most important thing in this world. Yes, it bothers me, of course. ... It's very hard for me to elaborate on that right now because I'm trying to go there in a positive light. And I'd like to make it peaceful and to offer them my love of music."

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