Orchestral manoeuvres

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

After the exhilaration of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's one-night stand in Pyongyang, there is the inevitable letdown. In this case, the high of the concert was followed by a morning-after low; a feeling that nothing much has changed when it comes to North Korea's nuclear weaponry.

The fact that 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il did not condescend to join the handpicked elite in the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre no doubt reflected his own displeasure with the American response to his demands of 'action for action' before the North fulfils the terms of last year's agreements to give up its nuclear weapons.

The process of ending North Korea's nuclear programme is now at a stalemate again, and Pyongyang insists on a major concession from the US before completing the disablement of its Yongbyon nuclear complex, much less coming through with a list of everything in its nuclear inventory. Although the US has agreed to ship in another 50,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, the North wants more, notably removal from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism.

It's not clear whether, when Mr Kim invited the Philharmonic to Pyongyang last summer, either the Americans or the North Koreans had anticipated that North Korea would no longer be on the way to abiding by the terms of the six-nation agreement of February 13 last year.

North Korean technicians had begun the intricate task of shutting down the facilities at Yongbyon, with American experts looking on. Then, while Roh Moo-hyun - in his final months as president of South Korea - was in Pyongyang for a summit with Mr Kim in early October, North Korea signed on to another six-nation timetable. In that, it agreed to provide details not only of all its nuclear programme, but also of its dealings with Iran, Syria and other clients for nuclear technology and missiles.

But, as has happened with almost predictable regularity ever since the Korean war ended in an armed truce in July 1953, disillusionment set in. It became clear that North Korea was stalling; first, on the timetable and, then, on the disablement of the Yongbyon facilities. The New York Philharmonic performance, far from being a celebration of fulfilment of the nuclear agreement, has provided a great chance for North Korea to publicise its demands - while inviting selected journalists to look at what it has done so far to stop the programme at Yongbyon.

The whole occasion would have been much more of a success for Mr Kim if only US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had gone to Pyongyang. With Dr Rice at his side, Mr Kim would, of course, have shown up in the concert hall - just as he did in October 2000 with Madeleine Albright, then secretary of state, beside him at a mass propaganda display before more than 100,000 people in the May First Stadium.

Mr Kim must have selected the date for the Pyongyang concert far in advance, with full knowledge that it was the day after the inauguration of a new South Korean president, the conservative Lee Myung-bak. The concert would strip the inauguration of some of its lustre and also fall right into the schedule of the top US representative at the inauguration. Until the State Department made it clear that Dr Rice had no intention of going to Pyongyang, rumours were rife in Seoul that she would stop over on her way to Beijing.

The Bush administration, in the transition from confrontation to engagement with North Korea, has gone a long way in extending the discussions with North Korea in the off-again, on-again talks. There was no way, however, that Dr Rice could consider a stop-off for the concert in Pyongyang after the new South Korean president, in his inaugural address, promised to 'further strengthen friendly relations' with the US while holding out the lure of generous aid to North Korea only if it 'abandons its nuclear programme and chooses the path to openness'.

True, Mr Lee agreed with Dr Rice on the need to pursue six-nation talks on getting the North to finally give up its nuclear weapons. However, his address sets the stage for a new chapter in the up-and-down history of dealings with North Korea. The New York Philharmonic concert may suggest the type of goodwill that could eventually overcome the barriers to reconciliation between the US and North Korea, and also between the US and South Korea. But no one should be lulled into viewing it as more than that.

Mr Kim was not the only person missing. No other top North Korean official showed up. Sitting beside the former US defence secretary, William Perry, who had visited Pyongyang as then-president Bill Clinton's emissary in the 1990s, was the head of American affairs in the North Korean foreign ministry and deputy leader of the North Korean team at the six-party talks. The chief North Korean nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, was not there. It's a safe bet, however, that Kim Jong-il and his highest aides were watching on their own television network as the US and North Korean flags hung on opposite sides of the stage and the orchestra played The Star-Spangled Banner.

If they saw the Americans as having come to pay homage, they were also expecting concessions that neither the US nor the new South Korean leader are ready to make.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals