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Dvorak Diplomacy

Today, the New York Philharmonic arrived in Pyongyang, the cold and barren capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The orchestra will perform a concert tomorrow, and Lorin Maazel, its music director, hopes to make a “tiny contribution” to warming up America’s relations with the world’s most repugnant state. “I am a musician and not a politician, but music has always been an arena or area where people can make contact.”

Contact? The hope in the West is that increased contact, starting with the Phil’s visit, will open up North Korea, the world’s most isolated nation. Many argue that friendly relations will weaken the regime, which has been built on hostility to the United States. “I don’t see why Kim is doing it,” says Andrei Lankov, a longtime observer of the Kimist state. “If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.”

So why did North Korea’s leader invite America’s premier orchestra to play in his capital? The answer may be found in Seoul, the capital of the better version of Korea. South Korea today inaugurated its 17th president, Lee Myung-bak. The conservative Lee looks set to reverse a decade of the Sunshine Policy of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. Lee has already set a new tone in Seoul by signaling that he will condition major assistance to North Korea on adherence to its commitment to give up its atomic bombs. Since the beginning of this year Pyongyang has failed to provide a promised declaration of its nuclear weapons programs, and, as a result, the international community has slowed aid deliveries.

There are signs that the North is headed toward another economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il is undoubtedly looking for new sources of assistance. The North Korean government has stockpiled at least six months’ worth of fuel and other supplies, so it can last through the year. Although it’s unlikely that Beijing would let the regime fall, Kim does not either trust or like the Chinese and would prefer to find other sources of support, especially because multiple benefactors would allow him to play one off against the others, as his father so skillfully did during the Cold War.

The risk is that the United States will fall for the euphoria surrounding the New York Phil’s visit, which has the blessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea,” said Condoleezza Rice, who attended Lee’s inauguration. I agree, but her recent Korean policy has been marked by unimaginative strategy, humiliating moments, and unseemly compromises. Kim is a grandmaster of tactics, and if there will be any victim of “Dvorak Diplomacy,” it may be us, not him.


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