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North Korea: No killing devices, exciters and poison, please

February 26, 2008

By Jon Herskovitz, on the road with the New York Philharmonic

Welcome to North Korea. Do you have any killing devices?

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I do not, but North Koreans certainly want to know. It’s on the customs form. Visitors to one of the world’s most isolated states are asked to tick a box if they are carrying: weapons, ammunition, explosives, and killing devices. Other no-nos include “exciters” and poison.

Oh yes, and mobile phones. Your mobile phone is collected before stepping on the plane to North Korea and returned once you’ve left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North prefers to call itself. That rule puts visitors on an equal footing with locals for most of whom these are also illicit possessions.

maazel-at-plane.JPGAlso, please do not bring in “historical or cultural wealth”. I wonder if anybody in the New York Philharmonic checked that box?

Arriving at Pyongyang airport is chaotic. People stepping off the 747 that took about 350 people from Beijing to Pyongyang were more interested in snapping photos than forming orderly groups. North Korean minders searched through the crowd to try to find the people they were assigned to look after for the next few days. The orchestra eventually posed for a group picture in front of the plane. Ten minutes should have been enough to arrange it. In the end, it took almost an hour.

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By the way, North Korean officials never did take our declaration cards.

We were herded into buses waiting on the tarmac to take us to Pyongyang’s five-star hotel for foreigners, the Yangakkdo. But they are tiny, tiny stars. It is clean but ageing fast, stately but poorly lit. Staff are courteous but keep a close eye on what the foreign guests are up to. After all, North Korea receives top ratings for being a paranoid state.

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Welcome to the land of Juche, a concept which focuses on self-reliance. Analysts say the government long ago gave up trying to convince its masses that it is an economic power. Instead, they say, its official media portrays the state as the dignified keepers of true Korean culture. That is a sentiment which comes through loud and clear when the New York Philharmonic and its entourage visit a performance of traditional Korean song and dance.

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An announcer tells the crowd that the performance expresses the beauty and noble sentiment of the Korean people.  The performances were wonderful, with many orchestra members singing their praises. But they also had an other-worldliness to them. The staging looks more suited to a 1950s Technicolor musical from Hollywood. Performers wear traditional garb of vibrant colours. With their heads tilted upwards, the performers wore fixed smiles, their gaze focused at points well above the audience.

Isolated and poor, North Korea must make do with what it has. Musicians play ageing instruments. The marble floors of the grand entrance foyers of the concert hall appear to be made from a type of plastic.

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Juche, or self-reliance, slogans are everywhere in the city. The Tower of the Juche Ideal is one of the few structures lit at night and written in big, red neon letters outside the hall where North Korean officials host a banquet for the Philharmonic. The slogan? “Long Live the Juche Ideal”, of course.      

Jon Herskovitz is a Reuters correspondent based in Seoul.

Pictures from top: North Korean soldiers look on as members of the New York Philharmonic pose for a group photograph after arriving in Pyongyang. Lorin Maazel (L), Music Director, talks with the media. Members of the New York Philharmonic pose for a group photograph. A woman carries a guitar as she rides on the back of a bicycle across a field on the outskirts of Pyongyang. North Korean performers at the show at the Mansudae Art Theatre in Pyongyang. Photos by David Gray/ Reuters

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