North Korean and French orchestras perform rare concert

A North Korean and a French orchestra performed a landmark concert on Wednesday, adding a note of harmony to long-standing tensions between the isolated nation and the West.
Directed by South Korean conductor Chung Myung-whun, members of North Korea's Unhasu Orchestra joined the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra for a landmark performance in Paris on Wednesday. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

A North Korean and a French orchestra performed a landmark concert on Wednesday, adding a note of harmony to long-standing tensions between the isolated nation and the West.   

Under the baton of noted South Korean conductor Chung Myung-Whun, North Korea's Unhasu Orchestra and Radio France Philharmonic played to a packed house at Paris' Salle Pleyel music hall.   

"We are witnessing a historical moment that I hope will not be an isolated event," Radio France's first violinist Svetlin Roussev said before the concert opened, crediting "Maestro Chung" for making the joint concert possible.   

Chung was born in the South but his mother was from North Korea, making the concert a musical bridge toward reconciliation of a divided people.   

"For now, this is an experience lived through our hearts with the music expressing our feelings, our emotions," Roussev said, adding optimistically, "This could be the first stone to build on towards something that could be immense, for history and the world."   

Tense relations show signs of improving

Korea was split at the end of World War II into the communist North and the U.S.-backed South. The two sides fought a three-year war that ended in a truce in 1953 but has left the Korean Peninsula divided by a heavily fortified border.   

Relations between North Korea and the U.S. and its allies have been tense over the years, particularly over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. North Korea has tested two atomic devices in the past six years.   

France is among Western nations that do not have official diplomatic ties with North Korea, although it opened an office in the capital Pyongyang in 2011 to foster cultural exchanges.   

South Korean conductor Chung Myung-whun, seen at the final rehearsal before Wednesday night's concert, made the joint North Korean-French concert possible. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

There have been other signs of improving relations between North Korea and Western nations.   

In late February, the United States and North Korea announced an agreement that calls for Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities in exchange for food aid. Days later, a senior North Korean nuclear envoy traveled to the U.S. to attend a university forum.   

Most of the 90 North Koreans musicians — many under age 30 — were performing with a Western ensemble for the first time. Earlier in the week, they had the chance to do some sightseeing, including a visit to Versailles Palace, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.   

Roussev said that exchanges during the four rehearsals were about typical subjects — fatigue from jet lag, the weather, the beauty of Paris but "no sensitive issues yet."   

Roussev hoped for more substantive conversation at the dinner following the concert, but said the North Koreans are "well supervised and quite reserved even if the barriers are falling."   

Kwon Hyok Bong, a musical adviser who is leading the North Korean delegation, said he believed the collaboration would boost ties between France and North Korea.   

"It's the first time for musicians from our two countries, [North] Korea and France, to be performing a joint concert together," he told reporters. "I believe it's a historical event that will improve bilateral relations between our two countries."   

Chung, meanwhile, hoped to also bridge the north-south divide on the Korean peninsula.   

He opened the concert with a traditional Korean song and closed it with another, Arirang, a piece that he said earlier this week "not one single Korean ... would not know." He dedicated it to his mother.