02/20/2008 05:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cultural Diplomacy: New York Philharmonic Heads to Pyongyang

On Thursday the New York Philharmonic heads to Pyongyang, notwithstanding the strained diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. Hopefully, cultural diplomacy will offer new inroads where traditional diplomacy has failed, and eventually lead to restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The United States and North Korea have maintained a fractious relationship - even hostile at times - since the peninsula divided more than fifty years ago. In the aftermath of the Korean War and the armistice that concluded in 1953, the United States placed troops along the demilitarized zone (DMZ), in the event that the North again attempted to invade the South. Over the years, the United States and North Korea have engaged in skirmishes. The nuclear issue remains the bone of contention.

In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, the president signaled a shift in the U.S. position toward North Korea when he declared, "We must prevent the terrorists and regimes who seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from threatening the United States and the world. ... I will not wait on events while dangers gather." North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, was now designated one of three countries constituting an "axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world."

Cultural diplomacy is described as the domain of diplomacy concerned with establishing, developing and sustaining relations with foreign states by way of culture, art and education. It is also a proactive process of external projection in which a nation's institutions, value systems and unique cultural personality are promoted at a bilateral and multilateral level.

The New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang is the first major cultural visit by Americans to North Korea, but is not the first of its kind. In 1956, the Boston Symphony made history as the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. In 1959, the New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, traveled to the Soviet Union. In 1973, following President Nixon's visit, the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China. The State Department has endorsed the trip as a potential opening for North Korea toward the outside world.

The orchestra will play at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, performing Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World"), Gershwin's "American in Paris" and the Prelude to Act III of Wagner's "Lohengrin".

The Philharmonic's visit is not without its critics but, given the alternatives, it is worthwhile to explore all options.