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Originally published Tuesday, February 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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A turning point for the Koreas?

The Korean peninsula reached a kind of turning point this week, with the inauguration on Monday of conservative former business leader Lee...

The Christian Science Monitor

SEOUL, South Korea — The Korean peninsula reached a kind of turning point this week, with the inauguration on Monday of conservative former business leader Lee Myung-bak as president of South Korea and the historic performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra today in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

With Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visiting Seoul, both events are being watched for their impact on the stalled agreement to end North Korea's nuclear program, and for indications about the future of the divided countries.

After attending the inauguration here, Rice flew to Beijing and Tokyo. She will prod leaders in all three capitals to move swiftly to get North Korea to fulfill its promise to reveal all its nuclear activities, including its nuclear inventory and its dealings with countries such as Iran and Syria.

Despite North Korea's apparent foot-dragging on a six-country agreement signed last year to dismantle nuclear facilities, many analysts believe other parties' attitudes toward the North are changing. With increased regional economic interdependence, the South has pressed for reconciliation while engagement has replaced confrontation in U.S. policy.

"The U.S.-Korean relationship is founded on a set of assumptions based largely on the Cold War," says Stephen Bosworth, a former U.S. ambassador to Korea. "That has changed profoundly. We must take into account new realities in Asia."

Bosworth, now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., cites "a set of connections on a regional basis," notably "economic interconnectedness," and also questions whether the U.S. will need to keep troops permanently based in South Korea.

South Korea's attitude toward North Korea has softened as well. Far from viewing the North as a threat, Bosworth continues, the "predominant view" is that the North "is an object of charity."

That outlook is likely to pervade the policy of Lee Myung-bak as he attempts to make good on campaign promises to triple the average income of North Koreans while also talking tougher than his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, whom he has criticized for demanding very little in return for aid provided the North.

Lee — the former mayor of Seoul and, 30 years ago, chairman of Hyundai Engineering and Construction, then Korea's biggest builder — sees North Korea as falling within the embrace of his "economy first" policy. North Korea, he believes, could grow economically with an "open-door" policy in which foreign enterprise were welcomed.

Lee's desire to implement his own view on North Korea helps explain why Rice has said it would not be "useful at this time" for her to make a dramatic flight to Pyongyang after the inauguration. Wary of upsetting the new president, Rice may prefer first to sound him out — and help arrange a meeting with President Bush at the White House in the spring.

Most analysts aren't optimistic about North Korea's increasing its cooperation as a result of the goodwill engendered by the performance of the Philharmonic, which began its tour in China and is to appear in Seoul after Pyongyang.

The Philharmonic is the first major American cultural group to visit the isolated communist nation and the largest-ever delegation from the U.S. to visit its longtime foe.

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The 106-member orchestra was to play a concert today that will be broadcast on state-run radio and TV, in a nation where the U.S. is the target of daily condemnation. The national anthems of both countries will be played, followed by a program featuring Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony" and George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

A stern-faced border guard checked Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel's passport when the orchestra arrived at the Pyongyang airport aboard a chartered 747 jet from Beijing.

In a welcoming ceremony at the 500-seat Mansudae Art Theater, North Korean performers played traditional instruments and sang about their country's natural beauty. Only the last number was overtly political: A woman dressed as a guerrilla and brandishing a red scarf performed a dance dramatizing Korean resistance to Japan's colonial occupation before World War II, which according to North Korean official history was led by late founding ruler Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il.

Michelle Kim, the South Korean-born assistant concertmaster of the Philharmonic, said the North Koreans' performance featured traditional elements familiar to all Koreans.

"As I was listening to the concert, I didn't think of it as North Korean or South Korean but just Koreans," said Kim, a naturalized American citizen.

This is by far the largest delegation of Americans to visit Pyongyang since the Korean War. During the last year of the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited. High-ranking officials of the Bush administration have declined because of continuing concerns about weapons of mass destruction and human rights.

North Korea remains on a blacklist of terror-supporting nations, although the Bush administration has promised to remove it in return for progress in dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

The occasion is certain to generate a chorus of diplomatic chatter. Many hope it will move the U.S. closer to removing North Korea from the State Department's list of nations sponsoring terrorism.

Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and chairman of the Korea Society, an influential organization that functions with South Korean government support, is among the guests.

The list also includes Evans Revere, formerly second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Seoul, who succeeded Gregg as president of the Korea Society; and William Perry, who was secretary of defense under President Clinton.

Yet another guest was the chair of the Hyundai Group, Hyun Jeong-eun, widow of Chung Mong-hun, who led the group until his suicide in 2003 amid revelations of his role in passing about $500 million to North Korea to bring about the North-South summit of June 2000.

Hyundai Asan, one of the major companies in the group, is responsible for building the Mount Kumgang tourist complex and the Kaesong industrial zone north of the border.

Hyun's presence underlines the economic aspect of North-South reconciliation. "I am moved to go to Pyongyang and see the New York Philharmonic perform," she said.

"I hope that in the future relations between the two Koreas will create harmony that is like the beautiful harmony that is characteristic of the world-famous New York Philharmonic," she added.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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