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S. Korean maestro leaves for Pyongyang on music projects

BEIJING (Yonhap News) – A renowned South Korean orchestra conductor headed to North Korea on Monday to discuss cultural exchanges between the two Koreas in what could be another sign of a thaw in inter-Korean relations.

Chung Myung-whun, who leads the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and doubles as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, got on a Pyongyang-bound flight at Seowudu Airport in Beijing at 1:20 p.m. (local time) along with two senior Seoul orchestra officials.

"I am very pleased to visit North Korea and hope to meet North Korean musicians," Chung told reporters before leaving the airport. "As an individual and a musician, I hope two Koreas could get closer to each other more naturally."

Chung is expected to discuss a variety of cultural exchange programs with North Korean officials.

His visit comes as Seoul moves to improve ties with Pyongyang. Last week, the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean relations, allowed a Buddhist delegation to visit Pyongyang for a joint Buddhist service.

The 59-year-old Chung earlier had said in Seoul that he believes inter-Korean art projects could help ease strained relations between the two nations.

"I hope this visit could result in good projects," he added.

In 2006, the world-renowned musician was invited to participate in a peace concert in North Korea as a conductor, but the concert was called off after the communist state conducted a nuclear test that year.

Relations between the two Koreas have been tense since President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a pledge to link aid to the impoverished neighbor to progress in efforts to end its nuclear programs. The already-frayed ties plunged to the lowest level in decades after the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year.


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