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In concert in North Korea

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

Editor's note:  Ian Williams is in North Korea covering the New York Philharmonic's historic concert. Click here to view a related slideshow.

Ian Williams, CorrespondentThere was a first note of discord in the concert hall today – over flags.

"They seem to have short-changed us," said a grim-faced official with the New York Philharmonic, as he hauled down the Stars and Stripes. "There was discussion over flag size, and we wanted the flags to be the same size. So we're changing it."

So up went a new, bigger flag.

It had happened during rehearsals this morning, which were more like a full show, since the hall was packed. Yet nobody I spoke to could tell me who the audience was. The orchestra had expected a few students, but they looked like officials. As one member of the orchestra quipped to me, it might be tonight's audience having their own rehearsal.

They did seem to appreciate the humor of the Philharmonic's Director, Lorin Maazel. After introducing Gershwin's "An American in Paris," he said: "Perhaps some day a composer will write a composition called 'An American in Pyongyang."

After the rehearsal I returned to our hotel, the Yanggakdo, a monstrous 42-story building in an island in the Taedong River, which runs through the City. It has been affectionately dubbed "Alcatraz."

Not all the floors are used and if you hit the wrong elevator button you find yourself stepping out into a freezing dark hallway of one of the mothballed floors. With a few minutes to spare, I made for the bookstore, where the majority of publications contain the thoughts and writings of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung or his son Kim Jong Il, otherwise known as the Dear Leader.

I was after a Kim Jong Il classic called "The Great Teacher of Journalists." At first the assistant in glowing traditional robes told me she didn't have it, then confided that she'd do her best to get it. When I returned to the hotel, there she was calling me over in a slightly conspiratorial way, book in hand, and a bargain at 4 Euros (they don't accept dollars here).

The book begins with a little homily: "Today, in Korea, the press in its heyday, and journalists are given full scope to their talent in their worthwhile activities for Parry and Revolution."

Chapters include tips on "Inducing People to follow the Example of Unassuming Heroes,"  "Announcers Attire", and "Concern about the Meals of Journalists." It is priceless stuff. It was written well before the Internet transformed our business, though that is not really a problem here, since only a tiny minority is allowed access to it. (Kim Jong Il once famously asked Madeline Albright for her email address). More can use a kind of national "intranet", all digital doors to the outside world firmly closed. All the more remarkable that at the press center set up at our hotel, we have broadband internet, which works, at least most of the time. We even have been issued local mobile phones (our own were taken from us), which work less often. Still, it's a measure of the importance the North Koreans are giving to this
event.

And of course, as the Great Teacher of Journalists tells us of Mr Kim, "His love and benefit conferred upon the journalists are indeed endless."