WASHINGTON - China had its ping-pong players, the Soviet Union its ballet dancers, Iran its soccer players. Now the New York Philharmonic is making a musical overture to North Korea.

Arts and sports can open doors abroad that diplomatic jawboning might not, although the record is mixed. The Philharmonic will perform Feb. 26 in one of the most closed societies in the world, a Stalinist nation whose leader rules by decree and is accused of starving and torturing his people.

Like the ping-pong diplomacy that helped lay the path for President Richard Nixon's historic 1972 trip to China, cultural outreach to a nation that President Bush has labeled part of an "axis of evil" is meant to put a human face on a relationship defined by suspicion and mistrust.

The U.S. table-tennis team accepted a surprise invitation from China in 1971, making the group the first Americans allowed into China since the Communist takeover in 1949. The story captivated Americans and Chinese in a way that seems quaint in today's era of direct flights between Washington and Beijing.

Sports exchanges and cultural diplomacy have not gotten as far with Iran, whose soccer team charmed Americans by giving the U.S. players flowers before defeating them, 2-1, at the 1998 World Cup. A brief blossoming of academic, cultural and other outreach followed, but dried up amid political shifts in Iran and the United States.

Iran might also be host to a U.S. orchestra tour similar to the one scheduled for North Korea, although there are no firm plans.

The New York orchestra visit carries a risk that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will use it as propaganda, and some of Bush's advisers worry that such niceties dull U.S. leverage over a brutal regime.

North Korea's Ministry of Culture sent the orchestra an invitation in August. In October, orchestra president Zarin Mehta spent six days in North Korea exploring venues for a potential concert in Pyongyang.