North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, attended a rare performance by South Korean singers on Sunday, in the latest of a series of diplomatic breakthroughs in an ongoing thaw between the two countries.
The evening concert at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, the first visit by South Korean artists to the North Korean capital in over a decade, has been touted as another gesture of reconciliation before a scheduled summit between the leaders of the divided Korean Peninsula on April 27.
The performance of the 160-strong delegation of K-pop bands and singers to 1,500 members of the Pyongyang elite overshadowed the start of annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, which have traditionally been a source of tension with the North.
The drills, which were postponed by a month to avoid any disruption to the February Winter Olympics in South Korea, have been shortened and toned down this year to reflect a diplomatic détente on peninsula that began in January.
After a spike in tensions last year over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missiles programmes, Kim Jong-un has now agreed to meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump to discuss denuclearisation.
The K-pop delegation, due to stage two concerts in Pyongyang over four days, is a reciprocal act of cultural diplomacy after North Korea sent the Samjiyon Orchestra and its perfectly synchronised cheerleading squad to the Olympics.
Sunday’s event marked the first time a North Korean leader has attended a South Korean performance in the capital. Kim Jong-un was seen clapping in tune to some of the songs and later took pictures with the performers after the show.
“[He] showed much interest during the show and asked questions about the songs and lyrics,” said Culture Minister Do Jong-whan.
The concert included 11 K-pop singers and bands from a variety of genres, ranging from traditional folk songs to modern K-pop, with Seohyun, a 26 year old singer from the mega band Girls Generation acting as master of ceremony.
Centre stage was chart-topping girl band Red Velvet, hoping to wow the historically stiff North Korean audience with their hit tunes “Red Flavour” and “Bad Boy”, about a femme fatale who becomes attracted to man who appears to be a “bad boy” type.
Other artists included Cho Yong-pil, the influential 68 year old “King” of K-pop who last performed solo in Pyongyang in 2005, and Choi Jin-hee, 61, who has appeared in the North three times before.
Ms Choi has been credited with helping South Korean pop culture gain traction in the socialist state after Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il reportedly became a fan of her song Love Maze.
The delegation will next hold a joint performance on Tuesday with acts from both Koreas, in a stadium that can hold up to 12,000 people, and sticking to the symbolic theme “Spring is Coming”, to represent the thaw in relations.
The artistic performances are another test of the softening of ties between the South and its nuclear-armed neighbour.
“The whole purpose of cultural exchange is to open the gates for better relations between the North and the South, which have been strained for a decade,” Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Busan’s Dong-a University told Bloomberg.
“There is a strong political motive to boost the mood ahead of the summit.”
The K-pop stars would be hoping to have a more positive impact than boy band Shinhwa, who performed in North Korea in 2003 as part of a similar effort in cultural diplomacy.
They described a frosty welcome, with one band member commenting that the audience stared at the singers “with eyes like shooting lasers”, reported the Yonhap news agency.
South Korean pop sensation, Psy, who inspired a global “horse dance” move with his 2012 hit Gangnam Style, was already deemed too risqué for Pyongyang’s notoriously conservative audiences, and was left behind in Seoul.
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