K-pop girl band to face tough audience in North Korea amid cultural diplomacy push

Members of South Korean pop group Red Velvet pose for photos at Incheon Airport, before departing for North Korea.
Members of South Korean pop group Red Velvet pose for photos at Incheon Airport, before departing for North Korea. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - They have won over buttoned-up investors at a banking conference with their jingles about teenage love, but the K-pop girl band Red Velvet is about to face what may be its toughest audience yet: North Korea.

The chart-topping starlets will perform on Sunday (April 1) with 10 other South Korean music groups at the first of two concerts this week in Pyongyang. It is the latest overture in Seoul's decades-long cultural diplomacy push, aimed at softening ties with its closed off and nuclear-armed neighbour.

Taking place four weeks before a historic meeting between the two countries' leaders, the music tour could provide a test of whether North Korea's attitude to the rest of the world is truly thawing.

As they belt out their dance tunes "Red Flavour" and "Bad Boy" to about 1,500 members of the North Korean elite at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre on Sunday night, Red Velvet will be hoping for a less frosty reception than those that have gone before them.

"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," said Professor Kang Dong Wan at Dong-a University and a leader of the Busan Hana Centre, an institute that helps North Korean defectors in the South Korean port city of Busan.

"There is a strong political motive to boost the mood ahead of the summit," Prof Kang said.

When K-pop boy band Shinhwa performed in North Korea in 2003 as part of a similar cultural diplomacy venture, the audience - dressed in suits and traditional dresses - greeted them with silence and stony stares. One of the band members, Eric Mun, told reporters that they looked at the singers "with eyes like shooting lasers", according to Yonhap News.


That year, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and threatened to test atomic weapons. US president George W. Bush had labelled them a member of the "axis of evil" in 2002.

Fifteen years later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seeking to engage the region's major powers after advances in his nuclear programme prompted the United Nations to tighten sanctions and President Donald Trump to threaten war.

China said that Mr Kim, during a surprise visit to Beijing last week, indicated he was willing to talk with Mr Trump about giving up nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the summit planned for April 27 with South Korea President Moon Jae In on the southern side of the border's demilitarised zone would make Mr Kim the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea.

But it is the shifts in technology since the early 2000s that could make this musical extravaganza different, said Prof Kang.

K-pop - characterised by its manufactured melodies and slick approach to marketing - has penetrated into North Korea over the past 10 years. Smuggled across the border on USB sticks and bootleg DVDs, K-pop has spread widely among the families of North Korea's political elite, Prof Kang said.

Red Velvet - which performed an invite-only concert at Credit Suisse Group's Asia investment conference last month - will be joined in Pyongyang by South Korean singer Baek Ji Young and rock band YB, according to the Unification Ministry.

The show on Tuesday will be a joint performance featuring acts from both Koreas and will take place at a stadium in Pyongyang that can hold 12,000 people. There is even speculation in South Korean media that Mr Kim could attend one of the concerts.

The theme of the joint concert will be "Spring is Coming", South Korea's Culture Ministry spokesman Hwang Seong Un said at a briefing in Seoul on March 27.

"Spring literally has arrived and it also presents our wishes for spring to come over our relationship between the North and the South."