North Korea orchestra to perform in South Korea during Winter Games

South Korean chief delegate Lee Woo Sung (right) and his North Korean counterpart Kwon Hook Bong (left) at a meeting in the truce village of Panmunjomon on Jan 15.
South Korean chief delegate Lee Woo Sung (right) and his North Korean counterpart Kwon Hook Bong (left) at a meeting in the truce village of Panmunjomon on Jan 15.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - A 140-member North Korean orchestra will perform in South Korea during next month’s Winter Olympics, the two sides announced on Monday (Jan 15), amid a tentative rapprochement after months of tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. 

The North agreed last week to send athletes, high-level officials and others to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  The two sides agreed an artistic troupe would be part of the delegation, and four officials from each country met on Monday at the border truce village of Panmunjom to thrash out details of that visit. 

The 140 members of the Samjiyon Orchestra will hold concerts in the capital Seoul and the eastern city of Gangneung close to Pyeongchang which is hosting the Games, said a joint statement after the talks. 

“The South will ensure the safety and convenience of the North’s performing squad to the utmost extent,” it said, without elaborating on the dates for the concerts. 

A ministry official told Reuters the North asked that the art troupe cross the border by foot via Panmunjom, located in the demilitarised zone where a North Korean soldier staged a daring defection to the South in November.

The concerts, if they go ahead, would mark the first time that a North Korean artistic troupe has performed in the capitalist South since 2002, during a previous rare period of rapprochement.  The North’s then-leader Kim Jong Il sent dozens of state singers, dancers and musicians to Seoul to perform at a political event when South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, known for his reconciliation policy, was in office. 

The North’s delegates at Monday’s meeting included Ms Hyon Song Wol, the leader of Pyongyang’s famed all-female Moranbong music band, raising expectations the band would perform in the South.  Monday’s joint statement however did not mention it. 

The South’s delegates to Monday’s talks included senior officials from the state-run Korean Symphony Orchestra, raising the prospect of groups from both sides of the border performing together. 

The two nations also agreed on Monday to hold talks at Panmunjom on Wednesday (Jan 17) on logistics and details for the visit by the North’s athletes. 

The Koreas are set to hold talks with the International Olympics Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday (Jan 20) over the number of the North’s athletes. 

South Korea has proposed a joint march for the opening ceremony and a unified women’s ice hockey team, reports quoted a minister as saying last week. 

The South Korean government and Olympic organisers have been keen for Pyongyang – which boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul – to take part in what they have been promoting as a “peace Olympics”. 

The North remained silent on the offer until current leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s speech that it could participate, a move seen as aimed at easing military tensions with the US. 

Tension has been high as the North staged a flurry of nuclear and missile tests since last year and Mr Kim traded threats of war and personal attacks with US President Donald Trump. 

Mr Kim’s declaration triggered a rapid series of moves, while Seoul touted talks last week – the first inter-Korea meeting in two years – as a potential first step to bringing the North into negotiations over its nuclear arsenal. 

South Korean President Moon Jae In, who advocates dialogue with the North but remains critical of Pyongyang’s weapons drive, said last week he was willing to have a summit with Mr Kim “under the right conditions”, but added that “certain outcomes must be guaranteed”. 

In a setback for such hopes, Pyongyang on Sunday (Jan 13) slammed Mr Moon as “ignorant and unreasonable” for demanding preconditions – possibly a step towards denuclearisation – for a summit. 

“The south Korean chief executive should not be dreaming,” the state-run KCNA news agency said in an editorial, accusing Moon of “brownnosing” the US. 

KCNA added that the North could still change its mind about taking part in the Olympics.

“They should know that train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang,” it said. 

A spokesman for Seoul’s unification ministry played down the editorial, attributing it to “internal reasons and circumstances”. 

But on Monday, a senior North Korean journalist warned the South’s media against criticising Pyongyang.

“Tongue may bring calamity and miswritten pen may become a sword beheading oneself,” Kim Chol Guk said in an essay published by KCNA. 

“The South Korean authorities may find the wedding ceremony turning into a mourning ceremony if they fail to hold tight control of media and of their own tongue.”