SEOUL (AFP, NYTIMES) - K-pop stars led a group of South Korean musicians arriving in Pyongyang on Saturday (March 31) to take part in the latest set of cross-border cultural performances ahead of next month's rare inter-Korean summit.
The 120-member group including top girlband Red Velvet flew from Seoul's Gimpo airport aboard a chartered civilian flight to Pyongyang via the rarely used direct air route between the two Koreas, as a rapprochement on the peninsula gathers pace.
"This performance in Pyongyang will add momentum to inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation that resumed with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics" in the South, said Culture Minister Do Jong Hwan, who led the group.
They were greeted on arrival at Pyongyang airport by Do's counterpart Pak Chun Nam as well as Hyon Song Wol, founder of the North's popular all-female Moranbong band, the South's Yonhap agency reported.
Under the theme title "Spring is Coming", the South Korean musicians will perform a concert in Pyongyang on Sunday before a joint show with North Korean artists at the capital's 12,000-seat Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium on Tuesday.
While in Pyongyang, Do said, he will meet with North Korean officials to discuss further cultural and sports exchanges between the two Koreas that have restarted after a decade-long hiatus.
The two rivals on Friday agreed a date for next month's inter-Korean summit - the third ever of its kind following 2000 and 2007 meetings - at Panmunjom truce village on the heavily-fortified border on April 27. Following the meeting between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and the South's president Moon Jae In, landmark talks are planned between Kim and US President Donald Trump, which could come by the end of May.
The rapid rapprochement was kicked off by last month's Winter Olympics in the South and comes after a year of heightened tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programmes, which saw Kim and Trump engage in a fiery war of words. Together with athletes and cheerleaders, the North sent musicians led by Hyon Song Wol to the South to celebrate the Games.
The shows in the North - the first of which will take place at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre on Sunday - will be taped and edited by a South Korean video crew to be made into a joint TV programme for both countries, Yonhap news agency said.
The South Korean musicians taking part include singers and bands from a variety of genres, ranging from traditional folk songs to trendier K-pop, while some 20 taekwondo performers have also travelled.
Among those due to perform are Cho Yong Pil, the influential 68-year-old singer who performed a solo concert in Pyongyang in 2005, and Choi Jin Hee, 61, who took to the stage in the North in 1999, 2002 and 2005. Her 1984 mega hit "Love Maze" was reported to be late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's favourite song, and is credited with helping South Korean pop culture gain a following in the socialist state. Love Maze is often heard playing in Pyongyang restaurants, with its romantic lyrics altered to adulation of their leader.
Members of top K-pop girlband Red Velvet will also perform in Pyongyang, venturing onto stages more traditionally occupied by North Korea's own mega girl group the Moranbong band, who are famous for their fast-paced patriotic songs. Joy, one of the five members of Red Velvet, will miss the trip to Pyongyang due to her TV drama shooting schedule, their agency SM Entertainment said.
Seohyun, a 26-year-old star from K-pop group Girl's Generation, will act as a master of ceremony for the events in Pyongyang. She made a surprise appearance alongside a North Korean classical music ensemble during their performance in Seoul last month.
Many North Korean defectors say they have seen South Korean TV dramas and heard K-pop music through blackmarket USB drives in the North despite an official ban on the "decadent capitalist culture".
The symbolism of the visit is striking, given that the South Korean military uses K-pop for psychological warfare, blasting it from loudspeakers in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries. Defectors from the North have been known to cite K-pop as one of their inspirations for escaping to the South.
It seems odd that the autocratic North Korean regime, which has sought to cut off its citizens from what it calls "decadent capitalism," is now rolling out the red carpet for these performers.
Pyongyang's apparent openness to the South Korean performers "is part of this charm offensive to make them seem like a really normal country," said Jieun Baek, a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Oxford and the author of North Korea's Hidden Revolution.
When K-pop performers went to Pyongyang on several occasions in the early 2000s, the North Korean audiences "pulled faces or were expressionless because they were probably told to react negatively," said Kang Dong-wan, a professor of North Korean culture and politics at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea.
But now that the North has made dramatic advances in its nuclear program, it may even promote the visit as an achievement.
"The propaganda will say, 'The South Korean artists came because we developed our nuclear weapons, and they are here to celebrate our nuclear development,'" said Shim Jin Sup, a retired psychological warfare officer in the South Korean military.
"South Korea is probably being played by Kim Jong Un, but still, there is nothing to lose," Shim added. "Such cultural exchanges never hurt South Korea in the past."
Analysts say the artists will probably give carefully vetted versions of their usual acts.
"Everything from their costumes to the choreography will be part of the performance negotiations," said Darcie Draudt, a nonresident Korean studies fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In an interview on Friday in Seoul at the offices of Mystic Entertainment, a talent agency, Choi Jung In, 37, an R&B vocalist who is joining the Pyongyang tour, said her agents told her South Korean officials had asked her to sing Uphill Road, a hit from five years ago, because it "brought solace to people and touched their hearts".
But Choi said she wasn't thinking much about how the North Korean audience would respond. "There is no difference between music for propaganda and music for music to enjoy, is there?" she said.
Since K-pop performers last went to Pyongyang, North Korean artists themselves have started to emulate their Southern counterparts. North Korea's Moranbong Band, often said to be Kim's favorite girl group, has been known to dance in short skirts and high heels.
Still, some South Korean performers were evidently deemed too risqué. Although the South Korean government had hoped to send the global star Psy, the singer of Gangnam Style, as part of the traveling troupe, the plan did not materialise. A Seoul television channel, MBC, reported that North Korean officials had rejected Psy from the concert lineup.
The concerts are partly a reciprocal gesture from the South after the North sent cheerleaders and a performance troupe to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Winter Olympics in February.
Such cultural exchanges "can build trust between the two Koreas that are part of the same race and share the same language," said Yang Moo Jin, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul and an adviser to the presidential Blue House on the coming summit meeting between Kim and Moon.
There is no question that a fair bit of propaganda will be involved. According to the South Korean news media, several of the stars going on the trip this week, including some in their 60s, will perform North Korean ballads and other songs invoking peace and reunification.
The audiences for the concerts will consist mostly of elite, loyal cadres unlikely to undergo a sudden ideological conversion under the influence of a few K-pop stars. The South Koreans will perform Sunday in a theater that holds about 1,500 people, and artists from North and South will perform together in a 10,000-capacity stadium on Tuesday.
"The North Korean authorities probably won't broadcast the South Korean performances in North Korea," said Shim, "either intentionally or due to lack of electricity".
On social media in South Korea, fans generally expressed support for the artists' trip.
"If Red Velvet goes to North Korea to perform at a concert, half of its people would cheer and would want to be reunified," wrote one Twitter user.
In Japan, some fans expressed fears for the performers. "Is it a safe country?" a Twitter user wrote.
"In North Korea, there is only one TV channel, and people who listen to K-pop songs are executed, right?"
At the concert in Tokyo on Thursday, Rio Kikuchi, 20, a factory inspector from Iwate, said she was a little worried about Red Velvet's going to North Korea. But Kikuchi, who feels a vague dread of North Korean missiles aimed toward Japan, said that "if anyone can help achieve peace, they can".
In a brief appearance backstage by the members of Red Velvet, their minders deflected questions.
But when a reporter asked if they were looking forward to going to Pyongyang, Kim Yerim, who is known as Yeri, grinned and nodded. "Yes, yes, Pyongyang," she said, and gave a thumbs-up.