North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju were “deeply moved” by a delegation of South Korean artists, including popular “K-pop” stars, performing in Pyongyang as part of a cultural exchange, according to North Korean state media.
The effusive praise for South Korean music in the North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun struck a notably different tone from that of just a few years ago, when the conservative presidency of Park Geun-hye used K-pop in psychological warfare broadcasts across the Korean border.
“Respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, together with his wife Ri Sol Ju, enjoyed a performance [of] ‘Spring Comes’ given by the art troupe of the south side on a visit to Pyongyang at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre on April 1,” Rodong Sinmun reported.
“Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju congratulated the performers on their successful performance, warmly waving to them,” the report noted. “[Kim] said that he was deeply moved to see our people sincerely acclaiming the performance, deepening the understanding of the popular art of the south side.”
Kim also reportedly told performers that “when such good atmosphere is preserved carefully and continuously, only the beautiful spring when new buds sprout and flowers blossom and the rich autumn when the crops are abundant will always be in the way of our fellow countrymen.”
The performance reportedly boasted a “reunification” theme; a collection of South Korean musicians concluded the performance with a song called “Our Wish Is Reunification.”
Kim Jong-un has repeatedly insisted on the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The North Korean government does not capitalize the “south” in South Korea in its publications and generally treats South Korea as a rogue province of the north.
“The performers were greatly excited to see the stage being provided with reconciliation with the north and the south being as one again, while exchanging greetings with the audience and telling about their Pyongyang visit with warm compatriotism,” Rodong Sinmun claimed.
South Korean media outlets stated that Kim told reporters, “Tell President Moon how wonderful this is. … Thank you for this gift to Pyongyang citizens.”
North Korea is governed by a strict caste system known as songbun. Citizens with low songbun – which the government controls and lowers for anyone affiliated with a citizen suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Kim family – are banned from Pyongyang.
South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo reported:
It is not clearly known who in Pyongyang was allowed to attend the Sunday concert, though North Korean authorities were said to have chosen the audience from a lottery with special emphasis on the socially disadvantaged, similar to South Korea’s process for the two North Korean concerts last February.
It also noted that there is no indication Kim demanded changes or edits to the songs performed, though “the general public in North Korea is strictly banned from listening to K-pop. When caught, they can be sent to prison camps.”
The newspaper reported that some sources had told journalists that North Korea banned Psy, the Korean artist known worldwide for his hit single “Gangnam Style,” from attending the event.
K-pop is a popular music style in South Korea heavily modeled after American dance music, with frenetic electronic dance beats and characterized by futuristic-looking music videos featuring elaborate costumes and heavy makeup.
North Korea allowed limited press access to the concert, showing that Red Velvet performing a subdued, modestly dressed version of their hit “Red Flavor” (for comparison, the promotional video released in South Korea for the same song):
The performance during the weekend is one of several expected by the South Korean artists in Pyongyang. On Tuesday, South Korean outlet Yonhap reported that they will perform alongside North Korean artists. Kim had reportedly planned to attend the later performance but rescheduled for the earlier one due to “political events.” Kim also reportedly suggested a performance to welcome autumn, with North Korean artists traveling south instead.
The leftist government of South Korea under President Moon Jae-in agreed to send 11 teams of nearly 150 musicians to Pyongyang to perform for the communist dictatorship. Among those performing were K-pop stars Red Velvet and Yoon Sang, as well as other singers, including Cho Yong-pil, Lee Sun-hee, Choi Jin Hee, Yoon Do-hyun, Baek Z Young, Jung-in, Seohyun, and Ali.
Before departing for Pyongyang, Yoon Sang said, “Our first task will be to instill the same awe in North Korean audiences as we do our South Korean ones, and make sure nothing is awkward.”
President Moon has spearheaded a campaign to include North Korea in greater cultural exchanges, forcing South Korean taxpayers to fund the North Korean Olympic delegation’s visit to PyeongChang for this year’s Winter Olympics and agreeing to meet with Kim in an unprecedented head of state interaction. Moon’s conciliatory approach towards North Korea has triggered protests from South Koreans offended that North Korea’s many human rights violations and acts of terrorism against the south throughout history have largely gone ignored.
Under previous President Park, whose parents were both assassinated in North Korean acts of terrorism, Seoul refused to negotiate with the north. Rather than put on concerts, the South Korean military would use loudspeakers to broadcast K-pop music into the North, where possessing any unauthorized cultural product is punishable by death. In January 2016, Park’s administration prepared a special K-pop mix to broadcast into North Korea over the sounds of Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebration.