Seoul (AFP) – South Korea went into swoon mode Sunday — at the feet of a party apparatchik from the North.
Hyon Song-Wol is, however, no dourly-dressed, suit-wearing bureaucrat from the nuclear-armed nation, but the leader of Pyongyang’s most popular girl band.
Cameras followed her every move as the glamorous songstress swept through Seoul at the head of a North Korean delegation sent to inspect performance venues for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games.
Wearing a fur muffler and exuding an air of confident calm, Hyun was unphased by the throng of cameras that followed her everywhere.
Believed to be in her late 30s or early 40s, Hyon is as close to a megastar as North Korea probably has.
Her “Excellent Horse-like Lady” — a term describing a smart and energetic woman — was a big hit in the 2000s.
She is also a politically powerful figure as an alternate member of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee.
Hyon was once rumoured to be a former girlfriend of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and became the subject of lurid and — as it turned out — incorrect 2013 reports in the South that she and a dozen other musicians had been executed for appearing in porn movies.
North Korea watchers dismiss speculation over her ties with Kim, saying in the deeply patriarchal North, romantic partners of leaders past and present are forced to keep a low profile.
Hyon heads the 10-member Moranbong Band — the public face of North Korean soft power.
The all-female outfit perform a mixture of Western-style pop and patriotic North Korean numbers, and are frequently seen sporting miniskirts and shoulder-baring dresses.
Their style — highly unusual in the conservative North — is seen as quaintly provincial in the South, with its slick, image-obsessed pop scene, and it has also earned them a cult following among North Korean watchers.
The band is not expected to make the trip south for the Games next month, but other musical groups — as well as hundreds of “cheerleaders” will be there.
Hyon’s presence in the run-up to the international event — which until recently was marked by global tensions over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme — is seen by some as the latest attempt to capitalise on the appeal of its performers.
South Korea’s voracious media followed her every move Sunday, with tiny details about her facial expressions and fashion style making headlines.
Hyon’s attire — from her shoes to an expensive-looking fur — drew intense debate, with one fashion analyst likening her style to the US first lady.
“I think she was trying to emulate the style of Melania Trump… and trying to showcase the image of being rich by wearing the fur,” Heo Euna, head of Korea Image Strategy Institute, told Yonhap news agency.
Pyongyang has often deployed young women to soften its international image, from hundreds of “cheerleaders” sent to previous sporting events in the South, to waitresses at the North’s network of overseas restaurants, who put on a nightly musical and dance show for clients.