North Korean defector troupe wows Seoul’s elderly… for a price
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North Korean defector troupe wows Seoul’s elderly… for a price

Organizers use nostalgic traditional show to sell caskets, funeral services to the elderly

Over a hundred senior citizens were in attendance to watch the North Korean Performing Arts Group at the Songpa Women’s Culture Center in Seoul this week. The group of defectors, which advertises its shows as “a magical performance by the best artists from Pyongyang”, has showcased their talents to elderly audiences all around South Korea.

At first the ‘free’ show appears a perfect way for the neighborhood’s elderly denizens to get out and about and connect with their respective pasts. The hard sell of caskets and other funeral services to the ageing audience put a grim and somewhat cynical slant on the evening.

This wan’t the first show of its kind. In August, the collective performed in another area of Seoul while in June and July they performed outside the capital in Bucheon and Gunsan, respectively. The all-women North Korean defector cast did not disappoint with its singing, dancing, and playing of the janggu (hourglass drum). In one part, the dancers created magic as their outfits changed garments and colors in front of the audience’s eyes. They connected with the crowd, speaking to them in North Korean accents and in the show’s closing, received rapturous applause.

“The older folks like this stuff,”  said Choi Jeong-soo, the director of Songpa Women’s Culture Center says. “It reminds them of the older days when Korea was unified.”

65-year-old Kim Dae-says he was too young to remember those times, but he came to watch the performance because of the group’s dancing. “At first, I came to watch them because I was curious what culture in North Korea was like. We’re one people, we should know each other’s cultures,” he explains. “And there’s nothing authentic to watch in South Korea anymore. And [watching them] is all too expensive.” This sentiment resonated throughout the audience.

With the average age of the crowd being well over 60, not many have come from outside the neighborhood. They are all acquainted, greeting one another as they pass by. And though some are like Kim Dae-in, most have a different motive for being here: the free admission. “I hate North Koreans,” 77-year-old Mr Oh belts, adding, “I had nothing better to do.”

But there’s a catch.

Using the veil of Korea’s reunification – supported by more than 84% of people aged 50 or older, according to a poll conducted by Hyundai Research Institute – the performance is also a ploy for the sponsors to make some money. Although hosted by the district of Songpa at its Women’s Culture Center, Kumgang Tour Ltd. are the sponsors of the event and they are targetting South Korea biggest market: the country’s elderly.

According to a recent simulation conducted by the National Assembly Research Service, South Korea’s population could be extinct by 2750. With the country’s low birth rates, South Korea has the fastest-ageing population in the world.

As many families are still separated from the Korean War, the performance by the North Korean defectors invokes a lot of nostalgia. It’s geared for the elderly with the show only open to those over the age of 30. But for the first hour and a half, the sponsors advertise their funeral services including caskets and transportation to the burial. Attendants were also told they would be given a special deal on funeral services if they gave their banking details to the organizers at the event. Some are tempted by the offer. “It’s actually a good deal,” a woman says aloud.

When questioned about their services, Kumgang Tour Ltd. refused interviews altogether – also denying Asian Correspondent’s entry into the first-half presentation. The company did not allow any communication with the performers and explicitly requested their names be left out of this report. Still, there’s serenity in remembering the old days. A chance to go back home.