MUSIC stars from South Korea have performed two rare performances in Pyongyang, the capital of neighbouring North Korea with whom it is technically still at war.
Hundreds of audience members including the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju this week watched the 160-member troupe of South Korean K-Pop singers, the first event of its kind for more than a decade.
As tensions thaw between the two rivals, it was the first time a North Korean leader had attended a South Korean performance in the North’s capital. Kim was seen clapping in time to the music and later took photographs with the performers.
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“Our dear leader comrade said his heart swelled and he was moved by the sight of his people deepen their understanding of South Korean popular culture and cheer with sincerity,” the North’s KCNA state media said.
Culture Minister Do Jong-whan told reporters afterwards that Kim “showed much interest during the show and asked questions about the songs and lyrics.”
Kim reportedly particularly liked the K-Pop band Red Velvet, one of the South’s biggest girl groups who recently stirred controversy after netizens claimed it had been chosen to perform in the North because they endorse communism, according to The Korea Times.
“Many people had wondered whether I would come to the Sunday performance and watch Red Velvet,” Kim was quoted as saying.
Tension over North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile surged last year and raised fears of US military action in response to North Korea’s threat to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.
But tension has eased significantly since North Korea decided to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.
The performance coincided with the beginning of annual joint South Korean-US military drills, which have previously been met with denunciations and missile launches by the North. The exercises were delayed and shortened this year in order not to spoil the Olympic detente.
The two Koreas have set a date for their first summit in more than a decade on April 27, and Kim and US President Donald Trump could meet in May.
The concert, billed as “Spring is Coming”, was put on at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre by an lineup of top South Korean performers including veteran vocalists Cho Yong-pil, Lee Sun-hee, rock star Yoon Do-hyun and singer Baek Ji-young.
“Just like the concert’s title, I believe we can communicate emotionally through music,” said Cho during a rehearsal on Tuesday for a joint concert with North Korean musicians titled We Are One, as quoted by the South’s news agency Yonhap.
“Despite differences in genre and differences between North and South musical styles, we have the same language and share a sense of common identity.”
Echoing the concert theme, Kim said the performance had brought a “spring of peace” to the two Koreas, and expressed wishes for a “prosperous autumn”, according to the North’s news agency.
The North Korean leader appeared in a group photograph with the performers, distributed by North Korean media.
The South Korean delegation travelled to Pyongyang on Saturday in a reciprocal cultural visit after North Korea sent performers to the South in February, the South’s Culture Ministry said. A taekwondo performance was staged earlier on Sunday.
The images of Kim posing and laughing with South Korean pop stars and applauding in the stands contrasts with reports from North Korean defectors who say he has overseen a crackdown on anyone caught listening to foreign media.
“North Korean refugees overwhelmingly and consistently report that it has become more dangerous to consume foreign media under Kim Jong Un’s crackdowns,” Sokeel Park, the South Korea country director for refugee aid organisation Liberty in North Korea, said on Twitter.
A 2015 survey of North Korean refugees by the US government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors found that 77 percent of respondents said it had become more dangerous to listen to foreign radio under Kim.
South Korean movies were often reported to be especially taboo compared with Chinese films, according to a report by the InterMedia consultancy group, with North Koreans facing prison time if caught.
Seohyun, an actress and vocalist with South Korean girl group Girls’ Generation, sang a North Korean pop song called “Blue Willow Tree”. She had performed with the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra in Seoul in February.
Cho Yong-pil, 68, sang a string of hits including “The Cafe in the Winter”, “Short Hair” and “Let’s Go on a Trip”. Cho staged a solo concert in Pyongyang in 2005 – the last concert by a South Korean artist in the North before Sunday’s performance.
Additional reporting from Reuters.