It’s not been a good week for Korean girl bands. On two continents, ensembles from North and South found themselves prevented from performing – if in very different circumstances. Oh My Girl are one of many formulaic South Korean girl groups. Eight pretty girls, they sing and dance: yawn. Last week they flew to Los Angeles for a promotional gala – but never got out of the airport. After being held for 15 hours, they headed right back across the Pacific.
What went wrong? The story which hit headlines was that all their props and costumes led U.S. border agents to suspect their real purpose to be, erm, more horizontal forms of entertainment. But the banal truth may simply be that they lacked work visas, reckoning that a promotional event didn’t require those. Either way, somebody boobed. Frankly, who gives a hoot?Meanwhile North Korea’s Moranbong Band – an altogether more serious 20-strong all-female ensemble, who actually play musical instruments and surely need no introduction to NK News readers – were no shows in Beijing. Not no-shows, no shows. A much more interesting story.
This was meant to be a big deal. Created by Kim Jong Un personally, Moranbong Band have not played outside North Korea before. Pyongyang only announced this Chinese tour late on December 8, on the eve of their departure (they went the leisurely way, by train) for Beijing.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) gushed that this tour would “contribute to deepening friendship and boosting … cultural and artistic exchanges.” Further separate articles praised each ensemble as the pride of the DPRK. So the stakes were high: very high.
In a sign of this visit’s cachet, the artistes were seen off at the station by culture minister Pak Chun Nam and Chinese ambassador Li Jinjun. Kim Ki Nam, the long-serving party secretary for culture, shook each performer’s hand. That must have taken a while, out in the cold (Kim is 86), since Team DPRK comprised not only the Moranbong Band but also the much larger State Merited Chorus: a full choir and orchestra of the Korean People’s Army. Moranbong too comes under the KPA: the girls were fetchingly uniformed accordingly (Their wardrobe is probably even larger than Oh My Girl’s). Moranbong and the SMC often perform together.
South Korean and other media scrambled to catch up. Their excitement had several angles. One was the presence of Hyon Song Wol, the subject of many rumors. Originally a singer with the DPRK’s most established pop band, Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, Hyon was said said to be Kim’s ex – and was reportedly executed in 2013 for allegedly making pornography. Always be careful what you believe. Hyon bounced back, very much alive, in May last year.
Tittle-tattle aside, cultural diplomacy was the name of the game: a further bid to thaw what for two years have been frosty relations between the DPRK and its giant neighbor-sustainer. The semi-official ROK news agency Yonhap reported that this was a week-long friendship tour, with three days of shows at Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA). Yonhap cornered some of the girls over lunch at the luxury Minzu Hotel. They thanked China for its generous hospitality, adding with a smile: “Please come to see our performance.”
The smile was disingenuous. The public could not buy tickets, as these performances were by invitation only. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, echoed KCNA’s soothing boilerplate on December 9: “We would like to continue… our friendly cooperation with the DPRK … We always believe that state-to-state exchanges and cooperation in various forms will help increase mutual understanding and friendship between the peoples.”
Not this time. December 11 saw rehearsals, but next day – December 12, the date set for the first concert – the tour was abruptly cancelled and the Moranbong girls flew home. (No sign of the massed ranks of the SMC at the airport; maybe they had to take the train.) A brief notice on NCPA’s website cryptically blamed “communication issues at the working level.”
Also on Air Koryo flight JS152 – it left at 4 p.m., three hours late – was DPRK ambassador to China Ji Jae Ryong. Or was he? Another source claims Ji was seen that evening at the Minzu hotel with Wang Jiarui, until recently China’s point man on the DPRK, presumably having a postmortem and discussing what to do next. Whom to believe? Anyone see Ji on the plane?
He must be in deep dudu now, but Ji has form as an escape artist. As a protégé of Jang Song Thaek, his number was thought to be up when Kim purged his uncle by marriage in 2013. “N. Korean Ambassador to China Likely for the Chop,” the right-wing Seoul daily Chosun Ilbo trilled at the time. Not so, it turned out. Again, be careful what you believe.
Ji survived then – but now? Whatever its cause, this is a huge diplomatic disaster. Far from deepening ties, it must have damaged them. Hong Lei, another foreign ministry spokesman, on December 14 reiterated the boilerplate: insisting that China “attaches great importance” to bilateral relations and is “ready to work with the DPRK in the field of cultural exchange.”
So what went wrong? With no official word from either side yet, or maybe ever, hypotheses are sprouting. One suggestion is that China objected to some of the material. In deference to their hosts, the Moranbong’s set list apparently included several Chinese numbers. According to the always indispensable Shanghaiist, citing “one reporter from the Beijing Daily, Chinese authorities had made the request to change one line of lyric in a song in the line-up. This was vehemently refused by the North Koreans, and everything went downhill from there.”
One line in one song? That’s a thin twig to bear the full weight of cancellation. The two sides would surely have gone over any content issues long ago, well before announcing the tour.
The Korea Times (KT) lists several further hypotheses, and very diverse they are too. One seems absurd: that Kim Jong Un “took the scheduled concert as “blasphemy” ahead of the fourth anniversary of his father Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17 after approving of the Moranbong Band’s trip to China.” Kim is not stupid. He knows when his father died. Or in case that sort of detail should slip his mind, he has armies of flunkeys to remind him.
Within the DPRK, a mourning ban on dancing and music is said to have begun on Dec. 12, the day the Beijing concerts were due to kick off. But Beijing is not Pyongyang. A regime so adept at and concerned about stage management would surely have decided well in advance whether the timing of this tour posed a problem. Or might the mercurial young Marshal have first okayed it but then changed his mind? Perhaps, but there are much likelier hypotheses.
Alternatively, KT also suggests that some band members may have sought asylum in China. No names or proof are offered, nor whether they succeeded (woe betide them if they didn’t). Absent corroboration, this too sits at the improbable end of the spectrum.
A third suggestion: Kim was irate at the press focus on Hyon Song Wol – her pricy Chanel handbag (the perfect fashion accessory for a KPA greatcoat) was pictured online – and at her name being linked with his. Again possible, but what did he expect of the “reptile media”?
In fact the evidence points to the contrary: North Korea revelled in all the attention. “World media vie with each other to report about the China visit of the DPRK’s art troupes,” crowed KCNA on Dec. 11 under the somewhat OTT headline: “DPRK Chorus and Band’s China Visit, Focus of World Public.” KCNA especially highlighted South Korean coverage, citing four different media sources there. They were enjoying this, before it all went pear-shaped.
TROUBLE IN THE RANKS
KT’s fourth hypothesis is more plausible: that this was a protocol problem. There are several versions of this story. In Kim Jong Un’s ideal world, President Xi Jinping and the entire top Chinese leadership would have come to clap his protégées. That was never going to happen.
Xi is a busy man, and (let’s face it) musically the Moranbong are nothing special: no better than hundreds of Filipino showbands who pay their dues in hotels all over Asia every night.
We only care because they are North Korean, and for any clues they can offer to Kim Jong Un’s thinking – and the weird pastiche that seems to be his concept of modernity. Were it not for this, the Moranbong Band would be about as exciting as Oh My Girl. True or true?
So, protocol. A source told Yonhap what sounds a very plausible story. China said no Xi, no premier Li Keqiang either, but we’ll send a Politburo member to the concert. Kim Jong Un can’t have been happy, but he okayed the trip. The music train duly trundled across the Yalu.
Then Kim blew it, with bomb talk. In a new first for North Korean nuclear hyperbole, on December 11 KCNA quoted him as boasting that his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the DPRK’s founding leader, “turned the DPRK into a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation.”
A stands for atom, H is for hydrogen. No one believes North Korea really has the H-bomb yet, but that’s not the point. What it does have is a bad attitude – and in this case, bad timing.
Also, as NK News’ JH Ahn noted, the phrase “ready to detonate” in KCNA’s English version has an immediacy lacking in the Korean original.
Whatever. This was a dumb thing to say, and a stupid time to say it. Did it not occur to Kim that China would take umbrage? Or worse, was he deliberately testing Beijing? Anyway, as a rap on the knuckles China reacted by downgrading its concert party from ministerial to vice-minister level. That was the last straw for Kim, who ordered his artistes back to Pyongyang.
What a mess, and what testament to Kim Jong Un’s lack of diplomatic nous. Four years into his reign, we know he can run the show at home – if a bit fiercely. But that’s the easy part: national solipsism, where he controls all the levers and everyone plays their assigned part.
Diplomacy is different. Like poker, you’re up against others – so you better play good. North Korea used to be skilled at that. Kim Jong Il parlayed what in truth was a pretty weak hand (nukes, and what else?) into a surprising degree of influence in the world. Status, of a kind.
His son has not inherited that gene. Not only does Kim Jong Un have no discernible overall strategy, but he messes up like an amateur. Daddy would never have done that. (Or indeed, if Choe Ryong Hae hadn’t been sent to the farm, or wherever – another move that put China’s nose out of joint – his skills would surely have ensured that nothing like this happened.)
Then again, Kim Jong Il did once do something a bit like what his son has just done. In May 2010 the Dear Leader was in Beijing, but strangely he left town the very day the DPRK’s elite Phibada Opera Company opened a four-day run performing their version of “Dream of Red Mansions.” Classier than Moranbong or the State Merited Chorus, wouldn’t you say? Tactful, too: China much appreciated this and earlier DPRK productions of one of their own classics.
Phibada’s gala opening was surely intended to climax Kim’s visit, with him and President Hu Jintao as guests of honor. In the event, without them or anyone else senior, it was a bit of a damp squib. We still don’t know quite what happened. Maybe China refused yet another aid demand, or wasn’t yet ready to accept the still unrevealed Kim Jong Un as successor. So Kim Jong Il flounced off – by train; remember those times? – a day early. Whatever it was, they met again in August and sorted it out; paving the way for Jong Un’s emergence and a year or two of “lips and teeth” Sino-DPRK warmth – which would cool again after Kim Jong Il died. It all serves to remind us that this bilateral relationship has long been a roller-coaster.
PS: Oh, and none of this ever happened. Beijing’s internet censors are already hard at work, deleting discussion of the Moranbong debacle from Chinese online forums. Deleting the band itself, too. Shanghaiist had a happy ending: “Fortunately, we’re all still able to enjoy (their) music videos on Youku (China’s equivalent of YouTube – AFC), so we’ll leave you with our favorite Moranbong song, Let’s Study.” Not any more you can’t, Youku has reportedly deleted all Moranbong videos: can Chinese readers please confirm? Erasing his favorite ladies won’t please Kim Jong Un, either.
Where do Sino-DPRK ties go from here? Two song titles summarize the possibilities. Down down deeper and down, or the only way is up? Yazz would suit the Moranbong Band better than Status Quo, and is also the likelier direction.
But this stupid contretemps is a setback which will delay rapprochement. Let’s hope there aren’t more to come.
(Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.)