Head of Hugely Popular N. Korea Girl Band to Visit S. Korea

The head of a hugely popular North Korean girl band is visiting South Korea this weekend to check preparations for a trip by a little-known art troupe that she also leads during next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, officials said Friday.

Earlier this week, the rival Koreas agreed that the 140-member art troupe will perform twice in South Korea during the games amid signs of warming ties between them. Its performances would be the first by a North Korean arts group in South Korea since 2002.

North Korea informed South Korea that it plans to send a seven-member advance team this weekend, and that it would be led by Hyon Song Wol, head of the only girl band hand-picked by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The North also identified Hyon as head of the art troupe that will visit South Korea, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.

Hyon has been the focus of intense South Korean media interest since she attended inter-Korean talks at the border on Monday that reached agreement on the troupe’s visit. Hyon’s gestures during the talks as well as her makeup, looks, navy blue suit and green shoulder bag received widespread coverage.

Her Moranbong Band serves as the “soft” public face of the Kim government, with its young band members in short skirts and high heels or stylish military outfits singing and dancing odes to Kim. There is some speculation that some of the Moranbong members might also be in the art troupe, which observers say was likely hastily formed ahead of Monday’s talks.

Hugely popular at home, the Moranbong Band was supposed to make its international debut in Beijing in 2015 but the plan was scrapped at the last minute. Hyon is believed to have canceled the concert because of a Chinese demand that a scene with a North Korean long-range missile in the background of the stage be replaced, according to South Korean media.

Hyon is also an alternate member of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee. Her visit would make her the highest-profile North Korean to visit South Korea since its International Olympic Committee representative, Chang Ung, came last July.

The art troupe, named Samjiyon, includes orchestra members, singers and dancers, according to South Korean negotiators who attended Monday’s talks. It is part of a North Korean Olympic delegation that also includes athletes, officials, journalists, a cheering group and a taekwondo demonstration team.

If Samjiyon’s performances in South Korea include any propaganda elements, it risks triggering strong resistance from conservatives in South Korea, where praising North Korea is punishable by up to seven years in prison under a contentious security law.

The current mood of reconciliation between the Koreas flared after Kim abruptly expressed his willingness to improve ties and send a delegation to the Olympics during his annual New Year’s address. Outside critics dismissed Kim’s overture as a tactic to use improved ties with Seoul to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.

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