North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, gives tours the Pyongyang Pharmaceutical Factory, in this undated pic released by Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on January 25. Photo: KCNA / via Reuters

In an early sign of the difficulties the two Koreas may face as the North’s last-minute participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics proceeds, North Korea suddenly canceled a joint cultural performance late on Monday night.

With the two nations planning a range of events around the Olympics as goodwill measures, they had scheduled a joint cultural performance at the North’s Mount Kumgang tourist resort on the east coast, just north of the De-Militarized Zone on Feb 4.

But the show was abruptly canceled late last night, with the North citing unfavorable media coverage in the South as the reason for its pullout.

According to a statement from the South’s Ministry of Unification that was picked up by news agencies, North Korea said media outlets had “defamed” it, and slammed criticism of an “internal celebration event.”

The South described the North’s decision “regrettable” and called on the North to faithfully implement all agreements.

‘Typical’ Pyongyang tactics

The “internal celebration event” the North referenced is, analysts believe, a military parade Pyongyang is planning to hold on February 8 to honor the foundation day of its armed forces. That date is the day before the opening of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

There has been consternation about the event in the South and criticism in the media. What has particularly irked many is that North Korea changed the previous date of its armed forces foundation. Originally the foundation day was Feb. 8 – the date in 1948 when the North Korean People’s Army was established, according to South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper. However, in 1978, that date was changed by late leader and “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung to April 25, saying the new date was when anti-Japanese guerrilla units were set up, the Hanyoreh reported.

It is unclear why the date was switched back to Feb. 8; the timing has raised questions in the South.

Pyongyang’s sudden cancellation of the event is a typical intimidation tactic built into its overall negotiating strategy, one North Korea watcher said.

“This is typical behavior of North Korea – trying to surprise the counter-party by pulling this kind of trick,” said Go Myung-hyun of the Seoul-based Asan Institute, a think tank. “They probably feel the South Korean government is pretty invested in inter-Korean dialog, and sense they can gain the upper hand by making the South Korean side feel anxious.”

Such anxiety could result in the South Korean side being wary of raising sensitive issues in the weeks ahead, Go analyzed. “I think they are doing this to defend their own position,” he said. “They don’t want South Korea to talk about the Feb. 8 parade, or about denuclearization.”

Cancellation averts tricky issues for South, North

Still, the cancellation helps South Korea avoid a ticklish diplomatic problem it had been facing.

Seoul had agreed to transfer 10,000 liters of diesel to the tourist resort to provide fuel generators for the performance, as the North suffers electricity shortages. The shipment by the South, while too small to violate UN sanctions, could have proven sensitive with allies. The cancellation means that this problem will now not arise.

Members of South Korean girl group Oh My Girl pose before departing for the 14th MBC Idol Star Athletics Championships 2018 in Seoul on January 15. Photo: AFP

The cancellation could also forestall South Korean performers scandalizing North Korea, a nation of conservative social mores.

An article in South Korea’s best-selling newspaper the Chosun Ilbo, a right-wing outlet, reported earlier on Monday that “eight North Korean apparatchiks were shocked to the core of their puritanical souls” to see South Korean K-pop stars Oh My Girl practicing for the event.

While North Korea’s popular Morangbong Band members are noted for their good looks and sometimes their short skirts, they are a picture of modesty compared to their South Korean counterparts. For K-pop songstresses, micro shorts, navel-baring t-shirts and raunchy dance moves are virtually de rigueur. K-pop is illegal in North Korea.

Mt Kumgang, the tourism resort where the performance was due to be staged, is currently the subject of considerable speculation in South Korea, as rumors circulate that both Seoul and Pyongyang want to restart operations there.

The resort, built by Hyundai at a cost of US$400 million, was operated as an enclave for South Korean tourists in North Korea from 1998 to its shutdown in 2008. In that year, a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier, apparently for wandering into an off-limits area. The killing of the woman prompted Seoul to halt all southern visits to the scenic area.

The resort has sat largely idle since then, used only sporadically for reunions of divided family members.

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