Kwon Hyok-bong, director of the Arts and Performance Bureau in North Korea's Culture Ministry, shakes hands with Lee Woo-sung, head of the culture and arts policy office at the Culture Ministry, during their meeting in the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korea, on January 15, 2018. Photo: The Unification Ministry / Yonhap via Reuters

A second round of pre-Winter Olympics inter-Korean talks took place on Monday, but the topic of the negotiations was Pyongyang’s choice, not Seoul’s: Instead of talking sportive exchanges and related logistics, which the South had wanted to discuss, the agenda focused on the visit of North Korean performers to the Games.

Monday’s talks were held between working-level delegations of four persons each from North and South. They took place in the truce village of Panmunjeom, in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two competing states. The setting was “Reunification Pavilion,” in the northern half of the village; the previous week’s talks had taken place in “Peace House” in the southern half.

Seoul had sought to discuss Pyongyang’s sporting delegation. Two Northern figure skaters have qualified for the Games, and the South has raised the possibility of a joint women’s ice-hockey team. However, at the North’s request, Monday’s negotiations centered instead on the visit of North Korean art performers to the Winter Olympics, which will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, from February 9 to 25.

However, North Korea has also asked for further working-level talks, on the dispatch of a sports delegation. These talks are set to take place at Panmunjeom this Wednesday.

Orchestral propaganda?

South Korea’s Monday delegation comprised Culture Ministry officials, while their Northern counterparts included Hyong Song-wol, leader of the famed – at least, in North Korea – Moranbong Band.

The two sides agreed, according to a joint communique, that North Korea would dispatch 140 members of the Samjiyon Orchestra to South Korea, and the orchestra would play dates in the capital Seoul, and Gangneung, the east coast city closest to the Olympic venues in Pyeongchang.  Further details – on venues, stage management, etc – are to be solved through subsequent consultations.

The orchestra, part of the Mansundae Art Troupe – North Korea’s top artistic academy – plays Western classical pieces,  as well as foreign movies scores and North Korean operas, such as “The Flower Girl.” This classic covers the tribulations a young flower seller experiences at the hands of an evil landlord. After a series of tragedies, she is delivered from her misfortunes after the return of her brother, a revolutionary soldier, who organizes the overthrow of the landlord.

The dispatch of the orchestra may come as some disappointment to some who had anticipated, given Hyong’s presence, a visit from the Moranbong Band. The all-female electro-pop outfit, named after a hill in Pyongyang that is closely associated with the Kim dynasty, is noted for such foot-tapping numbers as “My Country Is the Best,” “To a Decisive Battle” and “Advance, Advance!”

Morangbong Band is known for being more modern and daring than stuffy traditional ensembles, but its ideological direction is clear: North Korean soldiers have been urged, by state media, to memorize some of the band’s lyrics, and it has headlined a concert feting the successful test of the Hwasong-14 missile.  Periodic rumors have also circulated in South Korea of purges of band members – including Hyong. Although these have proved untrue, they indicate the high profile of the band.

South Koreans have previously been agog at North Korean cheering squads attending rare inter-Korean sports events in the South, and experts have warned that North Korea’s aim at the Winter Olympiad is not, first and foremost, sporting glory.

“Instead of focusing on sports, they want events that stir up an inter-Korean reconciliatory mood in the South, and performing arts are more effective for that than sports,” said Kang Choi, vice-president of Seoul think-tank the Asan Institute. “They are setting their own agenda, but I think we cannot deny the North’s proposal to send their ‘extras.’”

Given the South’s anti-communist National Security Law, discussions about performances will be sensitive. “We have to have talks about the details of their performances and what kinds of songs they will play,” Choi added. “That is going to be delicate.”

The second round of inter-Korean talks follow last Tuesday’s negotiations, in which North Korea agreed to attend February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and also agreed to join inter-Korean military talks at an unspecified future date.

The talks had previously been green-lighted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s broadcast, which took a surprisingly conciliatory approach toward Seoul. Kim’s message followed months of tensions over the North’s strategic weapons programs and its war of words with the administration of US President Donald Trump.

‘Ill-boding remarks’

Still, the tenuousness of cross-border amity was evident on Sunday, when North Korean state media slammed South Korean President Moon Jae-in for praising Trump’s hardline policy toward Pyongyang, and threatened to rescind its offer of attending the Winter Games,.

Asked by a foreign reporter during his annual New Year’s press briefing last week about Trump’s role in inter-Korean talks, Moon had said Trump “deserved big credit,” suggesting that US-led sanctions were what had prompted Kim’s urge to negotiate.

Pyongyang responded with a sharp rap over the knuckles for Moon. The Korean Central News Agency said, according to Yonhap Newswire’s translation, that Moon’s “ill-boding remarks are chilling the atmosphere for reconciliation” and warned Seoul that “the train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang.”

The various developments took place against the backdrop of a meeting of foreign ministers from nations that joined the 1950-53 Korean War United Nations Command, as well as additional invitees, in the Canadian city of Vancouver on Monday. Foreign ministers from the United States, South Korea and Japan are among those discussing coordination of financial pressures and maritime interdiction activities against North Korea.

However, neither China nor Russia – which share land borders with North Korea, and which are broadly seen as supportive of the isolated state – is represented at the meeting.

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