Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra, arrives at the South's CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) as she heads back to North Korea, on January 22, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

While the majority of the South Korean population seems to be behind the tension-easing attendance of North Korea at next month’s Winter Olympics, not all is well, with conservative sensitivities south of the DMZ pricked by the rushed participation.

A seven-member artistic delegation from the North spent two days in South Korea on Sunday and Monday inspecting venues for performances intended to coincide with the Games. It was led by the glamorous, fur-clad Hyon Song-wol, a leading figure in the elite Mansundae Art Troup, which oversees both the classical Samyijon Orchestra and the more upbeat and patriotic all-girl Moranbong electric band. While evidence for Southern allegations that she was Kim Jong-un’s girlfriend is scant, there is no doubt the 30-something belongs to Pyongyang’s super elite. Her status and good looks drew frenzied attention.

Seoul took no chances of unruly citizens interrupting her visit: Hyon’s delegation received the kind of treatment usually reserved for visiting presidents. Cable TV covered every minute of her delegation’s travels, as its coach sped through cleared Seoul streets in an escorted motorcade to inspect venues. A press pack tailing the delegation was kept at bay by police and intelligence service officials; Hyon herself ignored shouted questions with a smile.

Reportedly, over 700 police were mobilized to shepherd the delegation on its two-day visit. Given that the Samyijon Orchestra and related performers, a taekwondo demonstration team, cheerleaders, media and a more modest team of 22 athletes from North Korea will be traveling in and around Gangwon Province and Seoul during the Games, which will take place from February 9-25, questions hang over what resources the national police force – which plans to deploy 10,000 officers in total to secure the Olympiad – will devote to the North Koreans.

A bus transporting Hyon Song-wol, head of North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra, drives past a check point on the Grand Unification Bridge near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, on January 22, 2018. Photo: Kim Joo-seong / Yonhap via Reuters

Even so, in a nation that last year saw millions take to the streets to demand the impeachment of conservative President Park Geun-hye, no major protests have yet taken place against the North Koreans’ visit. But in South Korea – a nation that is almost as ideologically riven as the divided peninsula itself – not everyone is supportive.

A small crowd of perhaps 50 right-wingers – led by lawmaker Cho Won-jin, who heads the single-seat, ultra-conservative Korea Patriots Party – set fire to an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Seoul Station on Monday as the delegation were passing through. Police extinguished the fire, and will reportedly investigate the protesters.

Critics are not limited to Cho’s party. Conservative Hong Joon-pyo, head of the leading opposition Liberty Korean Party, snarled last week that the Pyeongchang Olympics had been turned into the Pyongyang Olympics.

While it seems unlikely that Hyon’s delegation saw the rail-station demonstration, the right’s escapades have not escaped the attention of North Korea’s state media. “If these traitors and psychopaths defaming the dignified Korean nation are allowed to go scot-free, the national reconciliation, unity and the building of a reunified powerful country will be delayed,” the Korean Central News Agency shot back.

A member of a South Korean conservative civic group burns a North Korean national flag during a protest opposing North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in Seoul, South Korea, on January 22, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

Apparently wary of anything that might derail ongoing processes, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, calling the current inter-Korean engagement a “precious opportunity,” has pleaded for restraint. An official with the presidential Blue House told Yonhap News Agency, “North Korea too is a participating country, and we ought to respect it as we would respect all the others.” A Blue House official said he was unaware of guidance being passed on to media, but a South Korean desk editor confirmed that signals had been sent from government to domestic press to respect the sensitivities of the North Koreans.

Such signals have apparently been heeded by some media. Bruce Klinger, an American North Korea expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, tweeted on January 21 that after a recent interview with a South Korean TV station – he did not specify which – he “was told afterward that there was pressure from their editorial board not to be too critical of the Moon Administration, so they cut a lot.”

But while Seoul governments have customarily maintained significant control over terrestrial broadcasters, the country’s three major newspapers – The Chosun Ilbo, the Joongang Ilbo and the Dong-A Ilbo, all of conservative bent  – are privately owned. 

“Conservative people and parties harshly criticized the delegation’s activities, but I believe the majority of South Korean people support the opening of inter-Korean relations”

Yesterday, the Joongang editorialized, “Rather than expressing regret over Pyongyang’s aberrant behavior, our government asked the press to restrain from negative reports about it. If the North really delayed the delegation’s visit to tame our government and media, it has already achieved some results.” The column was apparently referring to rumors that Hyon’s delegation delayed her trip from Saturday to Sunday due to anger in Pyongyang about press criticism in the South. The column also noted that the majority of South Koreans oppose a joint women’s hockey team: the South Korean squad will have to swallow 12 new players from the North.

A columnist for South Korea’s best-selling newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo, was more outspoken today (Tuesday). “The North Koreans are determined to steal the limelight,” the column opined. “No fewer than 140 North Korean performers and 230 cheerleaders are heading across the border, where they will team up with a rabble of North Korea sympathizers to grab the spotlight at Olympic events.”

Even so, the Chosun’s red face may stem from embarrassment as much as anger. One of its top-trending articles today was an August 2013 story on the supposed execution of Hyon. The lurid piece, citing “sources in China,” reported that she had been executed for making pornographic videos and possessing bibles. The story also alleged that Hyon had had an affair with Kim.

Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra, pictured in Seoul. Photo: Shin Joon-hee / Yonhap via Reuters

While the killings of his uncle Jang Song-taek and half-brother Kim Jong-nam have established the ruthlessness of Kim Jong-un, reports of purges and executions of senior individuals – who later reappear, in perfect health – frequently appear in South Korean media. Hyon’s non-executed state was reported in 2014; her recent appearance in the South suggests that her reported disgrace was exaggerated, if not fictive.

Given the hair-trigger sensitivities surrounding the North Korean visits, even experts were divided over how Seoul should behave towards both the visitors and its own public.

“If I am asked to take on one of those opinions – the conservatives or the government – I would support the government,” said Sun Ki-young, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification. “Conservative people and parties harshly criticized the delegation’s activities, but I believe the majority of South Korean people support the opening of inter-Korean relations.”

Referring to the engagement policy  of a decade ago, which improved inter-Korean relations but failed to halt North Korean nuclearization, Go Myong-hyun, of the Asan Institute, said: “There has been a bit of a policy misfire on the part of the South Korean government – they are using the same recipe that was used 10 years ago during the ‘Sunshine Policy.’ They are taking public opinion for granted and now they are taken aback: They will have to convince the public that inter-Korean dialogue is good.”

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