Members of K-pop girl-band Red Velvet after a rehearsal at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1. Photo: AFP/Korea Pool
Members of K-pop girl-band Red Velvet after a rehearsal at the 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1. Photo: AFP/Korea Pool

South Korean K-pop is a black market item in North Korea, but in Pyongyang on Sunday night, it received the royal seal of approval when state leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju appeared at a concert featuring some of the South’s top performers.

Although it was the first time a North Korean leader ever watched a K-pop performance, experts said, Kim’s apparent thumbs-up is not likely to lead to any change of policy toward South Korean cultural content in the near future.

The South Korean performance troupe visiting Pyongyang included top crooner Cho Yong-pil – a veteran performer who holds a place in the South Korean genre that is somewhat analogous to Tom Jones in the Western popular canon – and girl-band-of-the-moment, Red Velvet.

TV footage of Sunday’s “Spring is Coming” concert in Pyongyang’s 1,500-seat Grand Theater showed a smartly dressed North Korean audience swaying to tunes that included hits from the individuals as well as such songs as “Our Hope is Reunification” and “Until We Meet Again.” Red Velvet, who sang their hit “Bad Boy” and were dressed conservatively in Pyongyang, rather than wearing their favored midriff-baring T-shirts and sexy stockings, were apparently of particular interest to Kim.

“There had been interest in whether I would come and see Red Velvet,” he said according to pool reports from the North. “I had initially planned to attend a performance the day after tomorrow but I came here today after adjusting my schedule.”

The audience applauded Kim, seated in a gallery at the top of the venue together with visiting South Korean Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan. Kim also took pictures with the troupe after the concert concluded.

The singers were the first popular performers from the South to appear in North Korea for 13 years.

They were reciprocating a visit from a North Korean orchestra which visited the South during the Winter Olympics earlier this year. That visit was sparked after a conciliatory New Year’s message from Kim was broadcast, igniting a whirlwind of diplomacy that led to Kim’s first foreign visit – to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing last week – and upcoming summits on April 27 with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and in May with US President Donald Trump.

Also on Sunday, a South Korean taekwondo team performed at the Taekwondo Hall of Fame in Pyongyang. Their show included kicking, breaking and elements of folk and modern dance. Both the artistes and the taekwondo team will perform further shows in the North on Tuesday.

If your name is not Kim, K-pop can get you killed

Still, some who watched Sunday night’s TV footage noted the irony: While the national leader watched a concert of South Korean popular culture, that culture is banned in North Korea.

Yet in a nation where the internet is largely inaccessible and where popular entertainment is highly prescribed, there is a thriving demand for the kind of South Korean popular music, TV dramas and films that have taken the rest of Asia by storm – with some guessing that as many as half the population has watched southern content. Much South Korean material – which, unlike Chinese or Hollywood content does not require translation for a North Korean audience – is smuggled in on thumb drives and traded on black markets.

While defectors and those who work with them are unclear of the actual legalities surrounding possession of South Korean cultural content, one defector told Asia Times she knew of a case when possession of such content led to death.

“There are stories in my hometown of a man who was interrogated for watching a South Korean drama, and was killed during interrogation – officers are very brutal,” said Lee Hyeon-seo, a prominent defector who has met US President Donald Trump and is the author of the international bestseller “The Girl with Seven Names,” her autobiography.

Even so, she added that related punishments fluctuate, based on policy objectives. “Depending on the situation – if there is a certain time when the regime want to make an example of people – if somebody is caught, they can be executed, though during a normal situation, [punishment] is minor, like paying fines,” she said.

Her views were backed up by an American who runs a charity for North Korean defectors in South Korea, who noted that not only does law enforcement vary according to the political winds, but that in different geographies – such as close to the China border – black market content is easier to acquire than elsewhere.

“One thing about North Korea is that there is not a consistently enforced policy: In some areas, it is easy to get, in some areas not,” said Casey Lartigue Junior, co-founder of the Teach North Korean Refugees Global Education Center, who added that when it comes to sanctions for possessing content, “there are cases of torture, there are cases of fines.”

Defector Lee was doubtful that the Pyongyang concert would prefigure a change in policy toward South Korean content. “This is just one public performance, an official, government event,” she said. “Besides that, nothing will change at all.”

And what is good for the leader may not be good for the led – the average North Korean – said Lartigue. “I don’t see that in his brain there is any contradiction,” he said, referring to Kim’s position of extraordinary power inside the state. “It is his country – you can break your own rules!”

Military exercises get underway in South Korea

On the same day the performers were playing in Pyongyang, annual South Korea-US war games kicked off in South Korea. While Trump and Moon have said they will keep applying “maximum pressure” to the North, the exercises were delayed until after the Winter Olympiad finished on March 18.

About 11,500 US troops will deploy alongside some 300,000 South Korean soldiers during field drills, newswire Yonhap reported. The field drills usually involve live firing from artillery and air assets and marine landings. But given the current air of détente, high-profile US assets such as aircraft carriers and stealth bombers are not expected to take part. The exercises will reportedly end prior to the April 27 summit between Kim and Moon, which will be held in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, inside the DMZ. However, less obtrusive command post exercises, with some 12,000 US troops, will overlap the summit, Yonhap noted.

While spring drills customarily result in soaring tensions on the peninsula, recent Pyongyang state media messaging has hinted to the North Korean public that there could be an upcoming warming in North Korean-US relations.

Lee, who watches North Korean events with intimate interest, is unsure what to think of the swift-moving diplomatic game underway in and around the Korean Peninsula.

“I do not believe everything. I am thinking maybe the tensions between North Korea and the US will come back as usual,” the defector said. “But somehow, I sort of feel, ‘What if Kim Jong-un can really make a change?’ and I think I can visit my hometown. I have that hope – but not that much, because I know the nature of the regime.”

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