The smiling, head-bobbing, saluting women of the Moranbong Band posses all the hallmarks of your typical K-pop group. Clad in mini-skirts and high heels, they perform under flashing lights on dramatic, larger-than-life sets. They infuse Western pop flavor with a Korean twist.
But the Moranbong ladies have a special honor that has been bestowed on none of the world’s most recognizable K-pop sensations, from Big Bang to Girls’ Generation. They exist in their own league, really, having each been hand-picked by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
Started in 2012, the girl group is an incarnation of former leader Kim Jong Il’s Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. According to the North Korean state news agency KCNA, “Since its birth the Band [sic] has creditably played its role as the first standard-bearer on the ideological and cultural front, arousing all the service personnel and people to the building of a thriving nation…”
Moranbong will arrive in Beijing this weekend for “friendship performances” meant to bolster liaisons with China, a longstanding North Korean ally that has had strained relations with the authoritarian state since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011.
The “worldwide stylish band,” in the words of KCNA, travels to Beijing at an opportune time: on Thursday, the U.N. Security Council, of which China is a veto-wielding permanent member, is slated to address allegations of North Korea’s human rights abuses.
A 400-page U.N. Human Rights Commission report released last February detailed “unspeakable atrocities” whose “gravity, scale and nature” are said to have no parallel in the contemporary world. Documents cited “crimes against humanity” as evidenced by testimony from political prisoners who said they were used for martial arts practice and had to watch their families being murdered.
The inquiry’s findings are a dark contrast to the boisterous national front presented by the Moranbong Band, whose hits include “With Pride” and “My country is the best!”.
Alongside the staid exterior normally associated with North Korea, the Moranbong Band felt edgier — risqué, even — when it debuted. But with all its resemblances to a mainstream pop band, Moranbong is still essentially a military orchestra, with all the discipline and rigidity that that entails in a dictator state. The band members, who do their own instrumental accompaniments, are tasked with singing the philosophies of the army (another hit: “Let’s Support Our Supreme Commander with Arms”) and hold high military ranks.
Will their Moranbong’s musical charms work on China? A Chinese taxi driver summarized the two countries’ relationship to The Post’s Anna Fifield this September:
“In the past, North Korea was like a dog that we raised,” he said. “China could just feed it some meat and it would behave and listen to us. But now the dog has turned into a wolf and it bites. It doesn’t listen to China anymore. Meat won’t keep it under control.”
In 2013, China was angered by the nuclear test that North Korea conducted just months after Chinese president Xi Jinping took power, joining the rest of the U.N. in condemnations and sanctions. That same year, Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who had been the main economic liaison with China.
But there have been signs of a possible loosening of tensions in recent months. The Chinese Communist Party’s fifth-highest-ranking member, Liu Yunshan, met with Kim in Pyongyang this October.
According to China’s Xinhua News Agency, Moranbong will be in Beijing from Dec. 12 to 14, performing alongside the State Merited Chorus, another North Korean traveling performance troupe. They were in Liaoning, a northeastern Chinese province, earlier this week.
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