TOKYO – So much for that slight thaw in the relationship between China and North Korea.
The Moranbong Band, the glamorous girl group with members chosen by Kim Jong Un himself, was due to perform the first of three “friendship performances” in Beijing starting Saturday night.
The surprise move, the first time the group would have performed outside North Korea, generated a considerable amount of excitement among some young Chinese, even though the concerts were to be invitation-only.
Then, before they’d sung a single word and strummed a single guitar string, they were gone. The group was seen hastily departing for Beijing airport on Saturday afternoon, catching the next Air Koryo flight back to Pyongyang.
The performance “cannot be staged as scheduled due to communication issues at the working level,” China’s Xinhua news agency reported, citing “relevant departments.”
“China attached high importance to the cultural exchanges with the DPRK, and was ready to continue to work with it to promote the bilateral exchanges and cooperation in culture and all other areas, a press release from the departments said,” Xinhua reported, using the acronym for North Korea's official name.
The Korean People's Army's State Merited Chorus was also scheduled to perform at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, known locally as "The Giant Egg," for three consecutive days from Saturday. "We express deep regret for the inconvenience this may have brought you," said a notice on the center's website.
But Saturday afternoon, Japanese television networks broadcast footage of the women, dressed in military coats and hats, arriving at Beijing airport, as photos began appearing on social media.
North Korea's Ambassador to China, Ji Jae Ryon, was seen accompanying the women onto the plane, which was delayed by three hours and took off shortly after 4 p.m., the Shanghaiist website reported.
The Moranbong Band -- ordered formed by Kim Jong Un in 2012 as North Korea's answer to the manufactured, saccharine girl bands that have come out of South Korea in recent years -- has become a sensation because it's so, well, different from the usual music that comes out of the totalitarian regime's propaganda units.
Sure, they still sing propaganda, but they do it in short skirts and high heels -- a departure from the conservative attire of North Korea -- and with electric guitars and drum kits. They also have been known to play western music, including the theme from "Rocky."
As with many things about North Korea, the reasons behind this sudden change were unknown.
Pyongyang itself had announced the tour with some enthusiasm. The North's official Korean Central News Agency reported Friday about the trip, saying that "the world is now focusing on the China visit of the DPRK's State Merited Chorus and Moranbong Band," and that "the Chinese people show keen interest in those art troupes' performance tour of their country."
KCNA even cited a report from China's Global Times newspaper quoting Lu Chao, a researcher of the Liaoning Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, as saying that the performance tour "goes to prove that China and the DPRK [have] made a substantial progress in the field of high-level cultural exchange."
Relations between North Korea and China, once famously described as "as close as lips and teeth," have markedly deteriorated since Kim Jong Un took power at the end of 2011 and conducted a nuclear test a few months later.
China's President Xi Jinping has made little secret of his disdain for the young leader next door, and the two have not met since both took power, unusual given that North Korea relies on China for almost everything.
But things seemed to take a turn for the better in October, when Liu Yunshan, the fifth most senior official in China’s Communist Party, stood at Kim's side during the 70th anniversary celebrations for the North's Workers' Party. Television footage showed the two men laughing and waving throughout the event.
Now, North Korean watchers will go back to reading the tea leaves and trying to figure out what went wrong with this much-hyped trip.
The group has already been subject to rumors. There was talk that the leader of the band, Hyon Song Wol, had been executed after she disappeared from performances in 2013. But she showed up in 2014, and was among the two dozen band members briefly in Beijing this weekend.
When will the Moranbong Band turn up again? Watch this space.