SEOUL — North Korea will send the 140-strong Samjiyon orchestra to perform in South Korea as part of its delegation to the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies next month. The dispatch of the orchestra was the first item on the agenda when North and South Korea began discussions this week about logistical arrangements, which include the two teams again marching under a unity banner and, for the first time, plans to compete with a joint team — a women's hockey squad with athletes from both sides.
The Samjiyon Orchestra will perform in Seoul and on the east coast in Gangneung, one of the venues for the Olympics, which the South Korean government are promoting as the “peace Games.”
Here’s what you need to know about this musical group.
What exactly is the Samjiyon orchestra?
Good question. North Korea has a “Samjiyon Band,” a group made up of about 50 or 60 musicians — strings, woodwind, brass, percussion — that mostly plays popular classical music. It's what might be called an orchestra anywhere else, except that North Korea calls it a band.
“Samjiyon orchestra is not like the symphony orchestras that we know. It includes singing and dancing parts as well,” Chong Chi-yong, artistic director of the Korean Symphony Orchestra and part of South Korea’s delegation, told local media.
North Korea will probably turn the band into an orchestra for this event.
“The North Korean authorities seem to treat musicians fluidly and move them around from one orchestra to another, typically without any distinction being made to the audience, so I believe that Samjiyon will follow suit,” said Adam Cathcart, a North Korea expert at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and an accomplished cellist who has taken close interest in North Korea's musical groups.
But given how high-profile these performances will be, there will be additional considerations, he said.
“It seems certain that the North Korean authorities will fill the orchestra with players who can get the job done, refrain from defecting — not something the South Korean organizers of the games and related arts festivals would like to see either, presumably — and augment whatever 'soft power' reserves that the North has when dealing with South Korea,” Cathcart said, describing South Korea as a “bona fide musical superpower.”
After all, South Korea gave the world “Gangnam Style,” not to mention the renowned conductor Chung Myung-whun and a slew of acclaimed classical musicians.
How long has this Samjiyon Band been around?
Kim Jong Il ordered the formation of the band in 2009 under the Mansudae Art Troupe, the regime’s most prestigious cultural organization. He ordered it to “make music appropriate for the public building strong and prosperous nation and music that can touch people’s hearts by making them smile and shed tears,” according to Choson Sinbo, a North Korean-focused newspaper based in Japan.
The band is one of several more modern groups that have emerged in North Korea in recent years. The musicians are in their early 20s and play innovative music, often dancing and showing themselves to be having a good time while performing. It could be called the North Korean equivalent of rocking out. The band encourages the audience to enjoy its performances by clapping and dancing along.
Like the state Unhasu Orchestra and the glamorous all-female Moranbong Band, the Samjiyon Band members are known for their flashy attire and striking stage presence.
The lead singer of the Moranbong Band, Hyon Song Wol, was part of the delegation to inter-Korean talks that arranged the orchestra’s trip. Now South Korean media are speculating that she might make the trip to Seoul with the orchestra.
So what are this band’s hits?
In concerts last year, it played some distinctly North Korean numbers, such as “Our Marshal,” “We Have Longed To See You,” and “Our Comrade Kim Jong Un.” You, dear reader, are probably not so familiar with these tunes, so here’s a video.
But the band has also played foreign and popular classical music. During its New Year concert last year, it played theme songs from “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” complete with animations in the background. Scenes from “Kung Fu Panda” were also featured on the backdrop.
What will the band play in South Korea?
That’s still to be announced. The fact that North Korea insisted on discussing the musical delegation as the first matter of business for the Olympics — ahead of issues that could be considered more pressing, such as athletes — shows the priority that it places on this. Analysts wonder whether North Korea sees this as a chance to perform its propaganda in the South. When the Moranbong Band went to Beijing at the end of 2015 to give its first concert abroad, the members abruptly left China just hours before their concert was due to start. This was apparently the result of disagreements over the propaganda quotient of the concert.
Will South Korean officials insist that the Samjiyon Orchestra not play odes of loyalty to Kim Jong Un? Refrain from showing footage of missile launches on the screen behind the musicians? Those details are still to be announced.
Is this kind of musical exchange a first?
It’s not unprecedented, but it is rare.
In 2000, when the first inter-Korean summit was held, North Korea’s State Symphony Orchestra, comprising 132 members, performed in Seoul with the South’s KBS Symphony Orchestra.
Then, in 2008, the New York Philharmonic went to Pyongyang for a concert that was billed at the time as part of a warming of relations between North Korea and the United States. The orchestra played both the North Korean and American national anthems, and both countries’ flags flew on the stage. It also played the traditional Korean song of longing, “Arirang,” and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” But clearly, that “ping ping diplomacy,” as I called it at the time, did not herald a new chapter in the sworn enemies’ relations.
More recently, the Unhasu Orchestra performed in Paris in 2012, playing with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under its conductor, South Korea's Chong.
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.