In the past, South Korea’s popular music, known as K-pop, didn’t find a great deal of love in Pyongyang.
When the government in Seoul decided to blast some of its top hits across the border with massive loudspeakers along with weather and news reports, North Korea condemned it as an act of war.
But as both countries appear to be warming up to each other ahead of talks later this month, K-pop suddenly doesn’t appear to be so evil anymore. In fact, Kim Jong Un, who became the first North Korean leader to attend a K-pop concert, may have actually enjoyed it.
“He exchanged warm greetings with them and warmly welcomed their Pyongyang visit,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency wrote in a summary of the event. KCNA went on to say that the leader — who has long sought to keep South Korean cultural and political influences out of the country — was “deeply moved to see our people sincerely acclaiming the performance, deepening the understanding of the popular art of the south side.”
One of the songs performed at the event was titled “Our Wish Is Reunification,” according to the KCNA dispatch, celebrating that “the south side art troupe has brought a spring of peace.”
Drawing inspiration from a number of genres and effects, “Korean pop” is especially popular among younger South Koreans and briefly had a flash of fame in the West with Psy’s 2012 hit “Gangnam Style.”
For the last seven years, thousands of South Koreans have assembled at the Nuri Peace Park only miles from the border with North Korea for an annual August K-pop concert framed around reconciliation and peace. So far, the events have proceeded without participation by the North Korean regime, which is why Sunday’s concert in Pyongyang was a watershed moment.
The North Korean rhetoric may come as a surprise, given Kim’s usual saber-rattling statements that are mostly directed against the United States. But in recent months, the North Korean regime has dominated the headlines by deviating from its tough talk — most prominently during the PyeongChang Olympics, when a squad of cheerleaders went on a charm offensive. During the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, North and South Korean athletes both marched under a unified flag.
Sunday’s K-pop performance and its subsequent celebration by North Korean media add to the complexity of North Korean diplomacy that has emerged in recent months. While President Trump has referred to Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” my colleagues Emily Rauhala and Anna Fifield wrote that the regime’s diplomatic outreach — including Kim's visit to Beijing last week — is making it harder to dismiss the North Korean leader as irrational or as a madman.
“We’re seeing a carefully crafted North Korean strategy on diplomacy unfold on the world stage, starting with Beijing,” Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert and fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, told my colleagues in an email last week.
The changing rhetoric also doesn’t indicate that Kim is ready to suddenly give in to U.S. demands. “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim was quoted as saying by China’s official news agency last week.
Experts cautioned that the term “denuclearization on the peninsula,” suggests that North Korea could seek specific security assurances from the United States and other nations with nuclear arsenals that could theoretically reach North Korea.
So the talks between Pyongyang and South Korea and later the United States will probably proceed less harmoniously than Sunday’s K-pop show.
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