TOKYO — Koreans on both halves of the divided peninsula are fond of the phrase "Nam nam buk nyeo," literally "Southern man, Northern woman." South Korean men use it to assert that they are the most handsome, while North Koreans claim that their women are the most beautiful. (South Korean women and North Korean men are, understandably, less fond of the phrase.)
South Koreans are now in the midst of a North Korean beauty blitz — and, well, they're gaga.
A frenzied media posse, the kind usually associated with K-pop stars, has been chasing Hyon Song Wol, a singer in North Korea's all-female Moranbong Band and a rising political star in Kim Jong Un's regime, on her two-day visit to the South.
She has been leading a seven-member delegation to inspect facilities in the South where the North's Samjiyon orchestra will play on its visit during next month's Winter Olympics, in which 22 North Korean athletes will compete.
She spent Sunday in Gangneung, an Olympic venue on the east coast, then on Monday went to the National Theater in Seoul — a brutalist-style building that would not be out of place in Pyongyang — and asked to check the lights and sound system.
Television networks carried live coverage of the delegation's arrival in the South, and camera teams were in hot pursuit every step of the way from then on. Hyon's face graced the front pages of almost every newspaper in South Korea on Monday morning.
As she made stops Sunday and Monday, breathless local journalists reported, paparazzi-style, on what she was wearing — was that fox fur around her neck? — and what she had been eating. Fish soup and abalone porridge for breakfast Monday morning, in case you were wondering.
They lobbed questions at her to try to break through her poise, but she continued smiling like the Mona Lisa throughout.
North Korean authorities, however, complained about the media scrum around Hyon, and South Korea's Unification Ministry on Monday reprimanded local reporters for making her feel "uncomfortable" by "repeatedly" asking questions.
Hyon, who is 35, is the focus of so much curiosity partly because of her role at the center of one of North Korea's biggest cultural exports, the Moranbong Band.
The band was established on Kim's orders in 2012 and was like nothing North Korea had seen before. Instead of women in tent-like traditional dresses with a repertoire consisting entirely of songs about revolutionary fervor, Hyon and her fellow singers made their debut in sparkly short dresses and performed the theme from Rocky and Disney's "It's a Small World."
The band, led by Hyon, was due to play in Beijing at the end of 2015 but abruptly returned home just hours before its members were set to go onstage. This was apparently because China objected to the high propaganda quotient in the band's repertoire.
But the fascination with Hyon also stems from rumors that she was once Kim's girlfriend and that he'd had her publicly executed with a machine gun as punishment for making pornographic videos. The fact that there's absolutely no proof of any of that — putting aside the minor detail that she's clearly still alive — hasn't stopped the repeated retelling of this sensational tale over the past four years.
The glamorous singer represents a very different side of North Korea from the one with rampant starvation and human rights abuses — the one that is reality for the vast majority of North Koreans.
In that way, protests about intrusive media coverage aside, Hyon's visit is a propaganda coup for North Korea.
"North Koreans are very proud," said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean culture who teaches at Korea University in Seoul. "They are saying, 'We may be a communist state, but our girls are the most beautiful, they're not like those plastic girls in the South,' " she said, in a reference to the extensive use of cosmetic surgery in South Korea.
That rationale prompted North Korea to keep using attractive young women in close-fitting uniforms to direct traffic in Pyongyang despite the arrival of traffic lights, and is behind its decision to dispatch a 230-member "cheering squad" to South Korea for the Winter Olympics.
The young women in the squad sing and wave with an eerie synchronicity, but they do not do cartwheels and tricky moves with pompoms like American cheerleaders.
The cheering squads are called the "army of beauties" in Japan, one of North Korea's sworn enemies, and have been a topic of hot discussion on Japanese TV shows.
One woman who had been in a North Korean cheering squad before she defected told Fuji TV that women must be in their late teens or early 20s and must be over 5 feet 2 inches tall to be eligible for inclusion. They must also be deemed beautiful, the defector said, and come from families that are loyal to the Kim regime.
Ri Sol Ju, Kim's wife, was part of a cheering squad that went to South Korea in 2005 for the Asian athletic championships. Photos of the young Ri, dressed in a black-and-white traditional dress and waving at the crowd, resurfaced after their marriage became public.
She, like most women selected for the cheering squad, is a graduate of Pyongyang's elite arts high school, Kumsong.
But there's another requirement these days, according to reports from inside North Korea: bribes. Young North Korean women are paying money to officials to try to get selected for the trip to South Korea, the Daily NK reported last week.
Not everyone in South Korea is wild about North Korea's soft-power efforts.
When Hyon arrived back in Seoul on the train from Gangneung on Monday morning, a group of protesters was waiting for her outside the station. They set fire to a picture of Kim, as well as to a North Korean flag and a white-and-blue "unification flag," as Hyon's delegation went past. "Long live the Republic of Korea!" they yelled, referring to the South.
Meanwhile, the JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea's top three newspapers, on Monday warned the government not to be seduced by Pyongyang.
In an editorial titled "Beware wishful thinking," the paper urged the South's progressive government not to go too far to try to facilitate North Korea's participation in the Olympics, by, for example, easing sanctions.