Hours before first concert in China, North Korean girl band abruptly goes home

13 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Band favored by North Korean leader cancels Beijing concerts.

North and South Korea agreed Friday to extend rare, high-level talks into a second day, following an initial round of discussions aimed at building on an August agreement to ease cross-border tensions. BEIJING — An all-female band formed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un canceled its concerts in Beijing and abruptly left the Chinese capital due to unspecified communication issues, possibly further cooling relations between the traditional allies. The vice-minister level talks, held on the North Korean side of the border in the jointly-run Kaesong industrial zone, will resume Saturday morning, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said. 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. The fact that both sides agreed to keep talking will be seen as a positive step for a process that was never likely to produce any substantial breakthrough.

The performance “cannot be staged as scheduled due to communication issues at the working level,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing a news release from unnamed “relevant departments.” Band members arrived at Beijing’s airport in North Korean Embassy vehicles on Saturday afternoon, and departed aboard a North Korean Air Koryo jet shortly after 4 p.m. following a lengthy delay, Chinese news website sina.com reported. South Korean officials want to discuss more reunions in the border town of Panmunjom between ageing family members separated by the 1950-53 Korean War. A staff member at the National Theater, where the band was to give the invitation-only performances, said the concerts had been canceled, but did not give a reason.

Friday’s talks arise from an exchange of artillery fire across the militarised zone in August which prompted a prolonged session of high-level talks between the two rivals. I hope various pending issues will be solved one by one,” South Korea’s chief delegate Hwang Boo-Gi told his North Korean counterpart Jon Jong-Su as they shook hands.

One effort to resume the high-level talks in June 2013 collapsed before they even began, after the North took offence at the rank of the chief delegate nominated by Seoul. Friday’s talks were the fruit of an August accord that saw both sides step back from the brink of an armed conflict and commit to a process of de-escalation. “Let’s take a crucial first step to pave the way for reunification. Calls to the International Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which organizes exchanges with foreign political parties, rang unanswered on Sunday and there was no statement available online. Expectations for Friday’s meeting dropped last month when both sides settled during preparatory negotiations for a meeting at the vice-ministerial level. Analysts say a positive result would see the two sides simply agreeing to continue the dialogue and offering some encouraging noises about future cooperation. “The outcome this time could have a significant impact on the path the overall inter-Korea relationship takes next year,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul.

Although North Korea is well known for its unpredictability, the sudden cancellation of the concerts could hurt relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. 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. The news release quoted by Xinhua said China attaches high importance to cultural exchanges with North Korea, and was “ready to continue to work with it to promote the bilateral exchanges and cooperation in culture and all other areas.” The band’s abrupt departures might have been related to stories circulated by the South Korean media about a rumored past relationship between the married Kim and a female member of the band, which also made rounds on Chinese social media, said Yang Moo-jin, a North Korea expert at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. Currently the reunions are being held less than once a year and with only a very limited number of participants – despite a huge waiting list of largely elderly South Koreans desperate to see their relatives in the North before they die.

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. At Thursday’s Security Council debate, the UN accused North Korea of widespread human-rights abuses, including forced labour, torture and mass starvation. For South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who came to power with pledges of closer engagement with Pyongyang, a deal on the reunions would represent a welcome feather in her cap. Park has repeatedly talked up the prospect of eventual Korean re-unification, but has offered little in policy terms to ease tensions with the perennially belligerent North.

However, Kim’s unwillingness to visit China and his government’s refusal to restart denuclearization talks have frustrated the Chinese leadership. 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. With only two years left until the end of her term, Cheong said Park was “running out of time” to try to build a legacy when it comes to inter-Korean relations. 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.

The talks began just hours after North Korea came under stinging criticism for the second consecutive year at the UN Security Council over its human rights record. The meeting was chaired by the United States, whose ambassador Samantha Power said Pyongyang’s rights abuses represented “a level of horror unrivalled in the world”.

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