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China says visit by popular North Korean band is important

by Takuya Karube

Kyodo

China sees a six-day visit by North Korea’s most popular all-female band as important, an ambassador said Wednesday, as the ensemble left Pyongyang for its first concerts abroad.

In the latest sign of warming relations between China and North Korea, the Moranbong Band and some 100 members of the State Merited Chorus, clad in military uniforms, left for Beijing by train in the morning.

The music group of about 20 women, known for sometimes wearing noticeably untraditional above-the-knee skirts and playing instruments such as electric violins, was formed in 2012 following an order from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The band, departing from a Pyongyang railway station, was seen off by Kim Ki Nam, a high-ranking official of the Workers’ Party, and China’s Ambassador to North Korea, Li Jinjun.

Li told the official that China is “very happy to hear about the performances” and that Liu Yunshan, the Communist Party’s fifth-ranked leader, who visited North Korea in October, has also “attached great importance to the visit.”

The North Korean official, who is responsible for propaganda, said the visit will be a “very good opportunity for exchanges with our country’s people and artists, and development (of relations).”

The trip is led by Choe Hwi, first vice department director of the North Korean ruling party’s Central Committee, who deals with propaganda affairs.

Speaking at a regular press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “Such people-to-people exchanges in various forms are conducive to our mutual understanding and friendship.”

She said, however, that the ministry has no detailed information about the concerts.

The premiere showing will be held Saturday at the National Center for the Performing Arts, located in the heart of the Chinese capital near Tiananmen Square, according to sources familiar with the situation.

The concerts will most likely be invitation-only, the sources said.

North Korea’s official media have reported that the band and the chorus will be in China, North Korea’s most important ally, through next Tuesday.

Kim Jong Un, who inherited power following the death of his father in late 2011, has attended the band’s concerts many times, with its repertoire in one early performance including the theme song from the movie “Rocky” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, along with senior officials, were also in the audience of one of the joint performances given by the band and a choir in October for commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party.

China’s relations with North Korea seem to have warmed somewhat since it sent Liu to Pyongyang in October.

He was the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power.

After a prolonged period of frayed ties over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Liu held talks with Kim and attended events marking the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the ruling party.

Liu also presented him with a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping, and both sides agreed on the importance of maintaining the two countries’ traditional friendly relations.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported late Tuesday night the visit by the Moranbong Band will “contribute to deepening friendship and boosting the cultural and artistic exchanges between the peoples of the two countries.”

The sudden announcement about the concerts was made a day after a senior Chinese Communist Party official responsible for dealing with North Korea expressed hope of bringing bilateral ties to a higher level.

Song Tao, who recently became head of the Chinese ruling party’s international department, conveyed Beijing’s willingness to North Korea’s Ambassador to China, Ji Jae Ryong, during their meeting on Monday, according to a statement from the party.

Song was quoted as saying that he believes relations between the countries will “surely scale new heights” in the future through joint efforts.