Asia Pacific / Politics

North Korea agrees to send orchestra to South as Pyongyang's harsh words cast cloud over Olympic talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Pyongyang and Seoul agreed Monday to send a 140-member orchestra to South Korea for next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and hold concerts in Seoul, just a day after the North laid into South Korean President Moon Jae-in for pushing the nuclear issue and what it called a “brown-nosing attitude.”

Representatives from the two Koreas met Monday for the second time in a week as they worked to hammer out details for the North’s participation in next month’s Olympics, an approach Seoul sees as a way of lowering the temperature on the peninsula.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said that the orchestra will perform in Seoul, and in the city of Gangneung, where some of the competitions will be held, the South’s Yonhap news agency said.

Late Sunday, Pyongyang’s state-run media lambasted Moon for a New Year’s speech in which he praised the role of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy in bringing the North to the talks, saying his attempts to link reconciliation between the two sides to denuclearization was “ill-boding” and risked “chilling the atmosphere.”

“Trump said that the north-south dialogue has become possible thanks to the international sanctions and pressure spearheaded by the U.S.,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch. “The south Korean chief executive expressed gratitude to Trump and pledged to lead the north-south talks to the DPRK-U.S. talks for the ‘north’s nuclear dismantlement.’ His brown-nosing attitude is something beyond imagination.”

At the meeting Monday on the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom, the two sides also agreed to hold working-level talks with Seoul on Wednesday to further discuss the North’s participation in the games.

Media reports said a joint statement after Monday’s meeting didn’t mention North Korea’s well-known Moranbong Band, an all-female ensemble hand-picked by the North’s leader Kim Jong Un.

One of the North Korean delegates to the talks was Hyon Song Wol, the head of the band, fueling speculation that the North might send the band.

Since its first stage debut in 2012, the band is hugely popular at home and has been dubbed by outsiders as “North Korea’s only girl group” for its Western-style performances featuring women in miniskirts and high heels dancing and singing odes to Kim.

But any appearance by the group could prove a daunting issue to tackle for the South since the band is known for its performances of the totalitarian state’s propaganda pieces.

Monday’s talks came after the first round of high-level talks between the countries in more than two years last week, when North Korea announced it would send a delegation to the Olympics.

Those talks came on the heels of Kim’s New Year’s address earlier this month in which he extended a rare olive branch to the South.

But the fate of any talks beyond North-South ties — including on the reclusive state’s nuclear program — took a hit after Sunday’s KCNA dispatch, which also appeared to throw cold water on an entreaty by Moon that he would be willing to sit down with Kim for talks if certain conditions are met.

“Only when talks are held, can there be joint statement and joint press release and can there be an agreement both sides share. This is a common sense,” the KCNA report said. “But the South Korean chief executive said that talks can be held only when results are expected.”

The report also issued a veiled threat to the South that the decision to participate in the games, which start Feb. 9 and wrap up Feb. 25, could still be rolled back.

“We will as ever strive to improve the north-south ties but will never remain an on-looker to sordid acts of chilling the efforts,” the report said.
“Everything is now at the beginning,” it added. “They should know that train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang.”
North Korea has insisted that its talks with the South refrain from mentioning its nuclear and missile programs, claiming that those weapons primarily target the United States.

The North has ramped up its threats to the U.S. and its allies in both words and deeds, including successful tests of what the country claimed was a powerful hydrogen bomb and the separate test of an intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of striking the American mainland. It has also lobbed two missiles over Japan.

Critics have said the recent moves out of Pyongyang, including the apparent openness to talks, fit a pattern by the North as it seeks to split South Korea from its top ally, the United States.

“If wedge-driving were an Olympic sport, no prizes for guessing who’d get gold, silver and bronze,” Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, wrote on Twitter in response to news of the North Korean threat not to participate in Pyeongchang.
Graham, who had formerly served as a British diplomat in Pyongyang, said the North “couldn’t have made it any clearer” as to what their goal of the statement was.

“After ‘baiting’ the Moon administration with the offer to attend the Winter Olympics, it’s time to cry foul in the expectation that Moon will publicly distance himself from Trump and up the offer for the North’s participation,” Graham said of what was Pyongyang’s likely game plan.

“I hope Moon holds fast. He’s no fool, but politically needs to deliver something on inter-Korean engagement,” he added “That, of course, is precisely the North’s calculation.”

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