SEOUL – They won over buttoned-up investors at a banking conference with their jingles about teenage love, but the K-pop girl band Red Velvet is about to face what may be its toughest audience yet: North Korea.
The chart-topping starlets will perform Sunday with 10 other South Korean music groups at the first of two concerts this week in Pyongyang. It is the latest overture in Seoul’s decades-long cultural diplomacy push, aimed at softening ties with its closed off and nuclear-armed neighbor.
Taking place four weeks before a historic meeting between the two countries’ leaders, the music tour could provide a test of whether North Korea’s attitude to the rest of the world is truly thawing. As they belt out their dance tunes “Red Flavor” and “Bad Boy” to about 1,500 members of North Korea’s elite at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater on Sunday night, Red Velvet will be hoping for a less frosty reception than those that have gone before them.
“The whole purpose of cultural exchange is to open the gates for better relations between the North and the South, which have been strained for a decade,” said Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-a University and a leader of the Busan Hana Center, an institute that helps North Korean defectors in the South Korean port city of Busan. “There is a strong political motive to boost the mood ahead of the summit.”
When K-pop boy band Shinhwa performed in North Korea in 2003 as part of a similar cultural diplomacy venture, the audience — dressed in suits and traditional dresses — greeted them with silence and stony stares. One of the band members, Eric Mun, told reporters that they looked at the singers “with eyes like shooting lasers.”
That year, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and threatened to test atomic weapons. U.S. President George W. Bush had labeled them a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002.
Fifteen years later, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seeking to engage the region’s major powers after advances in his nuclear program prompted the United Nations to tighten sanctions and U.S. President Donald Trump to threaten war.
During a surprise visit to Beijing last week, China said Kim indicated he is willing to talk with Trump about giving up nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the summit planned for April 27 with South Korea President Moon Jae-in on the southern side of the border’s demilitarized zone will make Kim the first North Korean leader to ever set foot in South Korea.
But it is the shifts in technology since the early 2000s that could make this musical extravaganza different, says Dong-a University’s Kang.
K-pop — characterized by its manufactured melodies and slick approach to marketing — has penetrated into North Korea over the past 10 years. Smuggled across the border on USB sticks and bootleg DVDs, K-pop has spread widely among the families of North Korea’s political elite, Kang said.
Red Velvet — which performed an invitation-only concert at Credit Suisse Group AG’s Asia investment conference in March — will be joined in Pyongyang by South Korean singer Baek Ji-young and rock band YB, according to the Unification Ministry.
A show scheduled for Tuesday will be a joint performance featuring acts from both Koreas and will take place at a stadium in Pyongyang that can hold 12,000 people. There is even speculation in South Korean media that Kim Jong Un could turn up at one of the concerts.
The theme of the joint concert will be “Spring is Coming,” Hwang Seong-un, a spokesman for South Korea’s Culture Ministry said at a briefing in Seoul on March 27. “Spring literally has arrived and it also presents our wishes for spring to come over our relationship between the North and the South.”