On to the cancellation of the Beijing tour of “Moranbong” Band

Pyongyand, North Korea (NEO) – The December 12, 2015 Beijing concert of North Korean female Pop Band “Moranbong” was cancelled. The Band, created in 2012, is the first known North Korean electronic music Band whose performances created a furor on par with the appearance of Vanessa Mae. Besides, this is confirmed by a number of propaganda stories surrounding this Band and personally the chairwoman of the delegation Hyon Song Wol.

For a while she was paraded as a mistress of Kim Jong-un, and her “execution” was one of the most famous South Korean propaganda failures. A sob story about how she and other ladies were shot in the presence of the relatives and colleagues for keeping a Bible, was spread virally world-wide. However, about 8 months later, the shot woman was resurrected. Although, even without this story “Moranbong” is one of the national brands of the North Korea, along with the nuclear program and rumors about executions with the mortar.

The trip to China was the first foreign visit of the Band and should become a visible manifestation of warming between the two countries. The interior North Korean propaganda has actively promoted the concert: “The worldwide attention is focused on Beijing, where performances of “Moranbong” Band is to take place!”

The concert was considered a clear sign of improvement in DPRK-PRC relations; as it is habitual to believe among political analysts, especially Western ones, that after the third nuclear test in 2013, relations between China and the DPRK have blown over, and was about to start recovery after the visit of Liu Yunshan. The most prestigious venue (The National Centre for the Performing Arts) was chosen for the concert; the importance of the concert was emphasized even at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements; and a full house was expected: tickets for the first concert were spread by invitations only.

December 10, the Band arrived to Beijing, December 11 they held the first rehearsal, but a few hours before the concert, the ladies left the hotel for the airport. After that, the following persons were noticed in the hotel: the head of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee Song Tao, the former head of the Defense Ministry, Wang Jiarui and the DPRK Ambassador to China Chi Jae Ryong. The sides talked for half an hour, but in the end the plane flew away to Pyongyang, although with some delay. The other members of the Band left by train on the evening on December 12.

The guests were informed about the cancellation of the concert 15 minutes before its beginning, and a few hours later the Xinhua News Agency reported that the reason for the cancellation was “communication issues at the working level.” And when China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei was asked about the reasons for the cancellation of the concert, he replied that he had nothing to add, and he had no information to offer. Then he quoted Xinhua editorial in which it was said that “China attached great importance to the cultural exchanges with the DPRK (North Korea), and was ready to continue to work with it to promote the bilateral exchanges and cooperation in culture.”

The Global Times newspaper in an editorial also noted that the cancellation of the event would not affect bilateral relations, “given the strategic relationship between the two, the atmosphere surrounding the show might have a short-term impact, but will not affect the basis of their strategic relations“.

Information about the tour has been removed both from the North Korean and a Chinese websites, and, according to some sources, the Chinese Internet censorship systematically blocks all discussions on the subject why the tour was canceled.

The sudden ending of the event has generated a lot of gossip, both on the causes of the incident and its consequences in the future. For obvious reasons, both South Korea and the West have supported the idea that such behavior from the North Koreans truck a serious blow to relations between the two countries, and a new period of serenity in relationships is coming. Ministry of Defense of Republic of Korea even showed up by a standard wording that after such an incident the new military provocations should be surely expected.

The scandal has turned to be a loud one, and within just one week, journalists and bloggers have the audience with a dozen versions explaining how this could happen. Summarizing what the author has heard by the time of writing of the Article, the list of versions (except for the official) looks like this:

  • At the last minute Kim Jong-un changed his mind, being a willful and extravagant person. Apparently, he decided to show up for the Chinese or “something has got into him.”
  • The Russian media has a widely spread version that cancellation of the concert was likely due to mourning for Kim Jong-il, who died 4 years ago around this time; the author of this version is a South Korean analyst Jung Sung Chan.
  • The South Korean news agency “Yonhap”, citing an anonymous source in the government of China, said that the DPRK was expecting that the concert would be attended by the first persons in China, including the President Xi Jinping; however, after Pyongyang announced that it has got a hydrogen bomb, China decided to lower the level of those presented and when it became clear that the first persons were not going to attend, the DPRK “slammed the door”. According to the anonymous source, «it was not us who cancelled the concerts; but the North Korean side unilaterally canceled all their performances.”
  • According to the National Intelligence Service of the Republic of Korea, one of the main reasons is that major part of the performances is dedicated to glorification of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They say that after seeing a rehearsal, the inviting party has proposed to amend the program. In response, the Band leader Hyon Song Wol has canceled the concert due to “offensive remarks” about the North Korean leader.
  • An electronic version of the South Korean newspaper “The Chosun Ilbo,” citing a senior government official told that Xi Jinping refused to be present in the hall, if during the performance footage with launch of the North Korean missiles is to be shown.
  • Reuters with reference to (of course, anonymous) sources close to Beijing and Pyongyang, reported that the concert was banned because of the anti-American wording of lyrics. They say Beijing has not approved the song, in which the United States was called “peacocky wolf”: China did not want to cause unreasonable dissatisfaction of Washington.
  • Several media sources reported that the parties have not agreed on the list of invitees to the concert, and “a number of other aspects of the protocol”.
  • Japanese media has also supported the version of extravagancy of Kim Jong-un, but with a slightly different context, like learning that his former lover and the other members of the Band have actively dealt with South Korean and Japanese journalists, the leader of the DPRK, allegedly “got crazy and ordered to cancel everything.”
  • Another version says that the conflict occurred because some representatives of the host country were very flippant in their treatment of the members of the Band, resulting in indecent or out of place remarks. After all, it could be remembered how a while ago, the South Korean propaganda “shot down” some members of “Moranbong” on charges of pornography manufacturing; and anti-North Korean propagandists from long ago from time to time proclaimed such Bands to be harem of the North Korean leaders.
  • “Informed sources” have made a number of versions in the style of “scandals, intrigue, investigations”: one of the members has escaped; one of the members became a victim of sexual harassment; there were some financial dealings with invitation cards disclosed…
  • Fortunately, the version that Hyon Song Wol and other ladies of the Band suddenly appeared to be ZOMBIES (“as it is well-known that they were executed in the DPRK!”, and the democratic media never tells lies), still has not appeared in the widespread media, although considering the process of demonization of North Korea, I would not be surprised at all!

However, examination of these versions may immediately cut off a significant part of them.

Firstly, the mourning for Kim Jong Il is an anticipated event. Preparations for this take a long time; therefore it seems unreal to send the Band somewhere and then remember that actually there is mourning in the country and recall the Band on these reasons even not only in terms of politics, but just the protocol service.

Image Source: (stephan), Flickr, Creative Commons North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)

Image Source: (stephan), Flickr, Creative Commons
North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)

Secondly, such visits that play the role of the informal facilitation tool of the interstate relations generally have got a very long and rigorous preparation step. Like at any festive event all elements of the program, video and so on, are very carefully aligned. Contradictions of this kind are definitely eliminated and settled by the time of the visit. And this how such events are different from the ordinary organization of the concert, where such discrepancies may easily happen at the last minute.

Third, let’s pay attention to the reaction of the Chinese media, especially newspapers such as the Global Times. This newspaper is of a rather official mainstream type, and there are frequent anti-North Korean publications in it: especially when it comes to the position of “they should respect China, and if they do not, they should be ready to accept the consequences.” If the concert had been cancelled due to the North Korean “buckjump”, even if the official statements were neutral, this edition would most likely not refrain from petulancy. However, it uses the mainstream tone while touching the subject.

Thus, most versions may be cut off, despite of them being “hot” or sensational. And perhaps the problem was really in the «communication issues at the working level”, when due to some issues at site there appeared to be a conflict, escalation of which led to cancellation of the event.

What stays? Yes, there was an unfortunate and sad discrepancy between the two countries. We may only speculate on the particular details of the incident; if there is some leakage to the open press on the punishment of some officials connected with the organization of the concert, it may become clear which party initiated the incident. So far, at least, no far-going conclusions may be made that there is a new crack in the relations between China and the DPRK.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.