North Korea Agrees, Again, to Pre-Olympic Visit to South Korea

In an apparent move to soothe Pyongyang, South Korean officials appealed on Saturday to local news outlets, asking them not to carry speculative articles or dwell too much on controversial aspects of the North’s participation in the Games.

Also on Saturday, the International Olympic Committee began a meeting with officials from both Koreas at the organization’s headquarters in Switzerland to decide how many North Korean athletes will compete in the Games, among other issues. Several North Korean women’s hockey players are expected to join a unified team that the two countries agreed on Wednesday to form, which would be the first inter-Korean Olympic team ever fielded.

The Koreas have also agreed that their delegations will march together during the opening ceremony of the Games on Feb. 9. The International Olympic Committee was expected to finalize other details, such as what flag they will carry and what music will be played when they enter.

North Korea Agrees, Again, to Pre-Olympic Visit to South Korea
North Korea Agrees, Again, to Pre-Olympic Visit to South Korea

Apart from the hockey players, only a handful of other North Korean athletes — few of whom have actually qualified for the Games — are likely to come to Pyeongchang. Instead, North Korea is expected to fill most of its proposed Olympic delegation with musicians, singers, dancers and cheerleaders.


Officials from North and South Korea at the border village of Panmunjom on Monday, where they discussed arrangements for the Olympics. Hyon Song-wol, second from left, a North Korean singer and official delegate to the talks, is expected to lead the arts troupe visiting the South.Credit South Korea Unification Ministry, via Associated Press

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who lobbied for the North’s participation in the Games well before Pyongyang agreed to it this month, has said it will help ease the tensions that have built up on the peninsula during the past year over the North’s nuclear and missile tests. But Mr. Moon’s critics, including much of South Korea’s generally conservative news media, have argued that the North will use the Olympics as a propaganda opportunity, to try to weaken international resolve over enforcing sanctions against the North for its nuclear program.

South Korean officials have insisted they would ensure that the North Korean delegates kept political propaganda out of their activities in the South. But the musicians and other performers being sent by Pyongyang, like any North Korean artist allowed to appear overseas, will have been well-trained in propagandizing for the country’s authoritarian regime.

North Korea had said that its advance team Saturday would be headed by Hyon Song-wol, a singer who leads the Moranbong Band, said to be a favorite of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Under Mr. Kim’s rule, the band has enlivened the North’s propaganda-heavy pop music scene, sporting short skirts and performing American pop standards like “My Way” and the “Rocky” theme song.

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Ms. Hyon herself has received outsized media attention in South Korea, where some news outlets have speculated — with no apparent evidence — that she was once Mr. Kim’s girlfriend, a theory dismissed by North Korea analysts in the South. Mr. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, is herself a former member of a pop band.

When reports linking Ms. Hyon to Mr. Kim first emerged years ago, North Korea called them “an unpardonable hideous provocation hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership.” Some South Korean news outlets have continued to refer to Ms. Hyon in recent days as Mr. Kim’s former girlfriend, and some analysts said on Saturday that the advance team’s visit might have been canceled in protest.

Ms. Hyon was at the border village of Panmunjom for talks on Monday, when North Korea agreed to send a 140-member arts troupe to the South for concerts in Seoul and Gangneung, an Olympic venue on the east coast, during the Winter Games. Ms. Hyon was widely expected to lead the troupe.

She first gained international attention in 2013, when news reports in South Korea and Japan claimed that she had been executed on Mr. Kim’s orders. But she later appeared in public wearing an army colonel’s insignia and thanking Mr. Kim for his “heavenly trust and warm care” of the Moranbong Band. In October, Ms. Hyon was elected to the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee as an alternate member.

In 2015, Ms. Hyon led the Moranbong Band to Beijing for a performance meant as a gesture of friendship between the two countries’ Communist governments. But just hours before the performance was to begin, the band packed up and returned home.

Neither government has explained what happened. But South Korean intelligence officials have since told lawmakers in Seoul that Ms. Hyon was enraged when the Chinese authorities tried to interfere with her program, which was steeped with propaganda touting Mr. Kim and his leadership.

Relations between North Korea and China have become increasingly strained in recent years, as Mr. Kim has defied not only Washington but also Beijing by accelerating his country’s nuclear and missile tests.

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