It won't be the Moranbong Band, we're told, who attend the Winter Olympics - which will be a disappointment for those who like bombastic music played by attractive young women in short skirts. Instead it's the Samjiyon Orchestra who'll grace the stage, to present the cultural face of North Korea to the waiting world.
North Korea agreed during rare talks on Monday to send a 140-strong orchestra to perform during the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, Seoul said, amid easing tensions after a months-long standoff over the North’s weapons programs....
The two sides agreed that the orchestra would stage performances in the capital, Seoul, and at Gangneung, near Pyeongchang, the South’s Unification Ministry said in a statement.
What is this Samjiyon Orchestra? There's been a Samjiyon Band around now for a few years, but not a Samjiyon Orchestra.
The Daily NK:
Talks over the Pyeongchang Olympics continue between North and South Korea this week, and an agreement for the North to send 140-members of the Samjiyon Orchestra members to the games was reached on January 15. This has sparked interest in the reason for the group’s attendance at the Olympics.
While the Samjiyon Band of the Mansudae Art Troupe has previously appeared in North Korean state media, this week’s agreement marks the first introduction of a group by the name of the “Samjiyon Orchestra.”
Appearing in 2009, the Samjiyon Band consisted of 50 members playing orchestral music, percussion, singing, and other instrumental music. The group appeared numerous times, including during the 2017 New Year's celebrations. This band may have formed the basis for the new, larger Samjiyon Orchestra.
Considering that a typical orchestra comprises 80-90 members and that the North's orchestra was announced to comprise 140 members, analysts are considering that the group may be a combination of orchestra members and other art troupe members. These may include the Moranbong Band, Chongbong Band, and others....
When the North Korean side mentioned the Samjiyon Orchestra at the working-level talks, they did not provide any further details about the group. The South Korean side is now seeking elaboration as to the makeup of the group. A South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesperson said, "It seems that it’s a variation of the Samjiyon Band created under Kim Jong Il, but we need further explanation as to how this Samjiyon Orchestra is different from the band."
After North Korea signaled during the January 9 high-level talks its intention to send a group of performers to the Pyeongchang Olympics, many assumed the Moranbong Band – formed under Kim Jong Un in 2012 – would be part of this group. Their participation then seemed certain when Moranbong Band leader Hyon Song Wol joined the North Korean delegation in working-level talks days later.
But contrary to expectations, North Korea announced the participation of the Samjiyon Orchestra instead of their “national treasure” Moranbong Band. One possible reason for this could be an attempt by North Korea to dispel international worries over intentions to use the Moranbong Band for propaganda purposes at the Olympics. However, the word “Samjiyon” is also a highly symbolic word emphasized in domestic propaganda and used to promote the “Mt. Paektu bloodline” of the Kim family dynasty.
Often referred to as a 'sacred site of the revolution,' the town of Samjiyon in Ryanggang Province was first promoted under Kim Il Sung as an important battle site during his fight against the Japanese and later designated as the birthplace of Kim Jong Il. Now, Kim Jong Un has been using the symbolic title “Samjiyon” as a cult-of-personality propaganda tool to reinforce his image as part of the “sacred Kim family Mt. Paektu bloodline.” Kim Jong Un has made multiple official visits to the town and the name has also been used as the title for mass mobilization 'battles.'
"Every time Kim Jong Un is faced with a weighty decision, he allegedly travels up to Samjiyon near Mt. Paektu. He has been working on improving the branding of Samjiyon as an important battlefield and for the 'sacred Mt. Paektu bloodline,’ and he plans to use these to his advantage in sending [the Samjiyon Orchestra] to the Olympics," said Dr. Ahn Chan Il, President of the World Institute for North Korean Studies.
North Korea may see an opportunity to take advantage of the atmosphere of goodwill coming from the international community's emphasis on the Olympics as a peaceful event. Its ultimate goal in this regard is to soften international opinion on the way towards lifting international sanctions that have been considerably damaging to the North....
It is not yet clear who will lead the Samjiyon Orchestra in its Olympics appearance, although it appears likely that Hyon Song Wol will lead the group.
As such, experts in South Korea are calling for full cooperation and a thorough accounting of the identity and rank of the person the North chooses as the orchestra's leader. The South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesperson said that the North "has not yet confirmed the qualifications of Hyon Song Wol as head of the Samjiyon Orchestra, but we expect them to provide this information as the talks progress."
It could very be, then, that this Samjiyon Orchestra will turn out to be an enlarged Moranbong Band under another name - with the Moranbong's Hyon Song Wol in charge. They'll be too canny, no doubt, to project a nuclear blitzkrieg behind them as their performance reaches a shuddering climax, but it'll still be straight-up glorification of the wonderful brave new world of the DPRK.
Meanwhile the news about these games - which might have been an opportunity, as with most Olympic Games, for the host country to show itself off to the world - has been hijacked by the North, with talk of a new rapprochement, and the announcement that the teams will march out together at the opening ceremony under a unified flag.
This is propaganda gold for Pyongyang. And no concessions are necessary or are under discussion. It's all give by the South, and take by the North - which is just how Kim Jong-un likes it.