Baffling No-Show by North Korean Girl Band in Beijing Could Cost Pyongyang

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
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korea-band-1-04-2016.jpg Photo by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of a performance by the Moranbong Band, April 16, 2014.

As a goodwill gesture, the North Korean government’s agreement to send the country’s most famous pop group – the Moranbong Band – to Beijing for a concert turned into a major flop. The visit by the girl group famous for tight dresses, high heels, sanitized western pop songs and North Korean revolutionary standards marked a high-profile attempt to repair relations between China and North Korea which have been in a rather sorry state since 2012. Instead of a new show of cooperation, the Dec. 12 concert turned into no show at all.

The band holds a special place in modern North Korean popular culture. It is essentially the creation of the young North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, who maintains contact with the group. While no one would confuse a Moranbong performance with its heavily-edited lyrics and homages to Kim with a Lady Gaga concert, their emergence in 2012 was seen as a sign of change, and so was the group’s first performance in China.

In the days preceding the scheduled performance, the North Korean media was full of stories about expectations in Beijing – the inhabitants of which were said to be eagerly waiting for the “world-famous band.” It was clearly an exaggeration, but the Chinese side had indeed arranged for a rather high-level performance, and a number of high-level officials were expected at the band’s opening night

Things did not turn out as expected.

The Moranbong band suddenly left Beijing without explanation that afternoon. In essence, the entire band rushed out of their hotel with luggage in tow, boarded cars and went to the airport where a plane departing for Pyongyang was waiting for a few hours for the band.

All of this was accompanied by frantic heavyweight diplomatic activities, with the North Korean ambassador and a number of Chinese political bigwigs negotiating in the hotel where the band was staying. The girls’ departure was so sudden that there was no way to warn spectators in time about the cancellation. Most arrived at the highly prestigious venue, only to learn that the promised act had disappeared.

This incident remains unexplained, and a number of stories have been floating around in the last week or two. One insists that the North Koreans were unhappy with a Chinese guest list that was short on top officials. According to another account, China and North Korea could not agree on which songs should be performed.

Regardless of the reason behind this strange and perhaps unprecedented incident, it is certain to have some impact on relations between China and North Korea. The incident became a major embarrassment for the Chinese government, and it is likely to be remembered as such for years to come.

Whether the Moranbong Band Affair will hamper any improvement of relations between the two nations is an open question. The strategic decisions of major countries are not often determined by emotions, contrary to what many might believe, and the bruised egos of politicians have very little impact on policy decisions -- at least so far as the Chinese are concerned. Improving relations with North Korea generally serves China’s long-term interests, no matter what North Korean pop bands do or do not do in Beijing.

Still, there are indications of unease. Immediately after the incident, Chinese censors began to delete all comments on the Moranbong Band girls’ escape, in what looked like an effort to prevent an outburst of wounded nationalism on social media – a frequent occurrence in China. Statements of Chinese officials have also been remarkably careful and almost comically nebulous.

At the end of the day, The Moranbong Affair does further reinforce the impression of North Korea as a bizarre and mercurial place, where pretty much anything could happen. The Chinese have never seen the North Koreans as trustworthy partners, and now, a highly visible and widely reported incident once again confirms this perception. This will not probably have an immediate impact on relations, but in the long run, it’s not going to do North Korea any good.


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