Show must go on for N. Korean all-female pop group

TOKYO -- Before it all fell apart, a visit to Beijing by North Korea's most popular all-female pop group was touted by Pyongyang as the perfect chance to warm up relations with its biggest and most important ally.

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Things haven't been going all that great lately and sometimes instead of taking the thorny issues head on it's best to explore other options.

Like miniskirts and sequins.

But the much-anticipated international debut of the Moranbong Band at Beijing's National Theater last weekend was nixed just hours before it was to begin and the ladies hopped the first flight back to Pyongyang.

Though the deeper significance of it all is hard to gauge - neither country is offering any insight - the cancellation is particularly surprising because it had been highly publicized, almost hyped, by North Korea's state-run media. The band had also recently done several performances that suggested it was being groomed for a broader push into the world spotlight.

Kim Jong Un's divas have become so popular with the North Korean people that it has long been seen as inevitable Pyongyang would turn them loose on the world stage. What better soft culture ambassadors could there be for as regime seen by many around the world as one of the most oppressive and brutal on the planet?

"Performances given by the all-female band are fresh and innovative in vocal and instrumental music, stage structure and other aspects. Its singers are full of vim and vigor and they have strong personalities," said one report in the North's Korean Central News Agency, which also called the women a "national treasure."

Another KCNA report quoted a Chinese researcher as saying the tour proved that China and the North Korea have made substantial progress in high-level cultural exchange. After quoting a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman saying the tour would benefit regional peace and stability, it went on to note media in South Korea, Japan and Britain were sending out reports "drawing the attention of the world."

The Moranbong Band, which has about 20 members, has a lot going for them: sexy and yet wholesome looks, undeniable musical talent, unmatched popularity at home and the blessing of North Korean leader Kim himself, who made turning them into his official pop icons one of his first pieces of business after assuming power in late 2011.

Their songs, nearly all of which are paeans to Kim, are played on virtually every flight into and out of the North on its national airline. Women watch them for fashion tips, their tunes are karaoke staples and their concerts - though rather infrequent - are broadcast over and over and over again on state-run television. They sing and dance and play electric guitars, keyboards and drums in a fairly conventional pop ensemble, save for the electric violins.

During North Korea's elaborate Oct. 11 ruling party foundation day anniversary celebrations, performances of the band were featured prominently and opened to the drove of foreign visitors and journalists allowed into the country for the event, even though such concerts had been extremely hard to get into previously.

China, despite some bumps recently, would have seemed like the safest place for their global debut. And for good measure, all three concerts were to be by invitation only.

The Moranbong Band's music may be seen by many North Korea watchers in the West, and its admittedly small overseas fan base, as kitschy and weird, but for many Chinese it represents a nostalgic throwback to days gone by, when patriotic hymns to hardworking peasants and factory workers toiling happily in the name of the Party were part of the Communist Chinese norm.

Had the show been held, they certainly would have gotten a heavy dose of old school propaganda.

"We have entered our prime in these rewarding times, there is nothing that we cannot do. Let's run toward the future. A new century is calling for us," go the lyrics to one of the songs the band was scheduled to sing, "Dash Toward the Future." ''Let's build our land into a rich country and paradise, let's use these times to educate ourselves, staying up all night learning, creating new miracles through invention and accomplishments."

North Korea watchers have offered any number of suggestions about why the tour's plug got pulled.

Among the various guesses: Pyongyang wanted more Chinese VIPs on the guest list, the two sides couldn't agree on the playlist, Beijing was angry over Kim Jong Un's recent talk of building an H-bomb, Pyongyang was upset over Chinese social media chatter about how Kim might have had a romantic liaison with one of the band members (whom, by the way, South Korean media had previously speculated was executed).

Officially, the only word coming out of Beijing is that the concerts fell through because of a "miscommunication." As of Wednesday, Pyongyang had made no comment at all.

Next stop, Russia?


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