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Tia Han is an NK News contributor based in Seoul, South Korea.
South Korean singers are once again back on stage in North Korea. A roughly 190-member troupe of artists, including Cho Yong-pil, Lee Seon-hee, Choi Jin-hee, the Yoon Do-hyun band, and girl group Red Velvet arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday to perform two concerts – the first such event since 2005.
On Sunday they performed for Kim Jong Un and his wife, and are set to perform a joint concert with North Korean artists at the Ryugyong Jong Ju Yong Gymnasium on Tuesday.
These exchanges often highlight the differences between the two Koreas: the North, to put it mildly, remains conservative, with much of its popular culture steeped in state propaganda and what DPRK citizens can and cannot see or hear remaining highly restricted.
By contrast, South Korean culture is known all over the world. The so-called Hallyu (Korean wave) has seen entertainment from the southern half of the peninsula become a global phenomenon.
So what happens when Hallyu reaches the North?
NK News reached out to three South Koreans with either direct or indirect experiences of cultural exchange with North Korea to discuss their views on the significance and effectiveness of the upcoming concerts.
Keehyun Oh, a producer at South Korean broadcaster SBS – who has regularly visited the DPRK between 1998 and 2013 to work on inter-Korean cultural exchanges – believes that music is effective at bringing people together.
“Pop music especially has a great impact within a short period of time, and [is] colligated with the media,” he says. “Thus public performances should take place in North Korea some way. I think it’s very good for K-pop singers to go to North Korea.”
“It is useless to sing before people who have nothing to eat”
Similarly, Lee Chang-hyun, a professor of communications science at Kookmin University, said that artists “are playing a role in warming the inter-Korean relations. I think it is only natural that they come to South Korea and we go to North Korea, and this kind of exchange should happen more often.”
Not everyone agrees, including Lee Ae-ran, a prominent North Korean defector and conservative activist living in Seoul.
“Cultural exchange is not going to take us anywhere,” she tells NK News. “This exchange is just for the sake of exchange. It is useless to sing before people who have nothing to eat.”
The announcement that the singers would go to Pyongyang last month prompted many to ask what kinds of songs would be on the setlist: would the music be focused on the two Korea’s shared sense of kinship or their differences?
Kookmin’s Professor Lee says this question is largely irrelevant.
He believes that all songs are ideological, and that if you argue “songs about the Kim family in North Korea are ideological, songs about mostly love in South Korea are also ideological because they are the symbol of capitalism.”
“When Hyon Song Wol and her art troupe came to South Korea in February, they didn’t sing any ideological songs, I think that was because they were trying to create an atmosphere of unification,” Lee says. “I think it’s time for us to respond by singing whatever songs the North Korean audience wants to listen to.”
Although North Koreans’ reaction to South Korean songs in the past has been rather stiff, SBS’s Oh argues that such a reaction was inevitable: it being a public concert, they were not in a position to react as they may have liked.
“When we asked them later how the concert was, they were more interested in the things that were very different from them,” he says. “They wanted to see true South Korean society through the concert.”
As such, Oh argues, making cultural exchange work means “providing environments that are more accepting, acknowledging, coexisting with those who are different from oneself though I understand that the purpose of this music troupe needs to ensure the sameness of the two Koreas.”
“They wanted to see true South Korean society through the concert”
“Nevertheless, I think they should acknowledge the changed situation and society in both countries,” he says. “Of course it is important to emphasize our sameness in order to open their closed mind, but showing who we are is essentially more important.”
Emphasizing the role of cultural exchange, Oh believes that these kinds of projects could facilitate Korean unification.
“As I said, true unification means that we are in an environment where people acknowledge different cultures,” he says. “In that sense, I believe cultural exchange is the beginning and the end of unification.”
Then, what has changed through cultural exchanges over the years?
“After working a few times with North Koreans, I can say that I have people in the North who understand me, and also we assured the possibility that there are people who can build up something in common.”
Similarly, Kookmin’s Professor Lee points to the link between inter-Korean exchanges in January and the broader cooling of relations between Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington this year.
“Cultural exchange is the beginning and the end of unification”
“Hyon Song Wol’s visit made South Korean envoys to North Korea, inter-Korean summit, and North Korea-U.S. talks possible,” he says. “Her concert played a role as a primer for political exchange.”
Defector Lee Ae-ran argues, however, that history shows that “cultural exchange does not have any effective changes.”
“Instead, there should be exchange targeted at the collapse of the Kim regime,” she says. “I loathe those politicians who are selling peace to the people.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: South Korean Art Performance Press Corps