North pulls out of joint performance at Mt. Kumgang

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North pulls out of joint performance at Mt. Kumgang


South Korean officials survey the cultural hall at the Mount Kumgang resort in Kangwon Province, southeast North Korea, last week during an advance inspection to see whether the venue is suitable for a planned joint cultural event. [YONHAP]

Pyongyang told Seoul late Monday night it would ditch the joint cultural event both countries had agreed to hold at Mount Kumgang, right above the inter-Korean border, blaming South Korean media for “insulting” its sincerity regarding the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and taking issue with an “internal celebration.”

The South’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said in a statement that it “deeply regretted” Pyongyang’s decision to call off an event that was bilaterally agreed upon and urged the regime to carry out their joint agreements based on mutual respect and understanding.

North Korea did not specify what the “internal celebration” was, but it appears to be a reference to the upcoming military parade, which South Korean officials speculate will be held on Feb. 8 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

During a forum in Seoul last Friday, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said that the North was preparing for a “massive” and “threatening” military parade on the eve of the Games.

Among several Olympic-related events, the South and North had agreed to hold a joint cultural event at the symbolic mountain near the east coast, once a linchpin of inter-Korean cooperation before a South Korean tourist was fatally shot there by a North Korean guard in July 2008.

Since the North opened a tourist zone at the scenic area in 1998, some 2 million South Koreans visited the Mount Kumgang resort until the fatal shooting, which prompted Seoul to impose a travel ban.

Soon after Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to hold a joint cultural event there earlier this month, a 12-member delegation from the South entered the North on Jan. 23, staying for three days to examine facilities. The team also inspected the Masikryong Ski Resort and Kalma Airport, both in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, for a planned ski event.

Upon their return, the delegation said both sides agreed the event would be no more than two hours long, with each country taking turns performing about an hour on stage. A joint performance of some sort was to be held towards the end. Some 300 audience members from each the South and North were to fill up the 620-capacity venue. Seoul suggested a K-pop concert and had already begun recruiting local artists.

The South was preparing to bring its own diesel fuel to light up the concert hall, as requested by the North, which is suffering from a fuel shortage.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is allowed to import no more than 500,000 barrels of refined petroleum a year. The amount used for the concert alone would not have exceeded that limit.

The South Korean government refrained from publicly commenting on what precisely upset the North other than domestic media reports, but some local experts said they believed National Defense Minister Song Young-moo provoked rancor among the North Korean leadership earlier Monday in a defense ministers’ meeting in Singapore, when he said North Korea would be “wiped off the map” if it ever used its nuclear weapons against the South or the United States.

As of press time Tuesday, the North had not canceled a joint training session South Korean skiers were planning to have with North Korean athletes at the Masikryong Ski Resort today and tomorrow.

Local pundits gauged the possibility of Pyongyang calling that off as low, since the ski range is a key pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the regime would want it to receive global media attention.

The Unification Ministry did not release details of the overnight program by Tuesday evening, saying the government has yet to fully wrap up consultations with “interested parties,” without naming who, or which nations, they were.

But if everything goes as planned, a team of South Korean skiers will take a chartered plane this morning from Yangyang County, Gangwon, to the North’s Kalma Airport, and spend the rest of the day looking around, said a local government official with knowledge of the itinerary.

They will compete against North Korean athletes in cross-country skiing and alpine skiing friendly matches tomorrow before flying back. The first pre-Olympic joint event between the two Koreas would take place only a week before the North’s potential military parade, though Pyongyang has not officially confirmed whether it will be held.

Some 50,000 troops and civilians are expected to be deployed for the parade, a crowd nearly four times larger than what local authorities initially projected, according to a different South Korean government source.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Monday that Seoul believes the number of participants has swollen from 13,000 to 50,000 recently, and that they are currently rehearsing near Mirim Airport on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

The soldiers will likely march in its usual tightly coordinated goose-stepping fashion next week, while civilians cheer them on, using large colored placards to spell out propaganda slogans.

South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities also detected signs that indicate some 200 trucks, tanks and missiles are lined up near the airport, the source said, adding that both the figures for that and the participants were growing every day.

The North tends to give more emphasis on anniversaries when the final numbers end in a five or zero, which makes this year’s army founding day special given that it is the 70th. On Jan. 23, the North announced through its state-run Korean Central News Agency that, for reasons unexplained, it would change its army founding day from April 25 to Feb. 8, and hold “diverse events” to highlight the occasion, without specifying what they would be.

The largest military parade North Korea has ever held to date, in terms of number of participants, was on Oct. 10, 2015, when the country celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which saw some 20,000 troops and 100,000 civilians in attendance at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.

The parades have long served as a major public relations tool for the North, with which they showcase their latest military equipment and weapons systems. For the outside world, these events provide a rare window into the reclusive pariah state.

“In the past, there were times when North Korea prepared for a military parade, then canceled it,” a local government official said, “or in 2008 and 2015, when they initially planned to hold the parade in the morning only to postpone it to the afternoon.”

If the North Korean troops, civilians and military equipment now convened near the airport move to Kim Il Sung Square for a final rehearsal, it would be a clear sign that a military parade is forthcoming, the official warned.

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