North’s pop princesses set for tour

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North’s pop princesses set for tour

The Moranbong Band, North Korea’s leading female pop group, is set to tour China for the first time in four years in a sign of deepening bilateral ties between Pyongyang and Beijing.

According to an entertainment company executive in Beijing, starting from Dec. 3 the band will perform in major cities all across China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as part of a tour to commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The whirlwind tour, organized by the China International Cultural Communication Center and an entertainment company based in China’s Guangdong Province, is set to conclude with a final concert at Changsha on Christmas Day.

An all-female music group acting as North Korea’s answer to the South’s enormous K-pop industry, the Moranbong Band was established in 2012 on a personal order from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. At their debut concert that year, the band played prominent Western pop songs previously unseen on North Korean stages - a performance that led foreign observers to speculate on Kim’s willingness to embrace Western influence in his country. The band’s lead singer, Hyon Song-wol, was also rumored to be Kim’s one-time girlfriend.

The band continued to play a prominent role in North Korean society in subsequent years, taking center stage at a number of high profile concerts in the country attended by top ranking officials. In December 2015, the group was set to perform for the first time abroad in a series of concerts in China, which North Korean state media at the time said was meant to deepen friendship and boost cultural exchanges between the two countries.

But the goodwill tour was canceled just hours before they were scheduled to play in Beijing, which South Korea’s intelligence agency at the time said was likely due to diplomatic friction between the two countries over North Korea’s missile tests that year.

While the band remains wildly popular in North Korea, at least according to state propaganda, it has not played a major international role since, though Hyon, who still reportedly exercises great influence over the band’s activities, rose to become a top official in the North’s propaganda bureau.

The band’s upcoming tour in China suggests bilateral relations between the two neighbors have improved significantly since the early years of Kim’s rule, particularly with the winding down of North Korea’s engagements with the United States and South Korea over continued disagreements on denuclearization. Kim Jong-un’s numerous trips to China last year for summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping - as well as Xi’s first official presidential visit to Pyongyang this June - have been particularly important in repairing bilateral relations to their traditional place.

The Moranbong Band’s first concert is set to take place on Dec. 3 at Beijing’s Wukesong Arena, also known as the Cadillac Center, a popular venue for foreign artists performing in China.

A pamphlet advertising the concert mentioned the likelihood that Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and other top Chinese leaders may attend the event, stressing its importance in wrapping up the 70th year of diplomatic ties.

In such a case, it is speculated that Kim may also visit China around that time to demonstrate the intimacy between the two countries and dial up pressure on Washington.

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