Hyon Song Wol Emerges As A Key Representative In The Charm Offensive

Wesley Koo, Feb. 9, 2018, 9:40 a.m.

As a North Korean art troupe staged a performance on Thursday, receiving favorable responses from South Korean audiences, the spotlight is now being shifted to Hyon Song-wol, who has been behind all the related preparations and planning. Some raise the possibility that she could emerge as a key player in the North's charm offensive through cultural exchanges, after what appears to have been a successful debut in South Korea.

On Thursday night, the 140 member-strong Samjiyon Orchestra, led by Hyon, head of the all-female Moranbong Band, held a concert in the Gangneung Arts Center in Gangeung, a sub-host city of PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Given that this marked the first art performance by North Koreans in the South since August 2002, concerns had persisted that it could be hard for them to get over a sense of difference, caused by decadeslong divide, and appeal to South Korean audiences.

Since the North offered last month to send its art troupe to the South, to celebrate the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, there also had been worries that their performance could be used as propaganda for its regime, which could stir up anti-North Korea sentiment here and dampen a fledging peaceful mood after years of chilled relations.

In an apparent recognition of the concerns, the musicians seem to have carefully chosen their repertoire, filled with many beloved South Korean and western pop tunes, as well as its own songs.

They were also said to discuss with their South Korean counterparts until the last minute to avoid playing North Korean songs that could cause political controversy. Reportedly, they later dropped some of what could have been controversial from their repertoire or changed the lyrics.

This is in contrast with December 2015 when the Moranbong Band, then headed by Hyon, abruptly canceled a planned performance in Beijing, reportedly due to discord over what songs would be played on the stage.

Hyon is said to have been "flexible" in adjusting the repertoire through close negotiations with the South Korean officials. And the performance itself appears to have been a success as it drew positive responses from audiences.

Hyon also seems to be relatively "unconstrained" in expressing her opinions and "active" in communicating with South Koreans when she thinks it is necessary.

During the performance, sitting next to Choo Mi-ae, leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, Hyon reportedly showed strong interest in how the performance was being received by the South Korean lawmaker.

Hyon is said to have asked Choo's opinion on the performance and when Choo said it was a "well-refined" one, she responded, saying, "Thank you. Do you really think so?"

"I got an impression that Hyon is unconstrained and active (in her way of speaking and behaving)," said Kim Hyun, spokesperson for the ruling party. Kim was with the party leader when she met Hyon.

Hyon, a popular singer in the North, is regarded as one of the most powerful women in the secretive state. Hyon, an alternate member of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), is also known to have strong support from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

She drew attention from the press and ordinary people last month when she led a team to inspect candidate venues for the performances. People had keen attention to and interest in her style, clothes and purse, among other things.

Being successful in her debut as performance planner, and relatively well received by South Korean audiences, observers say, she could become a major asset for the North to carry out its charm offensive, should cultural exchanges and contacts increase going forward.

Her art troupe is to stage the second and last planned performance in Seoul on Sunday.

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