K-POP is a serious business, especially when put to the service of peace, mutual understanding and denuclearisation. So the three-day visit beginning on April 1st that will bring some of South Korea’s biggest stars to Pyongyang to play a joint concert with North Korean colleagues needed careful preparation. Before southern officials went to check out the venues, an advance party of South Korean performers discussed line-up, staging and the delicate question of costumes with their northern counterparts. Both sides were keen to avoid the hiccups at similar previous events. In 2003, the last time a southern songster delegation went north, the bare skin they displayed left northern officials nonplussed. This time the task is to “make sure nothing is awkward”, said Yoon Sang, a musician and producer who is leading the southern jamboree.
Awkwardness is the last thing the government of President Moon Jae-in, which has been angling for the visit since a troupe of North Korean artists performed at the Pyeongchang Olympics in the South, wants. The tour, titled “Spring is Coming,” is billed as a gesture of goodwill ahead of a planned summit on April 27th between Mr Moon and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean despot.
If mutual understanding is the basis for reconciliation, music and lyrics may provide an insight. The 160-strong southern delegation will include Red Velvet, a girl group, as well as K-pop veterans such as Lee Sun-hee, a purveyor of cheesy ballads, and Cho Yong-pil, a Korean pop legend. Their records sell well on the black market and are popular with elites in the North, though banned there on pain of imprisonment. Mr Cho’s song “A teahouse in winter” was said to be a favourite of Kim Jong Il, the northern leader’s late father and predecessor, though it is not known if the lyrics (“Sitting next to the window with dry flowers, I drink loneliness”) resonated with him.
South Koreans joke that the hits of Red Velvet and Ms Lee will be directly addressed to Mr Kim, if played in Pyongyang. Ms Lee’s ode “To J” may be going slightly too far in the reconciliation stakes: “J, my love has remained unchanged.” But Red Velvet’s “Bad Boy” could be an unorthodox injunction to nuclear diplomacy: “Oh your edgy style is a bonus/ I love the boring way you talk/ let’s push and pull.”
Where the South likes gooey sentimentality, northern pop extols rather different virtues. In her song “Excellent horse-like lady”, Hyon Song Wol, leader of the northern delegation (and a member of the central committee of the North Korean Workers’ Party) sings the praises of a woman working in a factory: “They say I’m a virgin on a stallion. Yet again today I was the first at work.” A video of the song shows her swooshing around a textile factory at high speed, smiling brightly at the camera.