North Korea

Kim Jong-un is a Red Velvet superfan, praising K-pop girl band who serenade him with ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Red Flavour’

‘There had been interest in whether I would come and see Red Velvet … I came here today after adjusting my schedule’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 8:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2018, 8:11pm

K-pop girl band Red Velvet has a new superfan – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who apparently adjusted his schedule to watch them perform in Pyongyang and singled them out for praise.

Kim attended a landmark concert by a host of South Korean stars in Pyongyang as part of a diplomatic thaw between the North and South.

Kim plans to hold a rare summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has pursued reconciliation with North Korea to avert war over the regime’s nuclear weapons programme.

Kim’s surprise appearance Sunday also came as he prepared for an unprecedented potential meeting with US President Donald Trump next month.

But it was the stars of Red Velvet, who sang their hits “Bad Boy” and “Red Flavour”, who caught his eye.

“There had been interest in whether I would come and see Red Velvet. I had initially planned to attend a performance the day after tomorrow but I came here today after adjusting my schedule,” Kim was quoted as saying in a pool report.

“I thank you for this kind of gift to Pyongyang citizens.”

The North Korean leader’s face was slightly flushed in a group photograph with the performers distributed by North Korean state media, while in another, he was seen directly addressing members of Red Velvet, who command more than 4.6 million followers on Instagram.

Kim shook hands and took photos with the stars backstage, saying inter-Korean cultural events should be held more often and suggesting another event in the South Korean capital this autumn, pool reports said.

Kim and wife Ri Sol-ju, a former singer herself, were seen clapping their hands during the two-hour event – also attended by Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, and ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam.

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“Please tell (South Korean) President Moon Jae-in how great an event like this is … I am grateful for a gift like this (concert) to the people of Pyongyang,” Kim told the visitors.

Kim also showed “great interest in the songs and lyrics (of South Korean singers) during the concert,” Do Jong-hwan, Seoul’s culture chief and the head of the delegation, said.

“We should hold culture and art performances frequently,” Kim told South Korean performers. 

Red Velvet are known for their signature K-pop mix of upbeat electronic music, stylish fashion and high-voltage choreography. 

“The North’s audience applauded to our performance much louder than we expected and even sang along to our songs … it was a big relief,” band member Yeri said.

“I told myself, ‘let’s do our best even if there’s no response (from the audience) … but they showed so much reaction,” added a member called Wendy.

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Another member, Seulgi, appeared red-eyed as she bid farewell to the audience at the end of the concert, apparently overcome with emotion.

The concert came a week after Kim shook up the Asian diplomatic landscape with an unexpected trip to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing – his first overseas trip since taking power in 2011.

The planned inter-Korean summit with Moon on April 27 is expected to pave the way for a similar meeting with Trump, who wants Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons.

“It’s a message appealing to appeasement by the South Koreans,” said Shin Beomchul, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul and a former director general for policy planning at the foreign ministry.

“By showing South Korea that the North is sincere – when it comes to inter-Korean relations at least – it eventually aims to build a more favourable environment to get out of the difficulties it faces when Kim meets with Moon and Trump, respectively.”

The concert was held on the same day as the US and South Korea launched mass military drills that North Korea views as a rehearsal for war.

Official North Korean media had said nothing about the exercises as of Monday in contrast with threats of military retaliation in past years.

When South Korean boy band Shinhwa performed in North Korea in 2003 as part of a similar cultural diplomacy venture, the audience – dressed in suits and traditional dresses – greeted them with silence and stony stares.

One of the band members, Eric Mun, told reporters that they looked at the singers “with eyes like shooting lasers,” according to Yonhap.

That year, North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and threatened to test atomic weapons.

US President George W. Bush had labelled the country a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002.

This time around, Kim is seeking to engage the region’s major powers after advances in his nuclear programme prompted the United Nations to tighten sanctions and Trump to threaten war.

But it’s the shifts in technology since the early 2000s that may be giving this year’s musical extravaganza more impact, said Kang Dong-wan, a professor at Dong-a University and a leader of the Busan Hana Centre, an institute that helps North Korean defectors in the South Korean port city of Busan.

K-pop – characterised by its manufactured melodies and slick approach to marketing – has penetrated into North Korea over the past 10 years.

Smuggled across the border on flash drives sticks and bootleg DVDs, K-pop has spread widely among the families of North Korea’s political elite, Kang said.

Red Velvet – which performed an invite-only concert at Credit Suisse Group AG’s Asia investment conference last month – is being joined in Pyongyang by South Korean singer Baek Ji Young and rock band YB.

A second show Tuesday will be a joint performance featuring acts from both Koreas and will take place at a 12,000-seat stadium in Pyongyang.

“The whole purpose of cultural exchange is to open the gates for better relations between the North and the South, which have been strained for a decade,” Kang said.

“There is a strong political motive to boost the mood ahead of the summit.”

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg