The procession through Seoul this week of the North Korean pop singer Hyon Song-wol, best known for her song Excellent Horse-like Lady, has inspired hopes for peace thanks to North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – but for others, her visit conjured images of the Trojan Horse.
Arriving in a plush grey fur flanked by a delegation of severe-looking men in dark suits, Hyon visited the South for two days to inspect the venue where North Korea’s Samjiyon Orchestra will perform next month.
Her visit was just as much a soft power salvo as a logistical necessity, and South Korea media was quick to take the bait, fawning over her attire, the food she ate, the fact that she didn’t smile or the moment when she did. As a result, The Korea Times ran the headline “N. Korean band leader steals limelight”, and in a story with the heading “South Korea went gaga over a North Korean singer,” The Washington Post described her visit as “a propaganda coup for North Korea”.
WATCH: North Korean Olympics delegation arrives in Seoul
The lead singer of Moranbong Band has been the subject of many rumours. At one point she was thought to have been executed by machine gun for producing a pornographic film, and it had also been speculated that she formerly dated the regime’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
Not only is this N-pop star’s natural beauty and spartan taste a stark contrast to the artificial looks of infantilised K-pop idols (almost as if designed to highlight the superficial extravagances of life in the South), it’s also a reminder that the South’s narrative about the North is often wrong and that widely reported stories of her execution were merely fake news.
But not everyone took her visit as a harbinger of peace, and when Hyon returned to Seoul on Monday after completing her inspection, she was met by protesters outside the railway station who set fire to images of Kim Jong-un as well as the North Korean flag and the Korea Unification flag.
Like the Greeks who slipped out of the Trojan Horse and opened the gates of Troy to let in their countrymen, Hyon and her delegation are just the beginning. The 140-member orchestra for which she is preparing will perform on the opening day of the Olympics on February 8, as well as on February 11. The North will also send a coterie of reporters and government officials to the Games, as well as a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team and 230 cheerleaders, the so-called “army of beauties”, to cheer for North Korean athletes.
Also on opening day, the regime plans to hold a massive military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of its army. Writing about this on Twitter, Jean H. Lee, a Wilson Centre fellow who founded the Pyongyang bureau of the Associated Press in 2012, noted: “North Korea has formally changed the day it celebrates the creation of the Korean People’s Army from April 25 to February 8, and is planning a military parade to celebrate. How convenient: It’s also the day before the opening of Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics.”
This effort to steal South Korea’s spotlight has caused some in the country to start referring to the Pyeongchang Olympics as the Pyongyang Olympics. And in a story headed “North Korea Hijacks the Olympics,” The Weekly Standard wrote: “The Olympics really are becoming North Korea’s show, regardless of which city they’ll actually occur in.”
Also this week, the South sent a delegation of 12 officials from the Unification Ministry to North Korea to inspect a resort at Mount Kumgang, where the two countries are planning to hold a joint cultural event. This decision has infuriated conservatives in the South, who remember the resort as the site where a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean guard in 2008, which is why the South banned travel to the resort in the first place.
The 12-member delegation also inspected the Masikryong Ski Resort, as the South plans to send athletes there to train with their North Korean counterparts. This also upset South Korean conservatives who see the resort, like the one at Mount Kumgang, as a source of income for the cash-strapped regime that will only serve to undermine sanctions. But it’s also worth noting that in September 2013, Chang Ung, a North Korean member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told Voice of America that the purpose of Masikryong is to link it to the Pyeongchang Olympics. “Once the ski resort is built,” Ung said, “it can be used for international events, and, if possible, the Olympics. That’s the intention.”
Using the Games as a soft-power push for itself, and to attract attention and money to its resorts, is a clever change of tactics from the last Olympics held in South Korea, when the IOC decided the North couldn’t co-host the 1998 Seoul Summer Games, and in bitter retaliation Pyongyang bombed Korean Air flight 858 in 1987, killing all 115 people aboard. “North Korea is using the Olympics as a weapon,” Kim Hyon-hui, one of the two North Korean agents responsible for the bombing, told NBC this week. “It’s trying to escape the sanctions by holding hands with South Korea, trying to break free from international isolation.”
So far, it’s working like a charm. The two teams will now march under one flag, the Korea Unification Flag. The South Korean government has also decided to create a joint women’s ice hockey team with the North, which means throwing some South Korean athletes under the bus to make room for North Korean players. Many in the South feel team spots should be decided based on ability, not politics, and Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon didn’t help matters when he tried to justify the decision by saying the team probably wasn’t going to medal anyway.
The Olympics then, which could have easily been a boon to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval, are having the opposite effect as he spends ever more political capital in pursuit of rapprochement, risking both looking like a fool and being taking advantage of for his belief. As he said on Monday, these Games offer a “precious chance” to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. It’s a noble yet risky gamble, but South Koreans don’t seem to agree with him, and his approval rating has taken a serious hit as a result, falling from an early high of 82 per cent to 59.8 per cent this week, the lowest since he took office.
Still, some young supporters remain hopeful. “Just because the North Korean government seems to be using the Games as an advertisement, it’s still not a bad idea,” said Yura So, a student at Hongik University in Seoul. “I don’t see any possibility of unification. I don’t consider them to be the same country. But [their participation] can make an issue. I mean, because it can draw people’s attention [to the Games].”
One key point will be just how much further Moon’s approval rating falls as a result of Pyongyang’s planned military parade, which South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon described on Friday as likely to be “threatening”.
As we draw closer to opening day, Moon faces an unenviable balancing act that calls to mind the warning of the Trojan priest Laocoön: “I fear the Greeks, even bearing gifts.”