The Moranbong Saga

December 15, 2015 7:00 AM

In short succession, two North Korean diplomatic initiatives have faltered. It is not clear that the North-South talks convened to follow up on the August 25 bilateral agreement were ever designed to succeed; we take them up later in the week. But the last-minute cancellation of the Moranbong Band’s trip to China is clearly a diplomatic snafu.

The Moranbong band has attracted attention for its combination of Western Europop influences—it even maintains a lightly-posted Facebook page that provides some history—and its emotive nationalism, leader worship and military themes. Recently, we reviewed a YouTube video replete with a backdrop of the December 2012 “satellite launch” that in fact appeared to target—and destroy—the US. Despite rumors of band members being assassinated, the band clearly enjoys the personal support of Kim Jong Un and has become a component of the regime’s more forward-looking ruling formula.

At Forbes, Don Kirk picked up on the fact that the Beijing concerts had been canceled. Just hours before they were set to perform, the band was spotted in winter military uniforms headed back to the airport, and they did not look happy.

We have precious little to go on as to why the show was canceled. Chinese authorities have been particularly tight-lipped about the issue, which has only stoked speculation that diplomatic issues were in play. The Foreign Ministry spokesman deflected questions to a Xinhua report citing “communication issues at the working level” and the Global Times mouthpiece felt compelled to issue an editorial saying that the cancellation would not affect bilateral exchanges.

Chew Hui Min at the Straits Times has a good list of the theories, which include everything from salacious gossip about one of the band member’s (Hyon Song Wol) romantic relationship with Kim Jong Un to the fact that the band was getting more media coverage than it—or the regime—might have preferred.

But the political theories do have a certain logic to them. The visit of Politburo member Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang in October appeared to signal the beginnings of a thaw between the two countries, which have been more-or-less continually strained since the missile and nuclear tests of 2012-13 (our coverage of the Liu visit here, a meticulous dissection by Adam Cathcart at SinoNK here). The Moranbong Band visit was clearly stage-managed to have political effect, with rumors that one of the concerts might be attended by a relatively high-level Chinese delegation. As with the Liu visit—which was extremely light on substance—appearances matter.

This delegation was subsequently downgraded to the vice-minister level, however, with speculation centering on the cult-of-personality aspects of Moranbong’s performance or its overt militarism. The tour also came in the wake of a comment by Kim Jong Un—whether calculated or offhanded—that the country was "ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb."

A close reading of the Yonhap coverage suggests that the Chinese were doing everything in their power to keep the performance on schedule: both Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party's international department, and Wang Jiarui, vice-chairman of the Political Consultative Conference were seen at the hotel with North Korea's ambassador to China, Ji Jae-ryong, hours before the performance was canceled. If true, then it was the North Koreans who pulled the plug after being snubbed.

Analysts in South Korea and China all rushed to say that a canceled performance would not have any substantive effect on bilateral relations between the two countries. But this analysis misses the point. The whole episode is reflective of the personalist and too-clever-by-half quality of North Korea’s diplomacy. The Chinese may have rightly felt that they were being manipulated into support for a narrative and policy—the byungjin line—that does them precious little strategic good. How familiar is that strategy? Girl group diplomacy will not solve the fundamental cross-currents in China-DPRK relations, which center on whether China will continue to tacitly support North Korea’s nuclear ambitions or not.


Peter Hayes

My guess is that this is a spat not about politics or the relationship, but about money--who pays or gets paid for what, and for whatever reason, the North Koreans took offense and split.
BTW, there is an almost identical band in South Korea...I saw them 2 years ago as lead performance at Jeju Forum. Same # women, same instruments, same style of music...not sure who is emulating who


More information--such as it is--on the specifics, but confirming broadly the political story. The following post from a colleague in Taipei:
Citing mainland Chinese government sources, a Taiwanese TV details why North Korea's girl band canceled shows in Beijing. It allegedly has to do with the contents of some of the songs, which portrayed Mount Paektu (Mount Changbai in Chinese) as belonging to North Korea (with Kim Jong-un prominently appearing on it). The Chinese official, who pre-screened the performance, raised a red flag. The Chinese side subsequently demanded to change the parts. The North Koreans refused, walked away, flew back home.


Thanks to Peter Hayes for bringing the attached to our attention at Asahi. According to their reporting, the missile launch video in the Moranbong Band's performance was the sticking point, with the word coming from Xi himself to fix it or go home. Given the fact that the band is so closely linked to the Young General, who is going to take a decision like that?


Roger Cavazos

Some system Point of View comments on the Asahi article:
BLUF: from singular guidance system point of view this was an extremely difficult, ultimately non-negotiable, tradeoff and one in which DPRK domestic concerns trumped all other concerns.
The singular guidance system (The entire system required to promulgate, educate and exercise decision-making based on the 10 principles for establishing a monolithic ideological system) acts, looks and takes onto itself the trappings of a nation-state. Since KJU, the Kim family, the OGD and almost all elites (save the donju / those whose loyalty is increasingly split between Kim and mammon) derive their wealth and power from their roles in the process of deifiying the Kim regime, there’s almost no way – even given sufficient time – they could have stripped missiles from Kim’s deification narrative.
Should be noted that even the Lieutenant General (three star general) travelling with them had no power to alter one scene or one line. Only the OGD maintains the power to commission and to approve all cultural works in which the Kim name and/or image are invoked and therefore they also would have had to approve any changes to the video.
Kudos to the Chinese censors for sticking to their narrative just as strongly as the DPRK censors. However, China’s actions were likely aimed at: 1) a U.S. audience; 2) a responsible UN audience; 3) a non-proliferation regime audience; and finally 4) a DPRK leadership audience while DPRK’s actions were completely aimed at a singular guidance system audience (DPRK-domestic) audience.
I haven’t seen the State merited choir performance, but I don’t think they use the same video background accompaniment. They probably could have performed but decided to maintain solidarity.
Maybe Kim worries about growing too close to China. DPRK is likely in the midst of a large crackdown on ethnic Chinese in DPRK.
However, DPRK can’t cut all ties with China and needs them for a great deal of market interaction.

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