The Moranbong Saga
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.