The Koreas: The Road to Pyongyang has a K-Pop soundtrack

The Koreas: The Road to Pyongyang has a K-Pop soundtrack

A short while ago it almost seemed like war on the Korean Peninsula was on the cards as Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump threatened each other, promised fire and brimstone on the other and generally had everyone on the planet on edge. Now they are playing ice hockey together and K-Pop bands from the South are performing to full houses in Pyongyang. What Gives? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

A year or so ago, Kim Jong-un’s “hermit kingdom” (the traditional historical nickname for all of Korea) was fulfilling both that promise, as well as pushing ahead to build nuclear weapons and missiles capable of launching them. At least in the statements of the nation’s Young Leader, these weapons could soon reach as far as the US. And the tests had, in fact, overflown Japanese airspace, upsetting yet another neighbour, besides South Korea.

Soon enough, between the newly elected American president, Donald Trump, and North Korea’s leader, thereupon ensued an increasingly angry, shrill, near-apocalyptic exchange of messages, threats – and sometimes-smirking promises to turn whole nations into fields of fire and fury, or, as that is usually described, radioactive nuclear dust. Virtually the entire world stood by – metaphorical mouths agape – watching to see if this would actually morph into a slow-motion nuclear-tinged train wreck, featuring vast multitudes of fatalities and the possibilities of an actual global nuclear war.

And, not least, there would almost certainly be a multitude of casualties in and around Seoul, South Korea. That city is located just 50 kilometres from the Demilitarized Zone that still separates the two halves of the peninsula, following the ceasefire that brought the bitterly fought Korean War to a halt in 1953. The North Koreans have thousands of conventional artillery pre-set, ranged in on Seoul, and the initial hours of any conflict could bring a horrendous death toll.

There things might have stayed, with the parties dangerously thrashing about, what with all those threats and imprecations flying through the air like hot cruise missiles, up until the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. However, this international festival of sports prowess on ice and snow managed to get in the way of all this potential military fun. Dubbed the “Peace Olympics” by its organisers, the South Korean hosts really seemed interested in putting real money where their mouths were on this goal and began their negotiations carefully but effectively.

Simultaneously, the governments – or perhaps more properly, the two presidents, Kim Jong-un up north and Moon Jae-in in Seoul – both had something particularly interesting on their minds. The world had become accustomed to seeing Kim as a kind of human unguided cruise missile, but it seems there was a lot more to the lad besides ruthless purges of officials in the security realm that might have threatened his rule. And the recently elected Moon had been picked by the electorate as embodying policies that could make real movements towards the first baby steps towards a peninsular rapprochement.

In rather quick order, in public at least, two governments that did not even have diplomatic relations agreed that the two countries would cobble together a joint women’s ice hockey team, a duo of North Korean ice skaters would compete, and the North would send a whole convoy’s worth of those unique North Korean precision card flashing teams of spectators, cheerleaders, and demonstration athletes, sports officials, and – most especially – the suddenly stylish sister of Kim Jong-un (dubbed Pyongyang’s answer to Ivanka Trump), along with a gaggle of other senior officials, to participate, demonstrate, or watch the whole games.

Just for fun, watch what really might have wowed global audiences had they thought to do it: the North Korean army marching to the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive:

Well, okay, that jury-rigged joint ice hockey team was blown off the rink in its games (give a Bell’s to the Canadian coach that led the effort), but the sheer audacity of this particular gambit was what really mattered for everyone involved.

The success of all this helped trigger a veritable explosion in diplomatic activity centring on North Korea, its prior diplomatic and economic isolation, and gingerly addressing the sanctions previously imposed on it because of its nuclear ambitions in defiance of UN sanctions. Moreover, in the current circumstances, the reported comments from its government can now be read as something approaching an endorsement of a policy of denuclearisation – if South Korea and America pursue peaceful policies on the peninsula.

And there, of course, is the rub. What, exactly, constitutes peaceful policies? As of this writing, the US and South Korea have just begun their annual joint military exercises, this time scheduled to last half the time of previous such efforts, to be subject to much less media attention and reporting, and to have been postponed by a month so as not to disturb the friendly mood of the Olympics. But now that they are taking place, there is the possibility that these exercises may be seen as an effort to destabilise the momentum towards talk. Accordingly, the exercises, so far, are an imponderable for future developments on the peninsula.

In the meantime, building on the public (and presumably private) success of the North Koreans’ participation in the PyeongChang Olympics, officials from the two nations on the peninsula have had face-to-face meetings after the games were over where they agreed, apparently building on the momentum of things so far, to organise a two Koreas presidential summit on 27 April, at the so-called Peace Village at Panmunjom – right at ground zero of the Demilitarised Zone.

Some are now arguing that North Korea’s new diplomatic engagement stems from its successful efforts to develop missiles and warheads, even as the Kim government has been presiding over a modest economic boom that has included lessening – slightly – the ideological strictures against private economic activity that had been the norm under his father and grandfather. Accordingly, this burst of diplomatic manoeuvring and outreach, at least from the North Koreans, is thus part of an effort to avoid risking all of these bits of progress from further outside pressures.

While all this has been happening, Kim Jong-un took an initially secret, nine-hour ride from his capital to Beijing in a sealed train to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Presumably, this was the first time Kim has left his nation since becoming its supreme, hereditary communist leader after the death of his father. While US President Donald Trump chose to interpret this meeting as a sign that his rhetoric, threats, and urgings had been responsible for bringing China into the game, the larger story seems a bit different, and probably represents a desire for Beijing to get some skin back in this evolving game.

As the Financial Times reported:

Debate has swirled over the motivations behind the shift. Some analysts say Pyongyang has achieved its nuclear and ballistic missile goals and now wants to negotiate recognition as a nuclear power. Others say it is seeking détente with South Korea to weaken Seoul’s alliance with the US. Some attribute the change to pressure from Mr Trump. But evidence of a tougher Chinese stance added another perspective. Official Chinese data showed that the monthly average of refined petroleum exports to North Korea in January and February was 175 tonnes, or 1.3 percent of the monthly average of 13.553 tonnes shipped in the first half of last year.”

The paper reported similar declines in coal exports to North Korea, along with shipments of motor vehicles.

Scholars of North Korean affairs have repeatedly noted that while China remains North Korea’s only real ally globally, rather than ideological solidarity, key motivators from the Chinese perspective are to avoid a collapse of the North Korean state that would lead to massive Korean refugee flows into northern China with its ethnic Korean population there; to preclude an imploding North Korea where control over those missiles and nuclear weapons is in flux; or to prevent the integration of North Korea into a South Korea by virtue of popular will, military success, or simply to maintain order. As such, and seen that way, any way of getting back in the game enhances the chances of influencing outcomes in China’s favour. After months of sitting out the evolving situation, save for general injunctions to all parties to avoid tensions on the peninsula, the welcome President Xi gave to Kim Jong-un in his trip to Beijing seems to fit with this calculation.

Meanwhile, as an ally of the US and a strategic partner of South Korea, the Japanese government of Shinzo Abe has been watching warily from the sidelines. It continues to be worried about North Korean missile test launches over Japanese territory – but also fearful of the possibility of actual fighting in Korea or even nuclear exchanges there that would affect Japan.

For their part, North Korea’s other actual neighbour, Russia, has, so far at least, been content to watch from those sidelines. Perhaps it has been too consumed with its current activities in Syria, or in trying to deal with the after-effects of its attempted poisoning of retired ex-double agent Sergei Scribal in the British town of Salisbury and a rather concerted response by more than 20 western nations.

Donald Trump’s government, after a year of those mutually emotionally satisfying but frightening invocations of fire, fury, nuclear red buttons and the like, now seems almost startlingly eager to accept the invitation for a têteàtête with Kim Jong-un that had been passed to him via senior South Korean officials. This decision took Trump’s entire foreign policy/national security team by surprise, as they had not even had a chance to fully debrief a South Korean envoy explaining the offer, before Trump entered the room and told the Korean visitor that he accepted the invitation. Making things more complicated still, in the days following that surprise announcement, Trump managed to fire his national security adviser and replace him with John Bolton, a man who has repeatedly called for air strikes on North Korean facilities as the only way to preclude the DPRK’s nuclear advances. And that negotiations were a total mistake.

Meanwhile, Trump also dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced him with Mike Pompeo – the then director of the CIA who has become one of Trump’s policy cheerleaders. Like Bolton, Pompeo is distinctly hawkish on Pyongyang – even more than his boss is, so one wonders what, exactly, is going on. Along with the failure, still, to appoint an East Asia assistant secretary in the State Department or an ambassador in Seoul, and the retirement of the department’s chief North Korea watcher, any White House plan for the upcoming Kim-Trump talks seems to be taking on a dangerously ad hoc texture to it.

By contrast to this kind of seat-of-the-pants flying that Trump seems to like, Asian diplomacy as practised by East Asians is usually careful, deliberate, and very well-scripted, with all the moves gamed in advance. And remember, too, North Korean officials have seen their tango with America as their primary, central, and core foreign policy challenge for decades. This nuclear/missile push was determined by them to be the key tool for preserving the state from destruction by the US. Accordingly, they have been staffing out any run-up to such a summit, thinking through the effects of threats, promises, smiles, frowns and pouts for a long, long time. By contrast, Trump’s team is only now getting started on their scenario planning and lines of negotiation.

In speaking about Donald Trump’s latest outbursts about immigration policy, but surely just as applicable to North Korea issues as well, James Hohmann of the Washington Post mused on Monday:

There is no strategy. There is no message discipline. There is no process. Every modern White House plans out policies it wants to roll out months in advance. There is no calendar now. No one has replaced Hope Hicks as communications director. ‘Infrastructure week’ has become a punchline. These tweets, which upended the news cycle, clearly weren’t vetted.”

Hohmann went on to explain:

The president does not think through the second- and third-order consequences of his decisions. He’s undeniably motivated by a desire for instant gratification. Trump often appears to be thinking more about the next move than the end game. He also seems, especially on Twitter, more focused on scoring short-term political points than worrying about possible costs down the road. Trump’s new tariffs, meanwhile, prompted China on Sunday to retaliate against a range of American agriculture products. This will not only hurt U.S. farmers, but it was a completely foreseeable consequence of the president’s decision. White House officials have repeatedly insisted that the president was not starting a trade war. They were wrong.

As he pushes to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear agreement, the president has brushed aside warnings from his own top advisers that doing so will make it much harder to negotiate a deal with North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Trump just doesn’t see the connection.” Few will understand the logic of taking this moment to stir the pot with a brewing trade conflict with China – and all those new, reciprocally announced tariffs on goods exported. Or, for that matter, will anyone figure out a rationale for the threat the president vented the other day that he might reject the newly renegotiated trade pact with South Korea if things don’t go as hoped in his tango with Pyongyang.

The final bit of stage business – at least so far – insofar as the Koreans are concerned has been a now-ongoing visit to North Korea of a whole busload of K-Pop singers from the South. For those not sufficiently informed about East Asian popular music, K-Pop is the current sensation in South Korea, of course, but also has multitudes of fans in Japan and China. There have even been North Korean defectors who insist that hearing K-Pop on loudspeakers being boomed across the DMZ as the greatest reason for their life-threatening efforts to reach South Korea – even more than money, political freedom and free speech. Pyongyang senior leaders can listen to it on smuggled CDs and DVDs, but the average person only rarely gets to fulfil their desire for the genre.

In the lead-up to the visit, as the Economist reported:

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….

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.”

One has to wonder about that.

Cho Jong-pil’s The Teahouse in the Winter:

The genre features immaculately groomed young singers – male and female – in elaborately choreographed dance routines for their music videos and stage appearances, and songs that could conceivably remind an older person somewhat of the music of an early rock ‘n’ roll star like Sandra Dee, but on steroids and ramped up on uppers, and with just the tiniest dose of Frank Zappa in the mix. It is frenetic, but, at least according to its hundreds of millions of fans, it is addictive in a way only wildly gyrating, well-toned young bodies in bright costumes that tease the mind and show off a flash of skin here and there can achieve. In the one show in a big hall in Pyongyang the other day at the beginning of the visit, one could even see Kim Jong-un swaying and clapping right along with everyone else. Really.

Watch some of the groups on the trip:

It is an open question whether or not this trip will continue to break down the barriers across the DMZ, and contribute to a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, but, even at this point, it is clear evidence that the North Korean version of the traditional “hermit kingdom” is changing in ways totally unanticipated just months earlier.

Next up? Watch for the two Korean leaders’ summit at the end of April, and then the main event: Donald Trump versus Kim Jong-un, some time in May. Any bets on how it will turn out? DM

Photo: Small terracotta figurines depicting US President Donald J. Trump (R) and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un are on display in the workshop of pastoral master craftsmen of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, southern Italy, 14 December 2017. EPA-EFE/Ciro Fusco


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