North, South Korea study art troupe’s visit during Olympics

SEOUL, South Korea — Officials from the two Koreas met Monday to work out details about North Korea’s plan to send an art troupe to the South during next month’s Winter Olympics, as the rivals tried to follow up on the North’s recent agreement to cooperate in the Games in a conciliatory gesture following months of nuclear tensions.

In a development that still shows their bitter animosities, the North issued a veiled threat on Sunday indicating it could cancel its plans to send an Olympic delegation to protest what it called South Korea’s “sordid acts of chilling” the prospect for inter-Korean reconciliation. The warning is relatively milder than the North’s typical fiery, bellicose rhetoric and it didn’t appear to put the recent signs of warming Korean ties in imminent danger.

“They should know that train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said. “The South Korean authorities had better ponder over what unfavorable results may be entailed by their impolite behavior.”

The KCNA criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in for crediting President Donald Trump for getting the North to sit down with the South. Trump has contended his tough stance helped persuade the North to hold talks. KCNA also accused South Korea of letting the United States deploy aircraft carriers and other strategic assets near the Korean Peninsula on the occasion of the Olympics.

Talks at Panmunjom

Monday’s talks at the border village of Panmunjom will likely focus on the makeup of an art troupe and when and where in South Korea they would perform, according to South Korean officials.

Drawing keen attention is whether the North would send its famous “Moranbong Band,” an all-female ensemble hand-picked by the North’s leader Kim Jong Un. One of the North Korean delegates to the talks is Hyon Song Wol, the head of the Moranbong Band, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.

Since its first stage debut in 2012, the band is hugely popular at home and has been dubbed by outsiders as “North Korea’s only girl group” for its Western-style performances featuring women in mini-skirts and high heels dancing and singing odes to Kim.

The band is one of the ways Kim had tried to project an image of youth and modernity since becoming leader in 2011, though expectations he might be different from his dictator father have faded after he executed top officials including his own uncle in an apparent effort to bolster his grip on power.

“It’s certain the Moranbong Band would come given Hyon Song Wol was among the North Korean delegates,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute. “But if they come dressed in military uniforms, that could cause strong resistance. If they put praise of Kim Jong Un or a missile launch scene in the background on stage, that could trigger bigger controversy.”

Sending Olympic delegation

North Korea last week agreed to send an Olympic delegation and hold military talks aimed at reducing frontline animosities in its first formal talks with South Korea in about two years. They were both key steps the South asked North Korea to accept to improve ties between the countries.

The North has said its delegation to the Feb. 9-25 Games in Pyeongchang would include an art troupe along with officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and a taekwondo demonstration team. The International Olympic Committee plans to separately meet North and South Korean officials this weekend to discuss the North’s Olympic participation.

The reasons for North Korea’s softer approach are not clear, though some analysts say the North may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken pressure and sanctions on the country. Others speculate the North wants to use the Olympics to show it’s a normal country despite possessing nuclear weapons.

North Korea has insisted its talks with South Korea won’t deal with its nuclear and missile programs, saying those weapons primarily target the United States. Critics question how long the warmer mood can last without any serious discussion on the North’s nuclear disarmament.

North Korea carried out nuclear and missile tests last year that triggered harsher U.N. sanctions and worldwide condemnation.

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