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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 April 2018

North Korean leader attends concert by South Korean pop stars

Kim Jong-un's presence at rare performance marks thawing of relations ahead of inter-Korea summit

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea's Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan during a performance of the South Korea's art troupe at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang.  EPA
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korea's Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan during a performance of the South Korea's art troupe at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang. EPA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sunday attended the first concert in Pyongyang for over a decade by South Korean entertainers, including a K-pop girl band, in the latest gesture of reconciliation before a rare inter-Korean summit.

The visit, described by many as a cultural charm offensive by the South, came as a diplomatic thaw quickens on the peninsula after months of tensions.

The 120-member group – 11 musical acts as well as dancers, technicians and martial artists – – gave one concert on Sunday with another set for Tuesday.

Mr Kim and his wife, a former singer, came to watch Sunday's show, making him the first leader of the North to attend a concert by South Korean performers.

Mr Kim shook hands and took photos with the stars backstage, saying inter-Korean cultural events should be held more often and suggesting another event in the South Korean capital this autumn, pool reports said.

The young couple were seen clapping their hands during the two-hour event – also attended by Mr Kim's powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, and ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam.

"Please tell President Moon Jae-in how great an event like this is ... I am grateful for a gift like this to the people of Pyongyang," Mr Kim told South Korean officials.

The North Korean leader also showed "great interest in the songs and lyrics during the concert," said Do Jong-hwan, Seoul's culture chief and the head of the delegation.

The South's taekwondo athletes also staged a performance before an audience of 2,300 on Sunday ahead of a joint display of the Korean martial art with the North's practitioners on Monday.

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The ongoing rapprochement was triggered by the South's Winter Olympics, to which Mr Kim sent athletes, cheerleaders and his sister as an envoy.

A North Korean art troupe staged two performances in the South in February to celebrate the Games.

Mr Kim followed up by agreeing to a summit with Mr Moon, and offering a face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump. Mr Kim also met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week during his first overseas trip.

The inter-Korean summit, the third after meetings in 2000 and 2007, will be held on April 27. No date has been set for the US-North Korean summit, although it is expected before the end of May.

In another sign of eased tensions, an annual US-South Korean military exercise which began on Sunday will last for just one month compared to about two months normally.

This year's drills feature fewer strategic weapons such as nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, Seoul's military has said. Such deployments during past drills have frequently drawn an angry response from Pyongyang.

Sunday's concert to a packed audience at the elaborately decorated 1,500-seat East Pyongyang Grand Theatre ended with a standing ovation after a finale in which all the stars appeared on stage to sing a song about unification.

One of the most closely watched acts was Red Velvet, part of the South's hugely popular K-pop phenomenon that has taken audiences in Asia and beyond by storm in recent decades.

Before the concert, even Mr Kim joked: "There was so much interest in whether I'd come to see Red Velvet or not".

The five-member girl band – known for its signature K-pop mix of upbeat electronic music, stylish fashion and high-voltage choreography – performed two of their hits, Bad Boy and Red Flavour.

"The North's audience applauded to our performance much louder than we expected and even sang along to our songs ... it was a big relief," said band member Yeri.

"I told myself, 'let's do our best even if there's no response ... but they showed so much reaction," added Wendy, another member.

A third member, Seulgi, appeared red-eyed as she bid farewell to the audience at the end of the concert, apparently overcome with emotion.

Despite the North's isolation and strict curbs on unauthorised foreign culture, enforced with prison terms, K-pop and South Korean TV shows have become increasingly popular there thanks to flash drives smuggled across the border with China.

The emcee of Sunday's concert was a popular member of K-pop band Girls' Generation, Seohyun, who performed with the visiting North Korean singers during their Seoul concert in February.

South Korean singer Cho Yong-pil, who held a solo sell-out concert in Pyongyang in 2005, was another star of the show.

Mr Kim's late father and long-time ruler, Kim Jong-il, was known to be a fan of the 68-year-old singer.

Another famous singer, Choi Jin-hee, also performed for the fourth time in the North and sang Maze of Love – a hit in both Koreas and another of the late Mr Kim's favourites.

But not all onlookers were receptive to the K-pop offensive.

During the taekwondo event, a previously-enraptured audience turned stone-faced during a performance combining K-pop dance and taekwondo routines to a hit song by the ultra-popular boyband BTS.

The stiffened crowd refused to respond to the athletes, who asked them to clap their hands to Fire – an intense electro-dance score peppered with rapid-fire rap delivered in both Korean and English.