When it comes to inter-Korean relations, pop music — and politics — work in concert. North Korea sent a musical delegation to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month.
Now it’s the other side’s turn. South Korean solo singers and group acts will head north this weekend for the first time in more than a decade.
“It is important in that [cultural exchange] is an achievement that is moving forward when everything else is stuck, when other exchanges need to get moving forward,” says Adam Cathcart, an East Asia researcher at the University of Leeds.
In this case, other exchanges are set to happen: The leaders of the rival Koreas have scheduled their first face-to-face summit for April 27th. But before that, there will be music.
“Music is particularly useful because it doesn’t require a lot of talking,” Cathcart says. “And the performance looks great, but it doesn’t require a long discussion about the ideas behind it or anything else.”
Singer Cho Yong Pil will be part of the 160-member cultural delegation. Cho was the last South Korean singer to perform in Pyongyang, in 2005. But the biggest names are the K-Pop idols Red Velvet. Created by the industry giant SM Entertainment, the members are pop industry it-girls.
“They’ve done remarkably well in just their short amount of time together,” says Jeff Benjamin, the K-Pop columnist at Billboard magazine.
K-Pop can be used strategically as both carrot and stick. Just two years ago, it figured in the propaganda war against the North. South Korea blared music by the hit-makers Big Bang over loudspeakers on the border with North Korea.
“That was seen as a way of luring the North Korean soldiers over, a demonstration of South Korea’s cultural vitality, superiority, the high living standards,” says Cathcart.
Now the same genre is being wielded in a peaceful way. The set list was worked out in advance, since song choice is especially sensitive when it comes to performing in Pyongyang.
“Of course there’s some very serious censorship issues there, so often what you’ll hear about K-Pop is it’s a subversive force in North Korea, and indeed South Korean music is illegal to obtain and to listen to,” Cathcart says.
“They’re very representative of the two sides of Red Velvet. One is really, really fun and upbeat, and this addictive, sunshiny pop song. The other is a slick, slinky R&B track done by the same guys who work with Bruno Mars,” says Benjamin.
It’s all part of a soft power strategy for both Koreas, using the slick sounds of pop music as part of a diplomatic opening not seen in a decade.
Seoul producer Se Eun Gong contributed to this story.