N. Korea cancels arts delegation visit to South before Olympics

By AFP/Park Chan-Kyong   January 20, 2018 | 08:13 am GMT+7

North Korea could be preparing a lavish display of its military strength on the eve of the Games.

North Korea has canceled plans to send a delegation headed by the leader of an all-female Western-style band to the South this weekend to prepare cultural performances during the Olympics, Seoul's Yonhap news agency said Friday.

Hyon Song-Wol, reportedly an ex-girlfriend of leader Kim Jong-Un, would have been the first North Korean official to visit the South in four years, if Saturday's trip had gone ahead.

But Pyongyang told Seoul it had suspended the plan to send a seven-member advance team to inspect venues for proposed art performances in Seoul and the eastern city of Gangneung in connection with the Pyeongchang Games, Yonhap reported, citing the South's Unification Ministry.

No reason was given for the change of plan, the ministry said, and it was not immediately clear whether the visit was permanently canceled or postponed.

The nuclear-armed North agreed last week to participate in the Olympics, which will take place just 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula, easing tensions over its banned weapons programs.

The two countries also agreed that the South would host two performances by the Samjiyon Orchestra, the first of their kind since 2002, when Pyongyang sent a cohort of 30 singers and dancers to Seoul for a joint pro-unification event.

The Unification Ministry said the North identified Hyon, who leads the popular Moranbong band, as the head of the less well-known orchestra, which will make up much of the 140-member art troupe from the North.

Hyon was the subject of lurid 2013 reports in the South that she and around a dozen other state musicians had been executed for appearing in porn movies.

The North angrily denied the claims and Hyon later appeared on state television.

The last senior visit by North Korean officials was in 2014, aside from talks on the southern side of the DMZ.

Pyongyang had then sent three high-ranking officials to encourage North Korean athletes attending the Asian Games in Incheon, although they did not meet any members of the government.

outh Korean fans waving unification flags as they cheer for North Korean players during the IIHF womens world ice hockey championships division II group A competition match between South Korea and North Korea in Gangneung. Photo by AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

South Korean fans waving "unification flags" as they cheer for North Korean players during the IIHF women's world ice hockey championships division II group A competition match between South Korea and North Korea in Gangneung. Photo by AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

Military display? 

The two Koreas have agreed to march together under a unification flag, a pale blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula, at the Games' opening ceremony on February 9, and to form a unified women's ice hockey team.

On Friday the Olympic flame passed through Daeseongdong, a tiny village inside the heavily fortified DMZ, where elementary school teacher Koo Hyun-Jin carried it with his pupils and told reporters: "This will give them a happy memory."

Officials of the two Koreas met at the nearby truce village of Panmunjom on Monday to discuss the art performances, when Hyon was the second most senior delegate of the North.

But the planning comes amid reports that North Korea could be preparing a lavish display of its military strength on the eve of the Games.

Diplomats have reportedly been invited to attend festivities in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North's regular army on February 8, a day before the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony.

There was no specific mention of a parade but Yonhap, quoting an unidentified government official, said Thursday that some 12,000 soldiers had been rehearsing with artillery pieces and other weapons at an airfield near the capital and could march through Kim Il-Sung Square.

The North's parades involve tens of thousands of people and take months to prepare, while Pyongyang is bitterly cold in February.

Analysts point out that satellite pictures of the airfield preparations appear to show far less activity than ahead of previous major displays, suggesting that a smaller event than usual could be in the works.

"It would look bizarre to have a military parade in Pyongyang, just a day before the opening of what the South has declared a 'Peace Olympics'", Ahn Chan-Il, an analyst at the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP.

"But this fits the North's usual claim that it is prepared for both peace and a war", he added.

 
 
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