North Korea Says It Will Send a 140-Member Orchestra to Perform in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (The Washington Post) -

North Korea said Monday it will send a 140-member orchestra to South Korea as part of its delegation to the Winter Olympics next month, amid tentative but progressing talks between the estranged countries.

The agreement came at the latest meeting aimed at ensuring North Korea’s participation at the “peace games” in Pyeongchang next month and also aimed at lowering tensions on the peninsula.

The orchestra will give performances in Seoul and in Gangneung, a city on the east coast that is the venue to some of the Olympic events, marking the first time in almost 16 years that a North Korean arts group has performed in the South.

“We believe that a great symphony will be enthusiastically received,” Kwon Hyok Bong, director of the performing arts division of North Korea’s Culture Ministry and a former leader of the official Unhasu Orchestra, said at the start of the talks.

“In that sense, we hope that the talks will go smoothly and help our art troupe perform well in the South,” he said, according to pool reports from the talks, which took place on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Monday’s talks were convened to start working on some of the logistical details following North Korea’s agreement last week to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, which will open Feb. 9 on the southern side of the DMZ.

The delegation will include athletes – still to be decided – as well as high-ranking officials, a cheering squad and a taekwondo demonstration group.

Monday’s orchestra agreement was a way to bolster broader relations between the two Koreas as well as celebrate their “cultural homogeneity,” according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which is in charge of relations with the North.

The North will send an advance team to inspect the performance venues and stage arrangements “at an early date,” a joint news release said.

North Korea wanted the orchestra to cross the DMZ at the truce village of Panmunjom, near where the talks were being held, and South Korea had guaranteed safe passage.

The South Korean government had keenly wanted North Korea’s participation, partly to reduce the chances that Kim might order some kind of provocation to overshadow the games. It even convinced the U.S. military to delay drills due to be held in March until after the Olympics were over.

But underscoring Pyongyang’s fickleness, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency issued a thinly veiled threat to call the whole endeavor off.

The regime was angry over South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s assertion last week that President Donald Trump deserved a “great deal” of the credit for creating the environment for the talks – as the American leader had previously claimed in a tweet.

“They should know that train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang,” the KCNA reported Sunday, accusing Moon of trying to “curry favor with his discontented master.”

“They should discard the impudent idea that someone will cook meals and feed them. One has to cook one’s own meal,” the report said, reaffirming the regime’s assertion that the United States has no place in relations between the two Koreas.

Contradicting South Korea’s hopes that the Olympic talks could be a gateway to nuclear negotiations, North Korea has made it very clear that it has no desire to talk about its weapons program as an inter-Korean matter – or, in fact, at all.

Separately, at his golf course in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump was asked to clarify remarks he made last week about his relationship with Kim.

Asked by reporters on Sunday night if he had communicated with Kim, Trump offered a vague response, saying “they have a couple of meetings scheduled,” and “hopefully, it’s all going to work out.”

“But we’re going to see what happens with North Korea. We have great talks going on. The Olympics, you know about. A lot of things can happen.”

Officials from the two Koreas will meet again Wednesday to discuss further arrangements for the Olympics.