The aborted concert series by Moranbong Band and the State Merited Chorus in Beijing during 12-15 December 2015; all that happened was a rehearsal in 2015.12.11
Concert theme: DPRK-China Friendship concerts
Publisher: Kim Hanber, only a short collection of news videos, https://youtu.be/K5Us36Ujm0Y
Place: National Centre for the Performing Arts 国家大剧院 in Beijing
Expected audience: Chinese top leadership, including president Xi Jinping and/or prime minister Li Keqiang, or at least someone very high + lesser officials
KJU: Not relevant
Rodong Sinmun: 2015.12.08-12
What happened? The outline of the story is simple, though the interpretations necessarily are only my own speculations. In 8 Dec 2015 KCNA announced the news:
“Pyongyang, December 8, 2015 21:47 KST (KCNA) — The DPRK State Merited Chorus and Moranbong Band will pay friendship visit to China to give performances from December 10 to 15.
The visit by the State Merited Chorus and Moranbong Band will contribute to deepening friendship and boosting the cultural and artistic exchanges between the peoples of the two countries.” http://kcnawatch.nknews.org/article/fil7
The idea was to leave to Beijing in 9 December, and give the concerts during 12-14 Dec, and return home in 15 Dec, but otherwise the announcement was correct. The same message was repeated in 9 Dec, and in the same day both ensembles gathered to the Pyongyang Railway station, where Kim Ki-nam with the Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun and other officials bade them farewell. The atmosphere was proud, happy and gay, everybody was smiling. International musical diplomacy, for which Kim Jong-il had put so much effort before his death, was handsomely resuming resuming its role. The SMC and Chongbong Band had performed in Moscow in August, and now it was the time to take Beijing.
Rodong Sinmun in 11 Dec made the following announcement:
“They were seen off by Kim Ki Nam, secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and Li Jinjun, Chinese ambassador to the DPRK, and other officials.
Kim Ki Nam in his conversation with Li Jinjun noted that the DPRK and China are the friendly neighbors, stressing that boosting exchange and cooperation in the cultural field is beneficial for deepening mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries and consolidating the foundation of their friendship.
He hoped that the China visit by the chorus and band and their performances there would provide an important occasion in promoting the development of the DPRK-China relations and boosting exchange and cooperation between the two countries in the field concerned.”
Kim Ki-nam was thus presented as the principal DPRK spokesman for the mission, and he probably also was the mastermind of the new cultural diplomatic drive. Kim Ki-nam’s and my musical tastes are not always similar, but in terms of diplomatic skill and Augenmass I consider the respectable old gentleman very experienced.
In 10 Dec both ensembles duly arrived at sunny Beijing. https://youtu.be/uAENgwLAaKo
There they were met by crowds of Chinese and international news teams and paparazzi, and as a result lots of photos and videos of the groups were spread in the net. Some members even replied to questions by the inquisitive media people, such as Hyon Song-wol in the lobby of Minzu Hotel 民族饭店 in central Beijing for the Japanese Nippon News Network (NNN) (日本テレビ放送網株式会社), a part of the Yomiuri Shimbun keiretsu. Minzu is a very big hotel, opened already in 1959, and has hosted numerous foreign delegations during its history. The interviews were not very deep, but polite they were.
Q: How do you feel about your first concert in China?
A: As we are still before the concert, I do not know.
Q: Are you exited?
A: Only a little.
Also Jo Guk-hyang, one of the new singers, agreed to answer similar questions: https://youtu.be/zPOQsUtLG3Q
A: First I am very happy of this kind of very warm welcome.
A: I also feel very friendly with the Chinese. I’ll do my best to create a wonderful performance.
The next day in 10 December Hyon Song-wol was presented also more political questions by All-Nippon News Network (ANN) (オールニッポンニュース・ネットワーク), which is part of the Asahi Shimbun keiretsu:
Q: Is the purpose of your concert to make the atmosphere warmer in preparation of First Secretary Kim Jong Un’s visit to China?
A: I do not know. We have simply come with warm feelings to present our songs to the Chinese people.
A continued: China-DPRK relations are good now, and likely to be good also from now on.
MB members were interviewed also by the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) (한국 방송 공사), which is the national broadcasting company of South Korea. http://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=3196883&dable=10.1.1
Jo Guk-hyang and Pak Son-hyang answered to questions in 10 December in the Minzu hotel lobby. First Jo:
Q: How do you feel?
A: I appreciate very much the warm welcome.
Q: By the Chinese?
To the question whether they had prepared themselves hard for the concert, they gave skillfully both bright and proud answers. The one who gave it was Pak Son-hyang; Pak Mi-kyong can also be seen to the right.
A: When you see the concert, you will know. If you watch our concert once, you will want to see fifty shows more.
The most important thing with the short interviews was that they took place at all. Event though the ladies did not stay long to discuss at length with the foreign news crews, they were not hesitant in answering questions, and did that in a proud, friendly, and self-confident manner. They were perfect cultural diplomats, and the impact of all these short interviews would have been quite different if the concerts had been allowed to take place in this polite but unmistakably friendly atmosphere.
Interest in the event was great around the world, and KCNA could proudly announce that “The world is now focusing on the China visit of the DPRK’s State Merited Chorus and Moranbong Band.” Pyongyang, December 11, 2015 23:07 KST (KCNA) —
The Beijing mission was announced also in the North Korean TV, so that it appeared as a well coordinated policy. http://youtu.be/iNpv4vnrB3A
Also the Chinese side held high hopes of the concert, as in this editorial at the Global Times in 11 Dec: http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/957814.shtml
They ensembles toured a park and an aquarium in the city for sightseeing.
In 11 Dec they had a rehearsal at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. It is a new, large and beautiful construction in central Beijing, right beside the Tiananmen Square. It is also called “The Egg”, because the structure above ground is a great oval. The Chinese hosts had thus arranged a prestigious place for the guests. It has a large amount of theatres of varying size; for the MB & SMC concert a hall for 2000 people had been reserved. While MB was rehearsing, other people were busy setting up the stage and equipment. Of this short video we can know only that songs were to be presented both in Korean and in Chinese. https://youtu.be/K5Us36Ujm0Y
dprknow has a short list of songs that were meant to be performed
http://dprknow.blog.fc2.com. The Korean songs in the list are well known MB hits:
조국찬가 Joguk changa Paean to my motherland 祖国讃歌
조선로동당 만세 Chosŏn rodongtang manse Hail to the Korean Workers’ Party! 朝鮮労働党万歳
높이 날려라 우리의 당기 Nophi nallyŏra uri ye tangi Fly high our Party flag! 高く翻れ我らの党旗
내 심장의 목소리 Ne simjangye moksori Voice of my heart 我が心の声
뵙고싶었습니다 Boebgo siphossŭmnida We have longed to see you お会いしたかったです
가리라 백두산으로 Karira Pektu sanŭro Let’s go to Mount Pektu 行こう、白頭山へ
The list is not exhaustive; there would have been also other Korean songs
Chinese songs in the list were the following:
《中国人民志愿军战歌》 Battle song of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Army
《社会主义好》 Socialism is good (1958 revolutionary song)
《洪湖水浪打浪》 Waves After Waves In Honghu Lake (famous Chinese folk song)
《茉莉花》 Jasmine Flower (famous Chinese folk song)
《长江之歌》 Song of the Yangtse River (patriotic song of the 1980s)
《三大纪律八项注意》 Three Main Rules of Discipline & Eight Points for Attention (revolutionary military march)
《军港之夜》 Night at the naval port (patriotic song of the Chinese navy)
《好日子》 Good day (a 1998 pop song by singer Song Zuying)
《祝你平安》 I wish you peace (a 1994 pop song by Liu Qing)
《难忘今宵》 Memorable night (a patriotic song of the 1980s)
The number of MB members visiting Beijing was 16, and their names are below, thanks also here to Arthur Yabe
All of the performances were meant to be for invited guests only, not for the general public, but a second hand market for the tickets soon emerged, Oleg Kiryanov in Beijing claiming that some Chinese were willing to pay even 2000 USD for a ticket. http://www.rg.ru/2015/12/13/concert-site.html. He and Andrei Lankov
provide also some information of the diplomatic negotiations that took place before the concert. The Chinese organ dealing with North Korean affairs is not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee. In the negotiations Koreans had insisted that either President Xi Jinping or Foreign Minister Li Keqiang to participate, but as the Chinese side had explained that both were very busy and did not necessarily have time to attend to musical events, the Koreans were settled with one of the 25 permanent members of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. That was the agreement before the trip, and the ensembles got into the train.
In the evening of 11 December everything was still fine, but in the morning of 12 December the situation had abruptly changed. Lots of black limousines went to the Minzu Hotel, indicating negotiations, and around noon the Moranbong Band ladies left the hotel and they were taken to the airport. There they passed through the passport control, indicating that they are leaving the country. The flight was scheduled to leave 12:55, but apparently negotiations were still going on, so that the plane finally left at around 16 in the evening. Three hours before the opening of the concert the theatre finally announced that the concert was cancelled; the announcement was very laconic:
The SMC came later by train, transporting also instruments and heavy luggage.
The Chinese announcement of the freezing of the relations was also laconic, saying that it was caused by “communications issues at the working level”.
So, what did this mean? I leave aside all media speculations about private level emotional problems as rubbish. For instance this http://www.nknews.org/2015/12/n-korean-bands-concert-in-china-suddenly-cancelled/, but the media is full of the same kind of explanations, some even with academic names mentioned. Academics who know nothing tend to cite whatever old unfounded rumours that come to their mind when the media demands explanations from them.
The possible interpretation tends to differ quite much depending on the view on the reality of the North Korean leadership structure. If the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is considered to be having real supreme power there, and to decide everything, psychological and emotional explanations may be sensible. If, on the other hand, the leadership is considered to be collective, and not too unified, we arrive at a view of a number of different actors pursuing their own policies, which are not always coordinated well. This is the view that I take here.
The more sensible line of explanations has been that the Chinese top leadership had cancelled their participation in the concerts because of an announcement that the supreme leader Kim Jong-un had made in 9 December, while Kim Ki-nam was happily at the Pyongyang Station sending the ensembles to Beijing. KJU was at that time visiting the Phyongchon Revolutionary Site, a historical munitions factory and shooting arena, where old weapons of his father’s and grandfather’s period were in display.
There he had announced that “the historic gun report made by him [Kim Il-song] at the site turned the DPRK into a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation”. The same in Korean, if someone wants the original quotation: “우리 조국은 나라의 자주권과 민족의 존엄을 굳건히 지킬 자위의 핵탄,수소탄의 거대한 폭음을 울릴수 있는 강대한 핵보유국으로 될수있었다고 하시면서 평천혁명사적지는 선군총대의 고향이나 같다고 말씀하시였다.” This announcement was published in Rodong Sinmun in 10 December. In 11 December the Chinese leadership apparently made the decision that they did not appreciate the announcement, and in 12 December MB and SMC were recalled home. Oleg Kiryanov informs that the Chinese had decided to lower the level of highest attendance to the deputy chairman of the International Department of the CPC Central Committee, not one of the top 25 leaders, but a respectably high person anyway. Notwithstanding, this apparently did not suit North Koreans.
What did the supreme leader do in 12 Dec? He went fishing. Not to a riverside; the place was a tank at the May 9 Catfish Farm, which produces food for Pyongyang elite, probably KJU and his family included.
KJU appears unperturbed or unaware of the surprise he had caused on DPRK-China diplomatic relations.
This debacle can be taken as a strong indication that there indeed is serious lack of coordination in North Korean foreign policy. Perhaps there is a good reason why KJU has steadily been kept far away from foreign diplomacy for the past four years, excepting some recent small appearances in front of cameras with foreign visitors, such as the Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez in 7 September https://nkleadershipwatch.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/kim-jong-un-meets-with-cuban-delegation-and-attends-concert/
or the first-ranked secretary of the central secretariat of the Communist Party of China Liu Yunshan (刘云山) in 10 October. Liu also brought with him a very friendly and congratulatory message from president Xi Jinping. http://thediplomat.com/2015/10/top-chinese-official-arrives-in-north-korea-for-bilateral-talks/
The MB & SMC mission to Beijing apparently was to be the crowning cultural event of this carefully orchestrated diplomatic process by the Chinese leadership and North Korean foreign policy experts for setting Chinese and North Korean relations back to a normal footing, destroyed now by one thoughtless boasting sentence. The main work of KJU seems to be to appear in front of cameras in domestic settings. If only he also could be stopped from talking ex tempore, the story of the mismanaged cultural diplomacy DPRK might look perhaps a bit brighter in the future.
Reconsidering the editorial policy of Rodong Sinmun could be one solution. Perhaps a group of very old men are discussing just that in Pyongyang nowadays.
Lankov and Kiryanov anyway warn that something else than what we know now may also be involved in the affair. However, as very influential people in China became personally involved, and they have ways of getting deeper in the issue, more news may emerge before long. What seems clear is that the Chinese side has been behaving in a very restrained and diplomatic manner, calling for the continuation of the exchanges, and using their sensors to snuff out all discussion of the catastrophe in Chinese internet so as not to inflame citizen opinions. The main problem seems to be the decision making structure and style of North Korea. All relevant elements of the uncoordinated leadership structure do not understand enough about diplomatic behavior. As the wide attention of the international media attested, North Korean “music politics” (음악정치) could be very effective also in foreign diplomacy. There is just not enough understanding how to employ it.
So, diplomatically North Korea may be back to where it was a year ago. Once again a scandal has taken place, but unexpected surprises are a frequent occurrence in Korean politics. Never a dull year.
Lankov’s most recent comment is worth reading:
Post-script, 10 July 2016
I had dinner in Beijing with a member of the Communist Party of China. Not a big deal, as there are 89 million of them, and this one is not among the highest decision making leadership. However, he has for long observed the China – North Korean relationship, and was important enough to get a ticket to one of the aborted concerts.
He basically confirmed the accuracy of the analysis presented above. There had been not only an announcement of the possibility of a nuclear detonation, but also an actual request that the Chinese leadership accepts that North Korea acquires the status of a nuclear power. This then angered the Chinese leadership, which angered the North Korean leadership, and musical diplomacy in the name of international friendship was simply called off.
Everything connected with MBB was also wiped off from the Chinese internet sites, Youku and others. It was done by a simple name search: if a file contained the name 牡丹峰音乐团, it was deleted. The ban did not affect other North Korean ensembles, not even SMC which also fruitlessly visited Beijing, because none of the other ensembles evoked the kind of international attention that MBB does. The total ban lasted for about three months, but from March 2016 onwards there again started to appear uploads of MBB music in Youku. However, compared with YouTube, marks of the devastation are quite visible. Most uploads are only individual songs, with the latest concerts also appearing there, but nothing else. Much of Chinese private interest towards North Korean music seems to have dissipated, as views of the videos are not numerous. Every single Chinese whom I ask displays anger and frustration towards the DPRK. Remaining North Korean restaurants in Beijing do not have many customers. Not much friendship visible at the moment.
How long will this last? 6 months? A year? Two? Maybe not very long. The theatre here is rather volatile, and some players are quite likely to make moves that again change the situation to another constellation.