Lips, Teeth, and the Case of the Vanishing Legs

Why did North Korea’s miniskirt-clad girl band walk away from a big international performance in Beijing?

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 11: (CHINA OUT) Members of the North Korean female music group Moranbong Band leave the hotel for concert rehearsal on December 11, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Moranbong Band will perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts from December 12 to 14. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress)***_***
BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 11: (CHINA OUT) Members of the North Korean female music group Moranbong Band leave the hotel for concert rehearsal on December 11, 2015 in Beijing, China. The Moranbong Band will perform at the National Centre for the Performing Arts from December 12 to 14. (Photo by ChinaFotoPress)***_***

SEOUL — North Korea’s most famous girl band swept into Beijing on Dec. 11 with pomp, panache, and glamour, flashing crimson-rimmed smiles as they swished past photographers in matching fur-trimmed military overcoats.Then they were gone. As enigmatically as they had arrived, the roughly two-dozen women from the Moranbong Band flew out on North Korea’s national airline, Air Koryo, on Dec. 12, just hours before they were to play their first concert abroad. In their wake, a flurry of speculation: Was it about money? A disagreement over the song list? Did one of the performers, purportedly an ex of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, rouse too much gossip?

For the rest of the world, news that a band had canceled three shows may not seem alert-worthy. Indeed, the Korean entertainment story of the moment was on the other side of the Pacific at the Los Angeles International Airport, where a South Korean girl band called Oh My Girl claimed to have been detained for 15 hours before being denied entry. (The band accuses U.S. immigration officials of mistaking the kittenish pop singers for sex workers; officials call it a visa issue.)

The show in Beijing, however, was not just any concert — but what was supposed to be a show of friendship between North Korea and China. Their inability to follow through on as seemingly simple an agreement as staging a pop performance laid bare the tenuousness of the Sino-North Korean relationship, at a time when almost no other country has Pyongyang’s ear.

And the Moranbong Band, named after a scenic hillside in an upscale part of the capital with a rich revolutionary heritage, is not just any girl band. Indeed, they’re beautiful, and they wear shockingly short, chic dresses that upend the stereotype of North Korean women as stiff, unsmiling robotrons.

These women are more than just pop princesses: They are Kim’s political emissaries. There are no performers in North Korea more closely associated with Kim and the modern North Korea he wants to project than the Moranbong Band. When these women hit the scene in 2012 — just months after Kim ascended to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il — my North Korean colleagues and I were blown away. Assigned to negotiate the opening of an Associated Press news bureau in Pyongyang, I spent much of 2011 on the ground in North Korea. And as the AP’s first Pyongyang bureau chief during Kim’s first two years of rule in 2012 and 2013, I had a front-row seat to the establishment of a new reign in North Korea. What the regime sought to show its people was that this new Kim was young, hip, and modern.

Gone were the long, carefully coiffed ringlets and chaste, traditional Korean dresses worn by the Unhasu Orchestra, the band favored by Kim Jong Il. The women of the Moranbong Band stepped out in thigh-skimming miniskirts, off-the-shoulder little black dresses, and with short, stylish hairdos that prompted an immediate trend for short ‘dos across the country. They jammed away on Vanessa-Mae-style electric violins. You couldn’t go anywhere in Pyongyang without hearing someone in a karaoke bar crooning their ode to Kim, “A Burning Wish,” declaring, “Our fate, our happiness, Marshal, all depend on you. Day and night, there is only one wish: Marshal, that is your good health.” North Korean women had a favorite look they wanted to emulate; North Korean men whispered about a secret crush on the drummer, or the lead singer, or the girl on the red piano. They were like the Spice Girls of North Korea, each with a different persona. Suddenly, as a Korean-American with my hair cut short and dressed in Western clothing, I didn’t stand out so much on the streets of Pyongyang — and that was a huge signal of change in just a few months into Kim’s reign.

And, yes, in addition to pledging their loyalty to Kim, they played American pop music and danced on stage with Disney figures. It was Kim’s way of telling his people and the world: We like the same music as you. The Moranbong Band is so much more to the North Korean people than a mere pop sensation; they are trendsetters and political storytellers in a world that for so many years had just one tune and one message. Hearing about their Beijing concerts, I was intrigued. My North Korean colleagues and I had always ruminated, half-jokingly, on the excitement the band might generate on their first world tour.

And yet, that the concert was canceled is unsurprising: North Korea doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules, international standards and norms be damned. Five days later, there’s still no clear explanation. China’s official Xinhua News Agency blamed “communication issues at the working level.” North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency has remained mum. Beijing will continue to push for cultural exchanges with North Korea, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in China said, while South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency speculated that China may have downgraded the delegation selected to attend the shows in response to Kim’s claims earlier in December that North Korea had a hydrogen bomb.

Whatever the official reason may be, the only offense that would likely warrant such a move was a perceived slight to the North Koreans’ strong sense of pride. For both North Koreans and South Koreans, respect and pride are paramount. The right level of seniority, the right titles and labels, the right show of respect: These are supremely, stubbornly important to Koreans.

And it may just be a pop concert that wasn’t, but the rupture reveals just how tricky it will be — even for China, North Korea’s traditional ally — to engage and at times punish the prickly North Koreans, as Pyongyang continues to pursue a nuclear program criticized by foes and allies alike.

Defiant in its isolation from the international community, North Korea has had one key ally over the decades: China. In the early 1950s, China poured troops into its neighbor to push back advancing U.N. forces during the Korean War. As the Soviet bloc disintegrated in the 1990s, China helped prop up an increasingly impoverished North Korea with food and aid. In 2014, Chinese companies made up more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, according to the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. And China uses its powerful vote on the U.N. Security Council to block the most stinging of sanctions meant to punish North Korea for its defiance of international bans on nuclear activity and to temper criticism of alleged human rights violations.

But it is a complicated and conflicted relationship. Despite efforts on both sides to present a brotherly front, Sino-North Korean relations are better known at home as a “lips and teeth” relationship. And in recent years, it has become clear that both sides are gritting more than smiling.

The North Korean dislike for the Chinese was palpable in Pyongyang during the years I reported from there as a journalist. During an August 2011 visit to late President Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, for example, a formal occasion commemorating the country’s founding leader for which I was instructed to wear a suit, my North Korean guides cringed as we got in line behind a Chinese delegation. One of the Chinese women was dressed in a pink Juicy Couture sweatsuit, the word “Juicy” splashed across her behind in rhinestones. My guides later told me that Chinese tourists were banned from the mausoleum because of repeated shows of disrespect — an unconfirmed claim that sounded more to me like wishful thinking.

Repeatedly, North Koreans, from diplomats to cleaning ladies, told me privately how much they disliked the Chinese, and North Korea’s dependence on the neighboring nation. China might be North Korea’s main ally, but English is the foreign language most popular among students. And the feeling may be mutual. In 2011, one Chinese visitor told me tours to North Korea were popular because they were cheap; another said he was on a nostalgia tour of a country that to him looked like the China he missed from 40 years ago. But by late 2012, there were fewer busloads of tourists from China, and signs of growing impatience back home with the neighboring nation.

And yet, the North Koreans need the Chinese, and they know it. China serves as the gateway to the outside world for most North Koreans. Most flights from North Korea route through China, and most of the goods that come into North Korea — everything from sneakers to ski lifts — come across the border from China.

Politically, both countries do just enough to maintain the “lips and teeth” veneer. In October, the two nations came together for a big show of brotherly love on the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, with top-ranking Chinese party official Liu Yunshan standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kim at the massive military parade held on Kim Il Sung Square in the center of Pyongyang. As they joked and laughed, the region’s geopolitical alliances seemed to have fallen back into place, at least for the moment. Tellingly, Liu was the only foreign dignitary up on the viewing platform with the North Korean leader.

Kim may have sent his hand-picked band as a kind of thank you to China for maintaining that veneer — and perhaps even as an advance team for his own first state visit. I have long been waiting for Kim to make his inaugural trip abroad as leader, giving us a better look at who he is and a better sense of how willing he may be to engage with the world. The concerts seemed to provide an opening for the North Koreans to step out of their carefully choreographed diorama and into our less stage-managed world. Instead, what we saw was North Korea’s inability to handle the loss of control and the very public breakdown of the Sino-North Korean relationship.

Eventually, we will see face-saving efforts on both sides to smooth things over. Meanwhile, Pyongyang will no doubt try to curry favor with more pliable partners. But regardless of the reason, it was a missed opportunity — for the Chinese, for the North Koreans, and for the rest of the world. The Chinese may publicly portray these concerts as just a series of cultural exchanges with North Korea. But it is clear that for the North Koreans, it was so much more than that. The women of the Moranbong Band are not just pop princesses from Pyongyang; they represent Kim and, by extension, North Korea.

Photo credit: ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Correction, Dec. 18, 2015: October 2015 is the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that it was the 65th anniversary. 

Jean H. Lee is a former Associated Press bureau chief who opened the news agency’s office in Pyongyang in 2012. She is now a Seoul-based global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @newsjean.

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