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N. Korea to send orchestra to South for Olympics

January 15, 2018

South and North Korea have agreed that Pyongyang will send a 140-strong orchestra to perform at next month's Winter Olympics. The agreement has come as the two sides continue to hold rare working-level talks.

Panmunjom  Treffen Nordkorea Südkorea  Delegationen
Image: Reuters/Yonhap

North Korea agreed during rare talks with its southern neighbor on Monday to send a 140-strong orchestra to perform during next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The two concerts are set to take place in the South Korean capital of Seoul and at Gangneung, near Pyeongchang where most of the Olympic events are being held. It will mark the first time the North has sent its national orchestra to the South since 2002.

Read more: North Korea makes art troupe top priority in Olympic talks with South

The agreement is the latest indication of a tentative rapprochement following a months-long standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, as the two sides continue to hold talks in the border truce village of Panmunjom. Pyongyang agreed last week to send athletes and high-ranking officials to the Winter Games, set for February 9-25.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said that the decision to host the orchestra "contributes to improving relations and recovering the cultural homogeneity" between the two Koreas.

A further statement released by the two sides stated that the North intends to dispatch a preliminary investigation team "at the earliest possible time" to fix up outstanding logistical issues, such as the venue, stage conditions and the installation of equipment.

"The South will ensure the safety and convenience of the North's performing squad to the utmost extent," a joint statement continued, without elaborating on the concert dates.

The governor of the Games' host province, Choi Moon-soon, also alluded to the chance that the two countries' orchestras may hold a joint concert.

Read more: South Korea proposes war games delay ahead of 'peace Olympics'

No art without politics

The North also intends to have its musicians cross the border on foot via Panmunjom, the area within the demilitarized zone where a North Korean soldier defected to the South back in November.

North Korea's orchestra, known as the Samjiyon Band, is one of the reclusive state's two main art troupes. During last year's New Year celebrations in Pyongyang, the ensemble played in front of a large screen displaying footage of the regime's long-range ballistic missile launches and what it claimed to be its first hydrogen bomb test.

Korea: History of a divided nation

While art in the North is often politically-charged, the two sides nevertheless agreed that the orchestra should play traditional folk songs and classical masterpieces that, according to the South's negotiator Lee Woo-sung, would "fit the mood for unification and are well known to both sides."

Also involved in Monday's talks was Hyon Song-Wol, the leader of Pyongyang's famed all-female Moranbong music band hand-picked by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Her presence raised expectations that the band would also receive a slot at next month's Games. Monday's statement made no mention of it, however.

Olympic talks progress

Progress on the arts front followed last week's agreement that Pyongyang would send athletes and regime officials to the Games. 

South Korea on Monday also proposed forming a joint hockey team with its northern neighbor to compete in the women's bracket. The move still requires approval from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but if it realized would mark Korea's first ever unified Olympic team.

The two Koreas also agreed to take part in separate talks on Wednesday on logistics surrounding the North's athletes' visit south.

A second round of talks, this time hosted by the IOC at its headquarters in Switzerland, is also set for Saturday, where the parties will discuss the number of North Korean athletes slated to compete.

Despite the series of working-level talks, North Korea has insisted that its weapons program should not be discussed at least until after the Olympics.

dm/jm (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)