The head of a hugely popular North Korean girl band crossed the heavily fortified border into South Korea on Sunday to check preparations for rare performances by an art troupe she also leads during next month's Winter Olympics.
Appearing live on South Korean television, Hyon Song Wol didn't speak when she walked past a crowd of reporters, onlookers and a barrage of camera flashes before boarding an express train at Seoul's railway station for the eastern city of Gangneung, where her art troupe is to perform during the Pyeongchang Olympics.
She is the leader of Pyongyang's all-female Moranbong Band, which was hand-picked by leader Kim Jong Un. She's been the subject of intense South Korean media attention since she attended last week's talks at the border that struck an agreement on the 140-memer Samjiyon art troupe's two performances — one in Seoul and the other in Gangneung, where some of the games will take place. After the talks, North Korea said Hyon would also lead the Samjiyon art troupe, whose performances would be the first by a North Korean group in South Korea since 2002.
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With no official media access given to Hyon, TV stations broadcast live footage of her bus moving on Seoul's roads before arriving at the railway station, where hundreds of police officers were mobilized to maintain order. Photos showed a smiling Hyon shaking heads with a South Korean official upon arrival at the border. Later Sunday, wearing a dark winter coat and fur scarf and with half her hair tied to the back, she looked more serious with an expressionless face.
Hyon's arrival came hours after the International Olympic Committee allowed 22 North Korean athletes to take part in the Olympics in exceptional entries given to the North. Among the 22 are 12 women who will join South Korea's female hockey team in the Koreas' first-ever unified Olympic team. The other sports events the North Koreans will compete in are figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing.
The 22 North Korean athletes will march together with South Korean players under a single "unification flag" depicting their peninsula during the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. "Such an agreement would have seemed impossible only a few weeks ago," IOC chief Thomas Bach said in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The current mood of reconciliation between the Koreas flared after Kim abruptly expressed his willingness to improve ties and send a delegation to the Olympics during his annual New Year's address. Outside critics dismissed Kim's overture as a tactic to use improved ties with Seoul to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions over North Korea's advancing nuclear and missile programs.
Hyon, who is also an alternate member of the ruling party's Central Committee, is travelling with six other North Koreans. Her delegation had been expected in South Korea on Saturday, but North Korea canceled that plan on Friday night before it proposed a two-day trip starting Sunday. It wasn't clear why the visit was rescheduled.
Hyon's advance team is to inspect a venue for her art troupe's performance in Gangnenug later Sunday. The team is expected to stay overnight at Gangneung before returning to Seoul to check another venue in the capital on Monday, according to Yonhap news agency.
The Samjiyon art troupe, which comprises orchestra members, singers and dancers, is part of North Korea's Olympic delegation that also includes athletes, officials, journalists and a taekwondo demonstration team.
North Korea on Sunday offered to send another advance team across the border on Thursday to look at accommodation facilities, a press center and the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry. South Korea is to send its own advance team to North Korea on Tuesday to review logistics for a joint cultural event at the North's Diamond Mountain and their non-Olympic skiers' joint practices at the North's Masik ski resort, the ministry said.
Hyon was a popular singer before she was appointed to lead the Moranbong Band, which serves as the "soft" public face of the Kim government. Its members in short skirts and high heels or stylish military uniforms sing and dance odes to Kim. There is speculation that some of the Moranbong members may also appear in the Samjiyon art troupe, which observers say was likely hastily formed ahead of Olympics-related talks with South Korea.
Under a deal with South Korea, the Samjiyon group is to play folk songs and classic masterpieces that are well-known to both Koreas and fit in with the theme of unification. An attempt by the group to perform any propaganda piece would trigger protests from conservatives in South Korea. The Moranbong Band canceled its planned 2015 performance in Beijing at the last minutes after Beijing wanted to replace a missile launch scene from the background of the stage, according to South Korea media.