GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Just hours after staging a military parade featuring army tanks and goose-stepping soldiers making their way through its capital, North Korea ended a day of pageantry Thursday on a decidedly softer note, with an evening of sentimental pop music and cultural outreach in South Korea.
For many of the South Koreans who attended, it was their first time seeing North Koreans in person. Some older concertgoers wiped tears away.
“My heart was thumping,” said Lee Kang-joon, 64, a taxi driver from Gangneung who attended the concert with his wife. “Before, based on what I saw on television, I thought North Koreans were like country bumpkins.”
“But they were much more sophisticated than I expected,” Mr. Lee said. “It made me more open to the idea of unification.”
On Thursday, the night before the Winter Olympics were set to open in the nearby town of Pyeongchang, more than 800 concertgoers braved frigid temperatures to hear the North Korean Samjiyon Orchestra in Gangneung, one of the Olympic venue cities.
Far from the ideological fare that many have come to associate with North Korean musical acts, the concert program was surprisingly light on the nationalistic propaganda. There was no rendition of “He’s Our Comrade Kim Jong-un,” a recent North Korean favorite, nor was there any mention of Mr. Kim, the North’s leader.
Instead, for nearly 90 minutes, the 140-member art troupe performed a highly choreographed medley that ranged from traditional Korean songs like “Arirang” to South Korean pop songs from the ’80s, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and even a perennial karaoke favorite, Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”
Created for the occasion, the group included singers and dancers, as well as a full orchestra, decked out in magenta tuxedos and floor-length pink gowns.
If there was one message that concertgoers took from the evening, it was the North’s seemingly genuine desire for reunification. The final section of the concert featured several songs on that theme, including “Our Wish Is Unification,” a tune popular in the South.
Even as anti-North activists protested outside, many in the audience sang along as the orchestra performed the nostalgic song under a phalanx of flashing lights.
The concert symbolized a breakthrough moment after a year of escalating tensions on the peninsula over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The last time the North sent an art troupe to South Korea was in 2002, when a group of North Korean singers and dancers performed in Seoul to celebrate Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.
After its concert on Thursday night, the Samjiyon Orchestra was to head to Seoul, where it will perform on Sunday.
The performances are part of a series of measures intended to show unity between the two Koreas in a last-minute deal reached in January in which the North agreed to send a large delegation to the Games, including athletes, high-level officials and performers. As part of the deal, the two Koreas also agreed to march under a single “unified Korea” flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Friday and to field a joint team in women’s ice hockey.
Since then, South Korean officials and Olympics organizers have been scrambling to coordinate logistics for the North Korean contingent. But it has been touch-and-go into the final moments. For example, the North informed the South only this week of its decision to send the art troupe by ferry rather than by land, as expected.
And despite the appearance of unity during these Games, mutual suspicion has been palpable. Upon arrival in South Korea on Tuesday, the art troupe declined an invitation to attend a welcome dinner hosted by government officials, opting instead to stay on the ship, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.
Experts said the North’s decision to lodge the performers on the ship instead of in a hotel had to do with the North’s desire to limit their exposure to South Korean culture and people. The art troupe is believed to be under close watch by others in the North’s delegation, and their schedule and movements in Gangneung and Seoul are being tightly controlled.
“North Korea often taps into music to heighten and pronounce the socialist ideology,” said Kang Dong-wan, professor of North Korean culture at Dong-A University in Busan. “So to then expose the musicians to outside ideologies would be quite a contradiction.”
Leading the Samjiyon art troupe was Hyon Song-wol, the lead singer of the all-female Moranbong Band. Last month, Ms. Hyon ignited a frenzy among local media when she visited South Korea to inspect venues for the performances.
Perhaps because of the buzz surrounding her visit, South Koreans appeared to be more excited about the Samjiyon Orchestra concerts than the actual Olympic events, which so far have had rather lackluster ticket sales. Last week, more than 150,000 people entered a lottery for a chance to win one of more than a thousand free tickets to Samjiyon’s performances in Gangneung and Seoul.
One of those lucky winners was Keum Sun-hee, 49, who traveled to Gangneung from the eastern province of Gyeonggi with her 18-year-old daughter to see the concert. “I always thought the culture between the North and South had been severed, so it was very moving to see the performance,” said Ms. Keum.
It is not the first time the North has engaged in so-called music diplomacy. In 2000, when the two Koreas were moving toward reconciliation, North Korea’s State Symphony Orchestra held a joint concert with the South’s Korean Broadcasting System Philharmonic in Seoul.
Then, in 2008, North Korea hosted the New York Philharmonic — a first for an American cultural organization. More recently, in 2012, the North’s Unhasu Orchestra performed alongside the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, in Paris.
But in recent months, the North has ratcheted up its bellicose rhetoric, effectively undermining much of the good will it has built up through such cultural exchanges. And, despite the temporary détente, the North has shown few signs of slowing down.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Kim presided over the military parade, marking the founding of the Korean People’s Army in 1948.
Some experts said the juxtaposition of the parade and the performance served to reinforce the message that the North was both a military force and cultural one to be reckoned with.
“The North wants to communicate that they are strong and that they deserve respect,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, professor of North Korean culture and history at Korea University in Seoul.
Some concertgoers, indeed, left the Gangneung Arts Center on Thursday with a feeling of whiplash.
“Just recently, Kim Jong-un was threatening the world with North Korean weapons, and now he is showing us a concert that had almost no North Korean propaganda,” said Eom Won-seon, 36, a stay-at-home mother from Seoul who came to the concert with her father.
“But the message was almost too peaceful,” she said. “It confirmed my belief that Kim is an unpredictable person. At any minute, he could turn around and launch a missile and I wouldn’t be surprised.”
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