K-Pop Stars Red Velvet Set To Perform In Pyongyang This Weekend

Mar 30, 2018
Originally published on March 30, 2018 3:34 pm

When it comes to inter-Korean relations, pop music — and politics — work in concert. North Korea sent a musical delegation to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month.

Now it's the other side's turn. South Korean solo singers and group acts will head north this weekend for the first time in more than a decade.

"It is important in that [cultural exchange] is an achievement that is moving forward when everything else is stuck, when other exchanges need to get moving forward," says Adam Cathcart, an East Asia researcher at the University of Leeds.

In this case, other exchanges are set to happen: The leaders of the rival Koreas have scheduled their first face-to-face summit for April 27. But before that, there will be music.

"Music is particularly useful because it doesn't require a lot of talking," Cathcart says. "And the performance looks great, but it doesn't require a long discussion about the ideas behind it or anything else."

Singer Cho Yong Pil will be part of the 160-member cultural delegation. Cho was the last South Korean singer to perform in Pyongyang, in 2005. But the biggest names are the K-Pop idols Red Velvet. Created by the industry giant SM Entertainment, the members are pop industry it-girls.

"They've done remarkably well in just their short amount of time together," says Jeff Benjamin, the K-Pop columnist at Billboard magazine.

K-Pop can be used strategically as both carrot and stick. Just two years ago, it figured in the propaganda war against the North. South Korea blared music by the hit-makers Big Bang over loudspeakers on the border with North Korea.

"That was seen as a way of luring the North Korean soldiers over, a demonstration of South Korea's cultural vitality, superiority, the high living standards," says Cathcart.

Now the same genre is being wielded in a peaceful way. The set list was worked out in advance, since song choice is especially sensitive when it comes to performing in Pyongyang.

"Of course there's some very serious censorship issues there, so often what you'll hear about K-Pop is it's a subversive force in North Korea, and indeed South Korean music is illegal to obtain and to listen to," Cathcart says.

Red Velvet will play a two-song set, including last summer's hit, "Red Flavor," and a tune called "Bad Boy."

"They're very representative of the two sides of Red Velvet. One is really, really fun and upbeat, and this addictive, sunshiny pop song. The other is a slick, slinky R&B track done by the same guys who work with Bruno Mars," says Benjamin.

It's all part of a soft power strategy for both Koreas, using the slick sounds of pop music as part of a diplomatic opening not seen in a decade.

Seoul producer Se Eun Gong contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

K-pop is popular in much of the world, and it is about to extend its reach into North Korea. One of the genre's hottest acts is performing there this weekend. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the music may be lighthearted, but the purpose is the stuff of serious diplomacy.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: When it comes to inter-Korean relations, pop music and politics can work in concert. North Korea sent a musical delegation to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last month. Here's the group performing a song called "Let's Run Toward The Future."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S RUN TOWARD THE FUTURE")

MORANBONG BAND: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: Now it's the other side's turn. Solo singers and group acts will head north for the first time in more than a decade. Adam Cathcart, an East Asia researcher at the University of Leeds, calls cultural exchanges important.

ADAM CATHCART: It is an achievement that can be moved forward when everything else is stuck and when other exchanges need to get moving forward.

HU: Other exchanges are set to happen. The leaders of the rival Koreas have scheduled their first face-to-face summit for April 27. But before that, there will be music.

CATHCART: Music is particularly useful because it doesn't require a lot of talking, and the performance looks great but it doesn't necessarily require a long discussion about the ideas behind it or anything else.

HU: Singer Cho Yong-pil will also be part of the 160-member cultural delegation. Cho was the last South Korean singer to perform in Pyongyang in 2005. But the biggest names are the K-pop idols Red Velvet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUSSIAN ROULETTE")

RED VELVET: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: The members have, in recent years, been it-girls in the pop industry here. Jeff Benjamin follows the group as the K-pop columnist at Billboard magazine.

JEFF BENJAMIN: They've done remarkably well in just their short amount of time together.

HU: K-pop can be used strategically as both a carrot and a stick. Just two years ago, K-pop figured in the propaganda war against the North. South Korea blared music by the hitmakers Big Bang...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BANG, BANG, BANG")

BIG BANG: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: ...Over loudspeakers on the border with North Korea. Adam Cathcart.

CATHCART: That was seen as a way of sort of luring the North Korean soldiers over, a demonstration of South Korea's cultural vitality and its superiority, the high living standards, et cetera, et cetera.

HU: Now the same genre is being wielded in a peaceful way. The setlist was worked out in advance, since song choice is especially sensitive when performing in Pyongyang.

CATHCART: And, of course, there are some very serious censorship issues there. So often what you'll hear about is that K-pop is a subversive force in North Korea. And indeed, South Korean music is illegal to obtain and to listen to.

HU: Red Velvet will play a two-song set, including last summer's hit, "Red Flavor," and a tune called "Bad Boy." Billboard's Jeff Benjamin.

BENJAMIN: I do think they're very representative of the two sides of Red Velvet. One is really, really fun and upbeat and just this addictive, sunshiny pop song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED FLAVOR")

RED VELVET: (Singing in foreign language).

BENJAMIN: The other one is more of a slick, slinky R&B track done by the same guys who worked with Bruno Mars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BOY")

RED VELVET: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: All part of a soft power strategy for both Koreas, using the slick sounds of pop music as part of a diplomatic opening not seen in more than a decade. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.