[Newsmaker] NK’s ‘biggest’ visiting art troupe still shrouded in mystery

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Jan 16, 2018 - 16:48
  • Updated : Jan 16, 2018 - 16:48
The two Koreas on Monday reached an agreement to send a 140-member team of performers to the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

While it will be the biggest group of North Korean musicians ever to set foot south of the DMZ, there is scant information about the Samjiyon Orchestra and what it will perform in the South. It is to perform in Seoul and Gangneung, Gangwon Province, which is hosting Olympic events. 

Samjiyon Band performs in this Jan. 3, 2017 file photo. (Yonhap)

At a briefing held following the announcement of the Samjiyon Orchestra’s visit, South Korea’s chief delegate Lee Woo-sung, head of the culture and arts policy office at the Culture Ministry, said the North did not provide more details about the team.

It was initially expected that the Moranbong Band -- an all-female group that performs pop, rock and other contemporary music, and whose members are handpicked by the communist nation’s leader Kim Jong-un -- would be dispatched to South Korea.

Samjiyon Band performs in this Nov. 17, 2016 file photo. (Yonhap)

The speculation was fueled by the fact that Moranbong Band’s leader Hyon Song-wol was part of the North’s delegation at Monday’s working-level talks. Kwon Hyok-bong, former head of the Unhasu Orchestra and current director of the performing arts bureau at Pyongyang’s Culture Ministry, led the North Korean delegation.

According to the South Korean delegation, the Samjiyon Orchestra consists of an 80-strong orchestra and 60 other members including dancers and singers.

“Samjiyon Orchestra is not like the symphony orchestras that we know. It includes singing and dancing parts as well,” said Chong Chi-yong, artistic director of the Korean Symphony Orchestra, who was part of South Korea’s delegation. He added that the 140 members expected to be dispatched to Korea includes technical staff as well. 

Samjiyon Band performs in this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo. (Yonhap)

There is currently a music group that goes by the name of Samjiyon.

Samjiyon Band was founded in 2009 upon the orders of the North’s then-leader Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader. The band is predominantly female and has about 50 members.

“We believe that the Samjiyon Band is a group that performs mostly for guests from other countries,” said South Korean chief delegate Lee.

But it is unclear whether this is the troupe that will be performing here. A South Korean Unification Ministry official told reporters that the Samjiyon Band “appears to have transformed” into an orchestra, but added that this has not been verified yet.

In terms of its size, the Samjiyon Orchestra will be the largest performing group to visit South Korea.

The 132-member team consisting of members of the State Symphony Orchestra of DPRK -- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name -- in 2000 was the biggest so far.

It is unclear whether orchestras from the two Koreas will perform together. The State Symphony Orchestra of DPRK and the KBS Symphony Orchestra performed jointly in Seoul in August 2000, following the first inter-Korean summit between former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang, North Korea, in June that year.

Chief delegate Lee said that the two sides did not discuss the matter, leading to speculation that the collaboration is unlikely due to time constraints.

Other details -- including the orchestra’s leader, its composition and how much involvement Hyon will have -- all remain a mystery.

Seoul and Pyongyang will meet again Wednesday for a vice-ministerial working-level meeting to talk about a wider range of topics related to the Olympics. They will also meet Saturday in Switzerland at a meeting hosted by the International Olympic Committee for further discussion.

Also up for discussion is the repertoire of the orchestra’s performance. Lee said that the two sides agreed that it would be best to play Korean folks songs and well-known classical masterpieces that both Koreas are familiar with. Their joint performances in the past featured well-known folk songs such as “Arirang.”

As of now, there are two performances planned, one in Seoul and another in Gangneung.

Local media reports suggested possible venues for the concert in Seoul could be the Seoul Arts Center in Gangnam-gu, Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Jongno-gu and Lotte Concert Hall in Songpa-gu.

A Seoul Arts Center official said that the Culture Ministry has inquired about possible dates for a performance. “We said that Feb. 10 is the only date that is possible,” the official said, adding that it appeared that the ministry was also checking with other performance venues.

“We haven’t yet been contacted by the government. But we are discussing it among ourselves whether we can adjust our schedule (for a possible North Korean performance),” said an official from the Sejong Center.

Both venues would have to make adjustments to their schedules for the Samjiyon Orchestra’s concert, as they have performances lined up around the time of the Olympics.

Lotte Concert Hall said it had not been contacted by the government.

By Yoon Min-sik ( and Shim Woo-hyun