THE head of a hugely popular North Korean girl band has crossed the heavily fortified border into South Korea 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 also the leader of Pyongyang’s all-female Moranbong Band, which was hand-picked by leader Kim Jong Un.
The group perform a mix of pop and rock music that has been labelled as North Korea’s version of the Spice Girls.
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.
TV stations broadcast live footage of Hyon’s bus moving on Seoul’s roads before arriving at the railway station, where hundreds of police officers were mobilised 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 Song-wol is somewhat of an enigma in North Korean popular culture.
She reportedly is a former lover of Kim Jong-un from a relationship about a decade ago, but his father Kim Jong Il ordered the affair to end. Now it is clear is alive and well.
“The two have known each other since they were in their teens and rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang’s top elite,” a South Korean intelligence official told the JoongAng Daily in Seoul at the time.
Intelligence agencies believed she and Mr Kim became romantically involved around 2002, afterKim returned home from studying at an elite private academy in Switzerland, The UK Telegraph reports.
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 also 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 is travelling with six other North Koreans.
Her delegation had been expected in South Korea on Saturday, but North Korea cancelled that plan on Friday night before it proposed a two-day trip starting Sunday. It wasn’t clear why the visit was rescheduled.