Experts wary of North Korea using Olympic art troupe for propaganda purposes

Delegates from the respective Unification Ministries of North and South Korea meet for working-level talks in Panmunjom on January 15. Image: Ministry of Unification
North and South Korea continued negotiations on January 15 with working-level talks over the North’s plans to send an art troupe to the Pyeongchang Olympics. The development comes six days after the first high-level talks on January 9, where the idea of the North sending various support groups including a taekwondo team and cheering squad was first floated. 
However, analysis of the North’s agenda during the meeting – focusing on eliminating restrictions on the activities of the art troupe – reveal that they are openly indicating their intention to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes. 
The art troupe, first established by Kim Il Sung in order to promote the “superiority” of the North’s system, can be considered to be a propaganda outfit. Domestically, the group uses children’s songs to target youth and other methods to inspire public unity, while internationally, the group tries to show off the country’s development and “supremacy” of the system. 
North Korea likely considers negotiations over participation of its propaganda squads more important than those regarding its athletes. Above all, they believe that they can promote their system and improve their image through the Pyeongchang Olympics. 
South Korea first suggested the 3-on-3 working-level talks on January 12, proposing that the two sides comprehensively work out details on the makeup of the North Korean group, the schedule, and other items.
But on January 13, North Korean lead delegate Kwon Hyok Bong, director of the Culture Ministry’s Art Performance Bureau, made a counter-proposal that the working-level talks cover issues relating to their plans to send a large art troupe, and presented a list of participants to the South. The North also announced plans to provide similar lists for the members of the athletic squad, cheer squad, and other groups that they plan to send. 
South Korean lead delegate Lee Woo Sung, head of the culture and arts policy office at South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, then announced his team’s plan to join the working level talks on January 15. This series of events reveals that the focus of the talks was centered upon the North’s proposed art troupe.
Speaking with Daily NK, Kim Tae Woo, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) and now visiting professor at Konyang University, believes that the North’s participation was fully planned as a political maneuver, saying, “It is obvious that ever since proposing to send seven different groups to the Olympics during the January 9 high-level talks, the North’s intention is to use the participants as propaganda tools.” 
“Topics discussed in two key events, the 2nd Plenary Session of the Workers’ Party Central Committee in late 2017 and Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s address, reveal the North’s continued two-pronged approach: to continue nuclear weapons development while overcoming sanctions difficulties through their own efforts. To that end, the North is being extremely calculating in their plan to use the Pyeongchang Olympics to their advantage,” Kim continued.
Kim believes that “it is quite possible the art troupe will not stick to politically neutral performances, so the two sides must come together to discuss the details.” 
Jeong Seong Jang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said, “For the sake of actual inter-Korean cooperation, the two sides in the working-level talks must discuss the attire, performance content, and other details of the North’s art troupe and other groups.”
Unification Ministry spokesperson Baek Tae Hyeon said in a briefing on January 15, “The South Korean government’s position is that these Pyeongchang Olympic Games and Paralympic Games should be a ‘peaceful games,’ a festival of reconciliation and cooperation for all nations of the world. Thus North Korea’s participation is important, and we are carrying out comprehensive preparations in order to achieve our goal of a peaceful games.” 
The two sides plan to meet again along with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on January 20 in Lausanne, Switzerland. They will likely have to complete negotiations specifically over the makeup of the North’s athlete delegation before then. 
The North has suggested more working-level talks to take place on January 17 in Panmunjom. The North suggested the meeting take place in the Peace House on the South Korean side, and plans to send a three member delegation headed by Jon Jong Su, vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. South Korea has accepted the offer for these talks.
With issues related to the potential for the groups to be used as propaganda tools as yet unresolved, the two sides will have another chance to hammer out the details in the continuing talks on January 17.
Update, January 16 (KST):  The two Koreas agreed on January 15 that a 140-member North Korean pop orchestra, known as the Samjiyon Band, will perform in South Korea during the Winter Olympics next month.