Why did North Korea cancel the Mt. Kumgang joint performance?

A South Korean inspection team visits the culture center at Mt. Kumgang (shown above)
on January 23. Image: Unification Ministry

North Korea has cancelled a joint North-South cultural performance that was set to be held at Mt. Kumgang, citing negative South Korean media coverage as the reason behind the decision. Analysts have raised the possibility that the move was pre-planned and part of a wider strategy.

The South Korean Unification Ministry received official notification on January 29 stating that the plans for the performance, originally to take place on February 4 in North Korea, had been canceled.

According to the Unification Ministry, the notice stated, “In the midst of continuing insults from the South (Korean) press towards our sincere efforts regarding the Pyeongchang Olympics and also towards our own domestic celebratory event, we have no choice but to cancel the agreed-upon event.”

The “domestic celebratory event’ refers to the planned February 8 ‘Army Foundation Day’ military parade to be held in Pyongyang. After news of the North’s preparations for this military parade began to spread in the South Korean press, many questioned its appropriateness in light of the fact that joint US-South Korean military drills had been cancelled in the run-up to high-level talks over the North’s Olympic participation.  

The North Korean authorities abruptly announced on January 22 that February 8 would become an official holiday marking the “foundation of the army in 1948,” and that April 25 would be celebrated as the anniversary of the “1932 founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.” Since the announcement, there has been a marked increase in activity within the North to prepare for the coming February 8 holiday.

Although the planned military parade is officially in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the army, it is likely that the authorities intend to use the occasion to highlight Kim Jong Un’s claim to have completed the country’s goal of developing nuclear weapons.

Ko Yong Hwan, Vice President of the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS) in Seoul and a former North Korean diplomat, told Daily NK on January 30, “Starting this year, North Korea is moving the military parade typically held on April 25 to February 8, which is meant to be a show of military force that becomes the primary focus on the Korean peninsula.”

Senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) Cho Han Bum said, “Since it is difficult for the North to carry out a nuclear or missile test provocation right now, they are instead trying to make their presence felt with the military parade. Kim Jong Un may also want to display evidence of having completed the country’s nuclear ambitions.”

Before this latest development, controversy arose over the South’s plan to bring diesel fuel into the North, which was needed for the joint performance events. Many pointed to the possibility that such a move could violate the South’s obligations under international sanctions. The North’s cancellation of the event may have been a result of its dissatisfaction with the situation and the fact that the South was coordinating with the US and other nations over the fuel issue.

The Masik Pass Ski Resort was visited by a South Korean inspection team on January 24.
 Image: Unification Ministry

However, the North is still set to carry on with plans for joint ski team training at the Masik Pass Ski Resort this week. Analysts believe this may be because the event provides an opportunity to air state propaganda and promote what they hope will become an international tourist destination and a new source of foreign currency. Others believe that it may be part of an attempt by the North to ‘tame’ the South and dominate the relationship.

In response to the cancellation of the Mt Kumgang performance, the South Korean government has announced that the chances of the event going forward are slim. The bigger issue now is the possibility of other joint events with the North being canceled as well.

The joint training at the Masik Pass Ski Resort is likely to proceed as planned, taking place over two days from January 31 to February 1. The North’s “Samjiyon Orchestra” will enter the South through the land border near Paju, taking the Gyeongui Line railway, which was previously used to transport workers across the border to the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The 140-member group is scheduled to perform on February 8 at the Gangneung Arts Center in Gangneung and February 11 at the National Theater of Korea in Seoul.

“We find it very regrettable that we will not be able to take part in the joint performance (at Mt. Kumgang). We must take the first step in improving our relations and move towards cooperation based on mutual respect and understanding,” a South Korean government spokesperson said.

“We established plans for mutual cooperation over the Pyeongchang Olympics in high-level talks on January 9 and have been preparing for various related events, and we have not changed our position that we must carry out all plans on the basis of mutual respect and understanding,” added an official from the Unification Ministry on January 30. “The two countries can rapidly move towards building trust and normalized relations, provided the North is committed to these same principles.”

South Korean government officials have announced that acknowledgement has been sent in response to the North’s cancellation of the Mt. Kumgang event.

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