Knife-Scam or North Korea’s Best on Tour?

"North Korea Art Ensemble on Performance Tour"

“North Korea Art Ensemble on Performance Tour”

It was some months ago when I saw the small poster for the first time, right at the bus stop in front of our house, a small envelope filled with free invitations attached to it. I was tempted to give it try, I have to say, but didn’t have the time. I saw a similar announcement again last week – all free tickets gone already – and it made me wonder once again. “North Korea’s best actors” (북한 최고 배우들) – mostly actresses, it seems – are on tour, in South Korea?

The “phantastic stage” (환상의 무대) for this event was to unfold at a convention center in Sinchon, right next to Sogang University. I remember that we had our graduation lunch there some years ago. The show seems to consist mostly of song and dance, the latter possibly in traditional dresses, but the whole thing looks very trotty to me. That there are performances Monday morning and afternoon is also quite telling about the target audience.

Is this just some kind of “Kaffeefahrt”-scheme (free excursions to the countryside that culminate in afternoon coffee with pushy sales promotion), trying to attract audiences with an invitation to some nostalgic past, when popular entertainment in North and South Korea wasn’t too different? The free souvenir (a “flower-knife” 장미칼) for everyone attending seems a bit suspicious… Also, children and students – in fact, everyone under the age of 30 – cannot attend. The same goes for anyone who is drunk.

Is this troupe (북한예술단) really from Pyongyang or rather from Japan, China, or elsewhere? It doesn’t seem to be the same ensemble that performed the song “방갑습니다!” (Nice to Meet You!) in a Youtube-video that I found listed under the same name. According to a news report in Munhwa Ilbo (문화일보), this is was the “Pyongyang Folk Art Ensemble” (평양민속예술단), a group of professional musicians, singers and dancers trained in North Korea who have escaped to South. (I couldn’t access what seems to be the ensemble’s homepage – there might be more information there.)

A lot of “seems”, many open questions, and only one way to find out… Seems like it’s time for some field work next time they are in town!

Or rather not? I wasn’t sure…

And then I found a blog post by someone who had a similar experience earlier this June, when the same ensemble performed at Sejong University (세종대학교 대양홀). The blogger Ssamdori (쌈돌이) noticed what I hadn’t seen: The whole event is in fact “a combination of travel presentation and free performance by the company Geumgan Tour” ((주)금간투어에서 여행설명회를 겸한 무료공연). Like Ssamdori, I was struck between curiosity and suspicion. Maybe we should go together and get the free knife next time

– 22 Aug. 2014 (金)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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