North Korean pop band cancels Beijing concert, leaves for home

BEIJING (Reuters) - An all-female North Korean pop group formed by leader Kim Jong Un abruptly canceled a Beijing concert due to “communication issues” and headed home, Chinese media and the concert venue said.

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The Moranbong Band was visiting China along with North Korea’s State Merited Chorus and had been due to perform at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday.

A member of staff who answered the telephone at the venue said the show had been canceled for unknown reasons while China’s official Xinhua news agency said the performance could not be staged as scheduled due to “communication issues at the working level”.

The band is Kim’s pet project as he tries to put his personal stamp on the North Korean arts, and the short haircuts of the group’s young women members are trend-setting in the capital, Pyongyang.

On Sunday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the North Koreans may have canceled the show after China decided to send a lower ranking delegation in protest over Kim’s apparent claim last week that the North possesses a hydrogen bomb.

The Yonhap report cited an unnamed source quoting an unnamed Chinese government official as saying the North had initially requested an audience that included President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang. China agreed instead to send a politburo member, but then decided to send lower-ranking officials.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The ensemble, whose members were reportedly handpicked by Kim, was formed in 2012 and their show in China was to be their first overseas appearance. Chinese media said they were due to give three concerts in Beijing.

There was no immediate word from North Korea on the band’s departure. Their visit to China was seen as an indication of improving relations between China and its isolated neighbor.

China is North Korea’s main economic and diplomatic backer, but was infuriated in 2013 when Kim ordered the country’s third nuclear test.

Several subsequent rounds of saber rattling by North Korea towards South Korea and the United States have also tested China’s patience.

Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe, James Pearson and Jee Heun Kahng in SEOUL; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ros Russell, Robert Birsel