GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - A 137-strong North Korean orchestra wrapped up its first performance in South Korea on Thursday, serenading hundreds of South Koreans with familiar tunes while dozens of protesters blasted their own music outside to the beat of drums.
The Samjiyon Band’s performance comes a day before South Korea opens its first Winter Olympics, amid a thaw in ties with North Korea highlighted by the first visit by its leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, who is set to arrive on Friday.
Performing in the coastal city of Gangneung, the art troupe played songs from both North and South Korea, starting with a well-known North Korean song “Nice to Meet You,” and also played a medley of Western tunes, including one from Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera”.
“They played popular songs so we could enjoy the concert and it was beyond my expectations,” said Jun Sang-sik, a 37-year-old public official who came with his 9-year-old daughter. “My daughter said she felt proud after seeing South and North Korea performing together.”
The 90-minute performance ended without an encore despite the audience’s request, but a North Korean host of the event thanked spectators for the warm welcome.
The thaw between North and South ahead of the Olympics comes at a time when Pyonyang is under tightening U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile program, having tested missiles last year that could hit other continents.
Pyongyang has engaged in a war of words with South Korea’s military ally the United States. President Donald Trump has belittled North Korea’s leader Kim as “little Rocket Man” and threatened to respond to threats with “fire and fury”.
On Tuesday, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood dismissed the overtures to the South as a distraction from North Korea’s hostile aims: “What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood told a U.N. conference.
The performance is the first by North Koreans in the South since 2000, when another orchestra crossed the border for a joint concert to mark Korea’s Liberation Day on Aug. 15.
More than 150,000 South Koreans entered a lottery for tickets to the two performances the North Korean troupe will hold in South Korea. A random selection saw 780 winners receive two tickets each, the government said in a statement.
A total of 812 people attended Thursday’s show, among them 252 special invitees picked separately by the government.
About five minutes away from the concert hall, 80 protesters staged a demonstration in sub-zero temperatures, blasting out songs opposing the Pyeongchang Olympics and beating on drums.
A barricade of about 100 police kept the protesters away from the performance site.
“They are here to make fools of South Koreans, and I cannot accept that,” said 71-year-old Kwon Oh-seok, adding that he had traveled from Seoul, the capital, to protest against the performance.
South Korea temporarily lifted a ban on North Korean ships to allow the Mangyongbong 92 ferry carrying the troupe to enter the eastern port of Mukho on Monday.
The North’s orchestra will stage its second and last performance in Seoul on Sunday.
Reporting by Jane Chung; Editing by Christine Kim, Clarence Fernandez and Peter Graff