On Jan. 21, a delegation of North Korean officials arrived in South Korea ahead of the Winter Olympics on a well-publicized visit to inspect the facilities where North Korean athletes will compete. But it was the woman heading the delegation, Hyon Song Wol, who sent local media into a frenzy.
Hyon is the front woman in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s handpicked all-female pop group Moranbong Band, known for its Western-style pop songs honoring the Supreme Leader and his regime. In 2013, South Korean media reported that Hyon had been executed following a sex scandal, but she reappeared on Korean television the following year. In October, she was appointed to the powerful Workers’ Party Central Committee.
GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS
After the historic thaw in relations between the two Koreas in January, Hyon had a prominent role in diplomatic talks. She will also head the 140-member Samjiyon Orchestra, made up of musicians and dancers, which will perform at the Games. In Seoul, Hyon’s delegation was met by activists protesting the Olympic cooperation between the nations. North Korea’s team is set to join South Korea under one flag in the opening ceremonies.
Bands and orchestras have long been used as a soft-power tool in North Korea. The isolated state, under international sanctions for its nuclear-weapons program, will be eager to be cast in a positive light during the Games. But Olympic officials will be just as eager to ensure that North Korea has no chance to put propaganda on display.
This appears in the February 05, 2018 issue of TIME.