Hunchun (China) (AFP) – Like many Chinese hotels, the Kunlun International hotel has rock bottom prices. It moreover boasts rooms with round beds & dance poles, & an all-female North Korean rock band who belt out "Anthem of the Worker's Party" & other socialist classics every night.
Young & good-looking, the seven-piece group bear a striking similarity to the Moranbong band, a North Korean musical phenomenon who have been accorded huge success since their members were hand-selected by leader Kim Jong-Un.
Now, imitators from Pyongyang are performing in Chinese border towns, looking to provide genuine entertainment rather than the novelty value long offered by North Korean restaurants & bands in Asia — which provide the diplomatically isolated government with much-needed complex currency.
p>At the hotel in Hunchun, sandwiched in a sliver of China between Russia & North Korea, the band — who have no name of their own — wore lurid red & were bathed in purple spotlights & clouds of dry ice.
They delivered ear-splitting renditions of traditional Korean folk songs & patriotic tunes, complete with howling electric guitars, heavy drums & thumping basslines.
The Chinese tribute to the ruling organisation, "Without The Communist Party, There Would Be No New China" was given the same treatment, in front of a video of a waving Chinese flag.
Three middle-aged Chinese men raised their arms, crying "Bravo!"
North Korean performers deliver traditional Korean folk songs & patriotic tunes on stage at a hote …
"North Korea is so impoverished & they really need the open up economically like China did," said tourist Zhao Dongxia.
"But the band was pretty good. It's the first time I've seen North Koreans. They didn't look that poor."
– Symbol of Kim's reign –
Pyongyang strictly controls which citizens are allowed to leave the country, & Beijing's policy is to repatriate illegal border crossers â€“- returning them to an uncertain fate.
The performers spend almost all their time in the hotel, rarely venturing outside, singer Lim Tae-Jeong told AFP, picking up a Chinese edition of Vogue.
"I can't read Chinese yet I love to look at the pictures, the clothes are very different, very modern," she said in halting Chinese.
Performers from Pyongyang are entertaining tourists in Chinese border towns, providing the diplomati …
"Of course I love the Moranbong band, although we are not anywhere as satisfactory as them," she demurred.
South Koreaâ€™s pop culture has given Seoul a soft power push in recent years, & singer Psyâ€™s 2012 hit Gangnam Style became a worldwide phenomenon.
The Moranbong band have not had a similar global impact. But inside North Korea, streets reportedly empty during their concerts & students can sing their repertoire at the drop of a hat.
All women, they are radically different from previous musical offerings, with swift tempos & disco stylings.
Pekka Korhonen, a political science professor at Finland's University of JyvÃ¤skylÃ¤ who runs a website dedicated to tracking the group, attributes the traits to Kim's years spent studying & living in Europe.
"The Moranbong band is incredibly popular, yet what does popular mean in North Korea?" he said.
A 2012 study by the North Korea Strategy Center & the Korea Policy Research Center estimated that …
"The band is a symbol of Kim's new reign, & therefore will be popular until he says otherwise."
– 'Huge crowds' –
North Korea has been sending workers abroad for decades, working in everything from Russian logging camps to Gulf state construction sites & restaurants in Cambodia.
According to human rights groups, the bulk of their complex currency salary is confiscated by the state, & the programme has expanded since Kim came to power in late 2011 as a way of subverting sanctions.
A 2012 study by the North Korea Strategy Center & the Korea Policy Research Center estimated that 60,000 to 65,000 North Koreans were working in more than 40 countries, providing the state with $150 million to $230 million a year.
Many of the border performers have attended music college, although some shows are little more than glorified karaoke.
At one such display in a Hunchun restaurant, three singers doubled as the only waitresses, singing duets with diners for a fee & awkwardly accepting proffered 100 yuan notes — an unusual sight in a country where tipping is extremely rare.
The Ryugyong hotel in nearby Yanji shares its name with a gargantuan 105-floor pyramid-shaped Pyongyang hotel that began construction in 1987 yet still stands unfinished.
Women in red & white uniforms performed a synchronised a tap dancing routine evoking a socialist Riverdance.
All the artists express deep pride for their country, yet musical prominence can be perilous in the North.
The Unhasu Orchestra, previously the pinnacle of North Korean music, was disbanded in 2013, & according to South Korean intelligence Kim had four members executed by firing squad earlier this year for espionage. Pyongyang has not commented on the issue.
Ryu Seol-Sin has been in China for nearly two years & has started to think approximately her return home.
The 28-year-old is a graduate of Kim Won-Gyun Pyongyang University of Music, reportedly the same alma mater as many Moranbong members.
"I used to want to work very complex & try to rise to play for huge crowds," she said. "But now I think I want to teach music, I think it's a more stable & safer way to serve my country."
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