Wearing stylish identical red coats and black fur hats, the elegant female members of a mysterious North Korean art troupe waved goodbye to their homeland ahead of boarding a ship to the Winter Olympics across the border.
Billed as the hottest ticket in town, the “Samjiyon” group – comprised of an orchestra, dancers and singers – sailed into Mukho on a floating hotel, stealing the early limelight from their Olympic colleagues.
While there has been a rush of enthusiasm for the new star attraction of the Olympics, it has not been matched for actual sports events at the Games, where despondent officials for months have urged the public to boost sluggish ticket sales.
Over 150,000 South Koreans have applied to an online lottery for just 1,060 publicly available tickets to see two rare performances of the Samjiyon troupe in the Olympic city of Gangneung on Thursday and Seoul on Sunday.
By Monday, 77.3 per cent, or 826,000 tickets had been sold, which Lee Hee-beon, head of the Pyeongchang Olympic organising committee told reporters “isn’t too bad".
North Korea has been accused by its critics of stealing the limelight at the Olympics since it agreed in January to send a delegation.
The Samjiyon group were pictured by state media as they showed up on Tuesday morning at a train station in Pyongyang.
The group was waved off personally by Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, and Pak Kwang-ho, the director of the regime’s propaganda and agitation department.
Pyongyang reportedly told Seoul last Friday through a border telephone hotline that the troupe, which appears to have been specially comprised for the Olympics, would play “many” South Korean songs.
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But the North’s failure to reveal any other details about the performance has raised fears that it could be planning a propaganda coup.
The word “Samjiyon” itself is a highly symbolic one used to promote the legendary bloodline of the Kim family, reported the Daily NK.
Fans of the performers will have no chance to interact with them, however. The 9,700-ton cargo passenger ferry, the Mangyongbong-92, which is transporting them South, will also act as a floating hotel, keeping them under the close watch of their minders.
Seoul’s unification ministry said it would provide food, fuel and electricity through the ship’s stay, but that all items would be checked for American ingredients to prevent a breach of US sanctions on the delivery of its goods and services.
South Korea, meanwhile, busted its own unilateral sanctions to allow the ship to dock, as part of an Olympic overture.
North Korean vessels have been banned since May 2010 from entering southern waters after the North allegedly sank a South Korean navy corvette.