Koreans on both halves of the divided peninsula are fond of the phrase “Nam nam buk nyeo,” literally “Southern man, Northern woman.” South Korean men use it to assert that they are the most handsome, while North Koreans claim that their women are the most beautiful. (South Korean women and North Korean men are, understandably, less fond of the phrase.)
South Koreans are now in the midst of a North Korean beauty blitz–and, well, they’re gaga.
A frenzied media posse has been chasing Hyon Song Wol, a singer in North Korea’s all-female Moranbong Band and a rising political star in Kim Jong Un’s regime, on her two-day visit to the South. She has been leading a seven-member delegation to inspect facilities in the South where the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra will play on its visit during the Winter Olympics next month, in which 22 North Korean athletes will compete.
Television networks carried live coverage of the delegation’s arrival in the South and camera teams were in hot pursuit every step of the way from then on. Hyon’s face graced the front pages of almost every newspaper in South Korea on Monday morning.
Hyon, who is 35, is the focus of so much curiosity partly because of her role at the center of one of North Korea’s biggest cultural exports, the Moranbong Band. The band was established on Kim’s orders in 2012 and was like nothing North Korea had seen before. Instead of women in tent-like traditional dresses with a repertoire made up entirely of songs about revolutionary fervor, Hyon and her fellow singers made their debut in sparkly short dresses and performed the theme from Rocky, and Disney’s “It’s a Small World.”
The glamorous singer represents a very different side of North Korea from the one with the rampant starvation and human rights abuses–the one that is reality for the vast majority of North Koreans. In that way, Hyon’s visit is a propaganda coup for North Korea.
“North Koreans are very proud,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, an expert on North Korean culture who teaches at Korea University in Seoul. “They are saying, ‘We may be a communist state, but our girls are the most beautiful, they’re not like those plastic girls in the South,’” she said, in a reference to the extensive use of cosmetic surgery in South Korea.
Not everyone in South Korea is so wild about North Korea’s soft-power efforts. The JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s top three newspapers, on Monday warned the government not to be seduced by North Korea.