China treated Kim Jong-un to a Maoist ballet classic about its army

Image: KCNA via Reuters
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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un welcomed a senior envoy from Beijing in Pyongyang over the weekend, in the latest sign of the warming relationship between the two Communist allies after Kim’s secret trip to Beijing last month—his first foreign visit since taking power in 2011.

Song Tao, a top Chinese Communist Party diplomat, led a 200-member art troupe to attend an arts festival in Pyongyang in a visit that came ahead of Kim’s scheduled summit with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on April 27. That meeting could potentially be followed by a meeting between Kim and Donald Trump in May or June.

Tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang had heightened over the past year as North Korea’s weapons testing became increasingly frequent. Under global pressure, Beijing got tougher on Pyongyang—for example, by cutting key exports such as coal and oil to the country. But more recently, the two sides seem to have moved past the friction ahead of the potential Trump-Kim summit, a sign that Beijing doesn’t want to be sidelined from developments on the Korean peninsula.

Kim hosted a banquet for the Chinese delegation, which returned the favor by treating the North Korean leader and his wife Ri Sol Ju to a classic ballet glorifying the Chinese army on Monday (April 17), according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

The ballet, entitled “The Red Detachment of Women,” tells the story of the daughter of a poor peasant fighting against feudalism by joining an all-women spy unit of the Communist Party’s army during the 1930s. First performed in China in 1964, the ballet was made one of the just “eight model plays” permitted during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, a destructive, decadelong mass movement in which as many as two million people died. One act of the play ends with a vow: “Forward, forward! Under the banner of Mao Zedong, forward to victory!”

The show has played a big part in China’s cultural and political engagement with the world. During Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China—a historic step in normalizing ties between Washington and Beijing—the American president and his entourage were presented with the show. The ballet premiered in the US in 2015, garnering positive reviews from some critics on its artistic value despite its ideological baggage. Last year, “The Red Detachment of Women” was played in a theater in Melbourne as part of a cultural exchange program between Australia and China, but drew protests from people who saw it as propaganda. Some even called it a “fascist ballet.”

After the show, Kim went up onto the stage to praise the dancers, “amid a thunder of applause,” Xinhua said. North Korea’s state news agency KCNA, for its part, said that the two nations are now moving to “more beautifully decorate the flower garden” of their friendship.