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All-female North Korea band leader set to visit South

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Seoul (AFP)

The leader of North Korea's all-female Western-style Moranbong band is set to head a delegation to the South Saturday to prepare cultural performances during the Olympics, Seoul said, becoming the first North Korean official to visit for four years.

Hyon Song-Wol, reputed to be an ex-girlfriend of leader Kim Jong-Un, was the subject of lurid 2013 reports in the South that she and around a dozen other state musicians had been executed for appearing in porn movies.

The North angrily denied the claims and Hyon later appeared on state television.

The nuclear-armed North agreed last week to take part in the Pyeongchang Games, which will take place just 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula, easing tensions over its weapons programmes.

Pyongyang nominated her to head a seven-member advance team to inspect venues for proposed art performances in Seoul and the eastern city of Gangneung in connection with the Olympics, the South's Unification Ministry said.

As such she will be the first senior official from the North to visit the South proper since 2014, aside from talks on the southern side of the DMZ.

Then, Pyongyang sent three high-ranking officials to encourage North Korean athletes attending the Asian Games in Incheon, although they did not meet any members of the government.

The Unification Ministry said the North identified Hyon as the head of the less well-known Samjiyon Orchestra, which will make up much of the 140-member art troupe from the North.

The performances will be the first of their kind since 2002, when Pyongyang sent a cohort of 30 singers and dancers to Seoul for a joint pro-unification event.

- Military display? -

The two Koreas have agreed to march together under a unification flag -- a pale blue silhouette of the whole Korean peninsula -- at the Games' opening ceremony on February 9, and to form a unified women's ice hockey team.

Hyon was the second most senior delegate from the North when officials of the two Koreas met at the border truce village of Panmunjom on Monday to discuss the art performances.

The advance team will enter the South overland on Saturday and return on Sunday, the ministry added.

But the planning comes amid reports that North Korea could be preparing a lavish display of its military strength on the eve of the Games.

Yonhap news agency, quoting an unidentified government official, said Thursday that some 12,000 soldiers were rehearsing with artillery pieces and other weapons at an airfield near Pyongyang.

They could stage a military parade in the capital to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North's regular army on February 8, a day before the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony, it added.

But the North's parades involve tens of thousands of people and take months to prepare, while Pyongyang is bitterly cold in February.

Analysts point out that satellite pictures of the airfield preparations appear to show far less activity than ahead of previous major displays.

"It would look bizarre to have a military parade in Pyongyang, just a day before the opening of what the South has declared a 'Peace Olympics'", Ahn Chan-Il, an analyst at the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP.

"But this fits the North's usual claim that it is prepared for both peace and a war", he added.

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