Meet Hyon Song-wol, North Korea's 'Spice Girl' whose execution was greatly exaggerated

Chris Graham
North Korean Hyon Song-wol, head of North Korea'sart troupe, arrives at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul on Sunday - Korea Pool

She leads North Korea's answer to the "Spice Girls", was rumoured to have been Kim Jong-un's girlfriend, and was reportedly executed by firing squad. 

Having been the subject of such fevered speculation for years, Hyon Song-wol was greeted by a barrage of camera flashes as she arrived in Seoul on Sunday.  

The head of the Moranbong Band, the hugely popular North Korean girl band hand-picked by leader Kim Jong-Un, crossed the heavily fortified border into South Korea to check preparations for an art troupe she also leads during next month's Winter Olympics.

Appearing live on South Korean television, Hyon didn't speak when she walked past a crowd of reporters and onlookers before boarding an express train at Seoul's railway station for the eastern city of Gangneung, where her art troupe is to perform during the Pyeongchang Olympics.

She's been the subject of intense South Korean media attention since she attended last week's talks at the border that struck an agreement on the art troupe's two performances - one in Seoul and the other in Gangneung, where some of the games will take place.

North Korean Hyon Song Wol, head of a North Korean art troupe, gets off a bus as she arrives at the Seoul Train Station Credit: AP

Yet Hyon's present status as a quasi diplomat comes after a colourful past.

Intelligence agencies believed she and Mr Kim became romantically involved around 2002, after Mr Kim returned home from studying at an elite private academy in Switzerland.

Mr Kim was later said to have been ordered by his father Kim Jong-il to break off his relationship. She went on to marry an officer in the North Korean army with whom she had a baby. 

North Korea's Moranbong Band, an all-female ensemble that was hand-picked by leader Kim Jong-un Credit: AP

She made a return to the limelight in early 2012 when she performed at an event in Pyongyang to mark International Women's Day, which was attended by Mr Kim.

"The two have known each other since they were in their teens and rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang's top elite," a South Korean intelligence official told the JoongAng Daily in Seoul at the time. 

A year later, however, she was reported to be among a dozen well-known North Korean performers who were executed by firing squad.

North Korean Hyon Song-wol walks onto a train at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul Credit: AP

According to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Hyon was part of a group arrested on August 17 for violating domestic laws on pornography.

All 12 were machine-gunned three days later.

Mr Kim's wife, Ri Sol-ju, was a member of the Unhasu Orchestra before marriage and one theory at the time was that Ri objected to the continuing high profile of Hyon. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-ju Credit: AP

North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency denied the reports, claiming they were the work of "psychopaths" and "confrontation maniacs" in South Korea's government and the media.

A year later she appeared in public wearing an army colonel’s insignia, and thanked Mr Kim for his “heavenly trust and warm care” in promoting the arts.

In October, Ms. Hyon was elected to the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee as an alternate member.

Hyon's visit came hours after the International Olympic Committee allowed 22 North Korean athletes to take part in the Olympics in exceptional entries given to the North.

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Among the 22 are 12 women who will join South Korea's female hockey team in the Koreas' first-ever unified Olympic team. The other sports events the North Koreans will compete in are figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing.

The 22 North Korean athletes will also march together with South Korean players under a single "unification flag" depicting their peninsula during the opening ceremony.

"Such an agreement would have seemed impossible only a few weeks ago," IOC chief Thomas Bach said in Lausanne, Switzerland.