Defector Pianist Skeptical If Music Can Help Cross-Border Ties

  • By Lee Hai-woon

    April 14, 2018 08:17

    Can music change the course of history? The government seems to think so, organizing a flurry of cross-border concerts where North and South Korean harmonies ring out to a handpicked audience.

    Pianist Kim Cheol-woong (44), a North Korean defector who teaches at Seoul National University, is skeptical. After graduating from Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, Kim went to Russia to study at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.

    He went on to become the youngest lead pianist in the North's State Symphony Orchestra until he defected to South Korea in 2001.

    Kim was practicing "A Comme Amour," a slushy but harmless number by Richard Clayderman, when someone reported him to the State Security Department, and he had to endure interrogation and torture, triggering his decision to defect. 

    Kim Cheol-woong

    ◆ North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended one of the concerts by South Korean musicians in Pyongyang. Had he ever attended a concert by South Korean singers before?

    "I heard that [former leader] Kim Jong-il secretly attended a concert by South Korean trot singer Kim Yeon-ja in 2001, sitting behind a one-way mirror. The audience had no idea that he was there. But this time Kim Jong-un showed up and even made it look like he had to rearrange his busy schedule. I thought, "what a crock of baloney.'"

    ◆ Why do you think that?

    "It was all an elaborate show. He wanted to show the outside world what a refined, normal and relaxed person he is, while trying to give the impression to North Koreans that his enemies even send performers to honor him. He was telling his people, 'Just trust me and follow me.' It was a major publicity coup for the North Korean regime."

    ◆ Who do you think was responsible for putting on such a show?

    "Kim Jong-un is posing as [his grandfather] Kim Il-sung in front of North Koreans, but he is trying to portray a softer image to the outside world by using [orchestra leader] Hyon Song-wol, [his sister] Kim Yo-jong and [his wife] Ri Sol-ju. When the South Korean envoys came to Pyongyang, he had the dining table covered in pink cloth and had the North Korean performers wear pink ties. I never, ever, saw North Korean men wearing pink ties. That kind of touch can only come from the mind of a North Korean woman. It all looks like Kim Yo-jong's idea."

    ◆ One notable incident was Kim smiling while he listened to a song by rock singer Yoon Do-hyun, only to adjust his expression when he noticed he was on camera.

    "I think he was just responding instinctively but was caught off guard. In North Korea, any song that is applauded by the leader is okay to be heard by the people. Even state security agents can't do anything about that."

    ◆ Why do you think singer Psy was not included among the South Korean performers? People are joking that it's because Psy looks like Kim Jong-un.

    "'Gangnam Style' is one song North Korea can't accept. Gangnam represents the heart of South Korean capitalism and the performance is just out of this world. The lyrics are addictive too, which could be explosive in terms of social impact. Yoon may be a rock singer, but the lyrics to his song 'Since I Let You Go' are very submissive. But songs like Psy's 'Gangnam Style' and 'Champion' are hard to handle for North Korea."

    ◆ I thought listening to South Korean songs in North Korea was punishable by death.

    "That's true, but times are changing. North Korea may be secluded, but cultural influences cannot be stopped at the border. North Korean authorities didn't want this. They sent offenders to jail and tried everything at first, but how can you possibly send the entire country to prison?"

    ◆ Kim Jong-un and his father appear to have an immense interest in music.

    "The concept of musical politics came out of the Kim Jong-il regime. He created the Mansudae Art Troupe to honor Kim Il-sung and later the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble. Then he set up the Unhasu Orchestra for his son Jong-un. But Kim Jong-un didn’t like the orchestra, so he shut it down and had Ri Sol-ju create the Moranbong troupe composed of graduates of Kumsong School [of music]."

    ◆ What is the significance of music in North Korea?

    "Music is completely ideological in the North, used purely to justify Workers Party policies and hail the leader and the North Korean regime. There is no such thing as musical art. There are songs reflecting people's yearnings, but they're really just socialist propaganda. I was forced to perform only propaganda tunes when I was there. The song, 'Baekdu and Halla Are My Nation's' sung by Hyon Song-wol in South Korea is a patriotic North Korean song about reunification led by the North. And the song, 'Let's Meet Again' that entertainers sang in unison at the concert in Pyongyang also promulgates their ideology."

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