▲ North Korean defector Kim Cheong Wool, on piano, performing with local musicians Ye Ji Young and Kang Ji Won at Bangju (Ark) Church on March 6. Photo by Hong Sung Jik
Imagine parties without a rock ’n’ roll track playing in the background, or a dance with no hip-hop beat. What if The Beatles were nothing more than the misspelling of a common insect? More extreme yet, imagine never having heard any Western music beyond the start of the 20th century. This was the musical world of North Korean pianist Kim Cheol Woong until young adulthood, when he first left his homeland to study music in Moscow.
“I was very surprised by what I heard,” Kim said, recalling first hearing rap and pop songs. “In North Korea the music we are allowed to listen to and perform is very limited.”
Playing piano from the age of 6, Kim’s easily recognizable talent led him to a prestigious university in Pyongyang, where he was kept on a strict diet of nationalistic songs. During his first venture outside his homeland to Russia, his introduction to jazz music was love at first listen.
After returning to North Korea, he had trouble suppressing his new passion even though he knew it was strictly forbidden. While working for the North Korean orchestra in Pyongyang, Kim was overheard practicing Richard Clayderman’s “A Comme Amour” by a security guard and reported to officials.
“I was forced to write a 10-page apology letter as my punishment. I felt terribly sad and I didn’t understand why I returned to North Korea,” Kim said.
That event was the last straw in his decision to flee the country. While Kim’s desire to escape was shared by many, his reason for defecting was unusual. Having already attained a high level of success, he knew that to realize his full potential as a musician he would need to start over on the outside.
“Freedom of artistic expression is very important to me, so I made the choice to leave.” Kim said.
His first two attempts were unsuccessful. Fortunately for Kim, his father knew the right people and punishment was avoided through a connection with the interrogator. On his next attempt, it took little persuasion to bribe a security guard at the border of China to let him slip past.
At the age of 28, he found his first sense of community on the outside with a small Christian church in China, where he had heard there was a piano. While serving as an accompanist, Kim was influenced by the music and teachings of the church. The contacts he met were later able to help him arrange a fake passport to get him to South Korea.
Kim felt his transition into South Korean society was smooth compared to most, his challenges being on the inside rather than struggling physically to survive. He formed a band comprised of other Northern refugees, and became well known in the Christian church community. He began playing a variety of genres and enjoyed his newfound freedom to choose whichever songs he liked.
“Music is the global communicator,” said Kim, who felt his music played a large role in finding him a place both in China and South Korea.
Music opened a world of opportunities for Kim, who now regularly performs all over South Korea. In April of 2009, he traveled abroad to play in New York’s Carnegie Hall, his largest audience to date. On March 6 of this year, Kim visited Jeju to perform at Bangju (Ark) Church, designed to resemble Noah’s Ark. The structure was given the name “Church of the Sky” by famous Korean-Japanese architect Itami Jun for its location overlooking the southern coast and Mount Sanbang.
“His talent is remarkable,” said Rev. Kim Kwang Kun. “He is very well-known throughout Korea.”
In attendance at the performance was Kim’s mother, who he was able to help defect from North Korea two years after his arrival in Seoul. At the time, Kim was able to hire a private investigator to assist with her escape.
“He lived a privileged life in North Korea, so I think he was very courageous to leave what he had and start over,” said Koh Jae Eun, an Inhwa Elementary School music and English teacher, who attended a performance by Kim at her church last year.
Although not Koh’s first experience meeting a North Korean defector, the experience was eye-opening for her. “When we think about North Koreans, we don’t typically think about artists,” she said.
Kim now spends the majority of his time teaching at the Paekche Institute of the Arts in Seoul, and arranging well-known Korean folk songs such as “Arirang.” In his time away from the piano, he helps the North Korean humanity organization.
Kim looks forward to returning to Jeju in June to perform with a few wind instrument musicians at a venue yet to be determined. As for his future goals, he hopes to create music that contributes to bringing the two Koreas together. Kim strongly believes a single piece of music “can bring the reunification forward three minutes.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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