Last Saturday, July 13th, 2013, concert pianist and North Korean re-settler Kim Cheol-woong shared the story of his defection through talk and music, at a charity event hosted by NKHR at Haechi Hall.
Kim, perhaps more so than your average musician, has made immense sacrifices for the right to play his music. He shared the story of his journey, his reasons for defection, and his philosophical ideals over the course of the afternoon, interspersed with carefully selected songs.
Kim readily admits that his story is atypical of North Korean defectors. He led a life of relative comfort in North Korea. His musical talent was recognized at an early age and he was sent to Pyongyang to further his musical studies at an elite school. As a result, he was insulated from the want and deprivation that is a common thread in the stories of many refugees. The privileges he sought outside of North Korea had little to do with material comfort. While victims of malnutrition and starvation longed for a more stable food supply, Kim had a burning curiosity about other, freer forms of music, and what it would be like to play what he wanted, as opposed to the standard litany of tunes glorifying the regime. Kim had studied music abroad in Moscow, where he had been exposed to many forms of modern music.
Such curiosity, if acted upon, amounts to political crime in North Korea. Having more to lose, as it were, than the average North Korean, one wonders where Kim found the courage to entertain it. The answer seems to lie in his love for music, and certainly no one can deny his passion for it. At the concert, he spent as much if not more time speaking about the beauty and power of music than the bleak political situation in North Korea.
Kim Cheol-woong recalled the series of events that led to his defection matter-of-factly. Thinking that he would not be overheard, he once played a song that he had learned while studying in Moscow. In October 2001, Kim Cheol-woong was informed on to the National Security Agency and punished for playing Richard Clayderman's "'A' Comme Amour," or "'L' for Love" for his girlfriend.
After having to write a ten page report of self criticism for his crime, he decided to leave. There are times, Kim admitted, that he regretted his decision. He was a poor illegal worker in China for many years. For several of them he could not even play piano, as the small village where he ended up did not have one. One of the songs played at the concert, Amazing Grace, was the first song he played when he finally found a piano in an old church in China. Fifty of the keys made no sound, but at the time, it was wonderful, Kim recalls. Finding the church was fortunate in more than one way, as the people there assisted him in making his way to South Korea.
Since then, music has once again become a central part of Kim’s life, as he has continued to play and perform in South Korea. During the concert, Kim shared his hope that, just as the strict rules of classical music and the freedom and creativity of modern music can blend to make something more complete and more beautiful, North and South Korea could one day be reunified and reconciled on the basis of shared values and modernity.
We are grateful for Kim Cheol-woong’s willingness to share his music and his story with us, and we are equally grateful to all of those who came on Saturday and made this event a great success.
The concert and raffle raised a total of ₩5,800,000, which will be used to help two more refugees reach South Korea safely, and to continue the Hanawon educational program for young defectors settling in South Korea.
We are a group of volunteers fundraising for NKHR (Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights) to rescue