Thursday, December 18, 2008

North Korean defector's flight to musical freedom

Kim Cheol Woong was the dashing new star of North Korea's music circles in October 2001 when, alone in his room, he sat down at the piano and played a tune that he had picked up while studying at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. He was secretly practicing the piece, "'A' Comme Amour," a romantic number recorded by the French pianist Richard Clayderman, in a country where playing the wrong music can land a musician in a prison camp.

When an informer heard the "capitalist" melody drifting from Kim's room and reported it to the National Security Agency, the Communist state's secret police, the authorities intervened. "They made me write a 10-page self-criticism, over and over until they were satisfied," Kim said. The fact that his father was a powerful member of the ruling Workers Party may have saved him. Nevertheless, Kim found the experience repugnant.

"Music in North Korea is a political tool," Kim said. "Its purpose is to inspire adoration of the leader and the belief that socialism will triumph."

Unlike the thousands of North Koreans who have fled famine and material privation, Kim, who had enjoyed a life of privilege, said his flight owed more to his deepening unhappiness about his treatment as an artist.

He made his way across the border into China. A fellow North Korean defector told him of a piano in a church run by a Korean-Chinese pastor. To get to it, he joined an underground Bible study group where Christian missionaries led North Korean defectors in Bible readings in return for food and shelter. It was a Christian network that later helped smuggle him to Seoul.

[International Herald Tribune]

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