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Crossing the Death Line, Craving for Jazz
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2016-01-25 17:46:20
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 Crossing the Death Line, Craving for Jazz

Cheol Woong KIM 
North Korean Pianist & Defector
Arrived in South Korea in the spring of 2003 


The following testimony was presented at Press Conference on the 8th of May, Bergen, Norway.

I was born on August 15, 1973 in Pyongyang and was brought up in a well-off family. My father worked for the Party and my mother was a professor at a university. In the early 1980s, artists were respected in North Korea, and I learned music as my parents had wanted. When I was eight, I was selected as the Pyongyang Music and Dance University preliminary pianist, and received special education in music. I received 14 years of education at the University in the citizen’s class, preliminary class, and professional class, which are equivalent to elementary and middle schools. I graduated in 1994 with honors.

In 1995, I went to Tchaikovsky National Music Center in Moscow, Russia to study. The study in Russia changed my life. I was so shocked when I heard ‘Autumn Leaves’ by Richard Clayderman. I had never heard music like that before, and it gave me goose bumps all over my body.

After my study abroad, I returned to North Korea in 1999 and worked at the Pyongyang National Cultural Orchestra as the chief pianist. One day, I was caught playing the music by Richard Clayderman, which I heard in Russia, so I had to write ten pages of written explanation for my behavior. Until I had gone to Russia to study, it was very natural to read the analects by Kim Il-sung and to self-criticize. After I came back from Russia, however, it was unbearable for me to do such things, and I realized that I could not stay there anymore.

After I had experienced the “unrestricted music” in Russia, I developed a desire for music that I personally wanted to learn and play. In North Korea, the 20th century modern music among the classical music is forbidden because it is regarded as too liberal. Moreover, jazz is restricted because it is seen as ‘vicious music’ that confuses people’s minds. Wagner’s music is also restricted because of Nazism and Rachmaninoff’s music is forbidden because he flew to the United States as an exile.

But for me, Jazz not only stimulated my desire for more music, but also made me reflect on my whole life. I realized that what I had known until that time was not everything. I also saw myself as a ‘musician no different from a machine’.

In fact, until that time, I hadn’t ever felt like I had lacked anything in my life. I often went to the restaurants at Korea Hotel where only about 1% of Pyongyang citizens could go, and enjoyed performances by so-called ‘Pleasure Team (Gippeumjo)’ of Wang Jae San Light Music Band. Every weekend, I went to ‘Chang Kwang Won’, a luxury swimming pool with saunas which are open to the foreigners only. My pockets were full of dollars and I had wealthy friends with whom I used to listen to South Korean songs such as ‘Forgotten Season’ by Yong Lee, and other songs by Jin Hee Choi and Hyun Mi Ju.

Escaping for Jazz

After two years, I finally crossed the Tumen River and escaped to China. My reasons were different from most of people. It was not hunger, but the desire for jazz music that drove me to escape. But China did not provide for me what I had expected. The people I met in China for the first time did not even know what a piano looked liked. I didn’t know what to do, so I started working at a lumber community in Heilongjiang sheng transporting trees that were 2m thick and 18m long. I worked from 5 in the morning until the midnight, with two scraps of bread and a bowl of soup. My hands, which had only played piano until then, were turning into the rough hands of a laborer.

I asked myself, ‘Why have I chosen this painful road?’ and wondered how my parents were doing. I felt lonely and cold. The weather felt so cold as if it could turn my tears into icicles. I also thought of dying, but I couldn’t bring myself to it because of the music I so desperately wanted to play.

After working for about seven months, I heard that if I went to church I could find a piano. So I went to the church. Although I couldn’t find a piano, I could still study the bible, have meals, and sleep at the church. In June 2002, I went to the church revival service where Korean missionaries participated. There, I finally found a piano. I automatically went towards it, sat down, and played ‘Amazing Grace.’ Since then, I became an accompanist and could play piano from place to place in China.
It is often that the more one has, the more one wants. After playing the piano, I wanted more. I realized that I had to go to South Korea to freely play the music that I wanted to play. But going to Korea was not an easy task. I was caught by the Chinese public security officials twice. One time, I jumped off from the train and ran away, and the other time I was sent to North Korea, but I met an acquaintance in the jail, which allowed me to run away. It was a miracle. Finally in the Spring of 2003, I arrived in South Korea.

My Life in South Korea

After I came to Korea in 2003, I performed at a live café in Hwa Gok Dong, Seoul, and also worked as an instructor at a piano institute. I established the ‘Pyongyang Artists Band’ composed of North Korean refugees and went around the country and performed at district offices and city halls.

These days, I’m invited to the university chapels at Seoul Women’s University, Ewha Womans University, Myung Ji University, Sookmyung Women’s University, and Pohang University of Science and Technology. I play ‘Arirang’ at the chapels and share my experiences from North Korea. Since September of 2004, I’ve been teaching at the Department of Music at Han Sei University. 

Many things have changed since my arrival in Korea. I am now a liberal person. I no longer trust other people easily. Before I didn’t have any religion, but the church became a place where I could play the piano after I escaped from North Korea, and I believe that I’m able to adapt to the South Korean society through religion. If there is a chance, I’m planning to write a book about my life. Now I also take on a different approach when playing the piano or music. In the past, I felt that I could give up anything for jazz, but after I achieved what I had craved for, and my mind began to change. Now I like classical music more than jazz.

I have rearranged the Korean traditional song ‘Arirang,’ after I came to Korea. When children in North Korea jump ropes, they sing ‘Arirang’. In contrast, when a young South Korean sings ‘Arirang’ at a karaoke, people look at him strangely. Even in Europe, ‘Arirang’ is seen as the most beautiful melody in the world. We should preserve our own music. Music can have effects that politics and economics cannot. I hope that the day when Koreans can hold hands and sing ‘Arirang’ together will come soon.

Seeing the tears of Kim Young and Byun Nan-I, I felt sorry for having lived in such a different environment in North Korea. To answer the question on why the North Koreans do not oppose the government, I think it is because they have been completely brainwashed. The whole society (the education, the media, etc) is filled with praise and propaganda of the government, so over 98% of the North Koreans are thoroughly brainwashed. They are even made to believe that North Korea is able to receive foreign aid because it has a great government. People have recently started to doubt the government propaganda, but it is still not enough to lead to opposition at a social level. This is because for over 50 years, North Koreans have become accustomed to the current system which doesn’t even guarantee basic human rights. Just as a single ray of light brings so much hope in complete darkness, the North Koreans are grateful towards the government even if it provides them with a little bit of food. As well, they are very much aware that they can put their whole family in danger if they oppose the government, even in the slightest way, so they try to hide their dissatisfaction.

You probably all saw the North Koreans cry when Kim Il-Sung passed away in 1994. You probably were not able to understand this reaction. I, too, was able to see the fallacy of the North Korean government while studying abroad. I also realized that the system could collapse from within, once the North Koreans saw the reality.

Won Jae-Chun, a professor of the Graduate School of International Law at Handong University, asked Byun Nan-I whether her older brother had had a fair trial or had been appointed a lawyer before being shot by the government.  To this question, Byun Nan-I answered that her family hadn’t even considered hiring a lawyer because of their difficult financial situation. Even worse, her family hadn’t even been allowed to visit her brother while he was in detention.  To this, Kim Chul-Woong added that the North Koreans were educated to put more value in their responsibilities towards the law; rather than their rights.  Therefore, it is only natural that they do not know how to protect their own rights even when they are wrongly accused.

Growing up, I wasn’t interested at all in politics or human rights, which was normal for my situation. Due to the fact I was born into a very wealthy family, my parents had the chance to discover my talents for music, and from that point, I was to become a pianist. I have never suffered from hunger, nor had no clothes to wear. However, while studying in Russia, I realized that humans could not survive on just food and air, if they did not have other rights and freedom. I felt angry that I had not known what all of you here take for granted. Although I didn’t have any political opinion at the time, I felt disgusted at myself and realized that there would be no development or improvement in North Korea. That is why I decided to escape. All I wanted was to be able to listen to the music I wanted to listen to, sing the songs I wanted to sing, and play the music I wanted to play. In other words, I wanted to say what I wanted to say, and hear what I wanted to hear.

Although some of you may not believe me, a part of me still loves North Korea. I have no intentions of saying bad things about it. However, I want to testify that so many things are left hidden in North Korea.  

In North Korea, the government pays for 14 years of music education, and even sends students abroad to study it. The reason why the government does this is because it knows how important music and propaganda can be. By using artists that are competent in both knowledge and skill, the government is able to spread its propaganda. Through these artists, the government tries to preserve its stability and legitimacy. After being educated in world-famous institutions, musicians go back to North Korea to write very high-quality and romantic music even in world standards, but to the lyrics that praise Kim Il-Sung. Even though they know they are being used, they still do their best for the government so the people around them won’t be hurt.  

Even though my parents were still working and I also had other siblings, I knew I couldn’t continue living like that. That is why I decided to escape from North Korea, even though I knew it was crazy. To be called a “professional” in a field, I think you should be able to give up everything for it. I felt proud for deciding to do this. However, I had no other plans for the future.

To take modern music for example, North Korea bans the music of Shostakovich because he opposed the “Class struggle theory” and tried to express the Cold War and the music of Rachmaninov because he fled to the United States. However, in a café in Russia, I was able to hear jazz music, which had also been banned as a product of capitalism. Some people call me a jazz musician, but I’d rather be called a classical musician. In any case, I just want to listen to the music I want to listen to, and play the music I want to play.  One of the things that I was the most angry about was that the 18 years of my music education had been meaningless. However, through this experience, I made up my mind to escape from North Korea. I wanted to make a little difference, or at least save myself, even though I knew I had no power or influence. For 2 years, I worked as a pianist, on a farm, and as a lumberman in China. Then, with the help of some missionaries, I was able to play the piano again, and find my way to South Korea.  Even after I came here, I am adjusting to the new society with the help of the Christian church.

I stand here today, with the hope that I can help make a little difference.  Sometimes when I play the piano alone, I am caught in between two opposing thoughts.  When you think of a pianist’s fingers, you’ll probably imagine them to be long and soft. On the contrary, my fingers are thick and rough. I think this shows the reality of the musicians in North Korea. I still love North Korea, but at the same time I hate it. This is because so many people I love are still suffering. I beg that all of you work to let the international society know about the human rights situation in North Korea, and to work together to make it better.   

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