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“A Country of Aliens”: Kim Cheol Woong on Musical Freedom and Cultural Differences
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2015-04-08 21:01:00
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“A Country of Aliens”:
Kim Cheol Woong on Musical Freedom and Cultural Differences

The “Every Piece Has a Story” event was organized to combine two things that are internationally celebrated: music and storytelling. The NKHR Refugee Rescue Fund Campaign Team, a volunteer group working under the guidance of the Citizens’ Alliance, has been hard at work over the last few months organizing film screenings and defector testimonies.  While these events were successful in both raising awareness and donations for the rescue fund, we agreed that an event of a much larger scale was needed, and asked NKHR cultural ambassador Kim Cheol Woong to give a benefit concert. 

The “Every Piece Has a Story” event raised W2,490,000 for NKHR’s Hanawon program and W2,655,000 for the Refugee Rescue Fund.  Thanks to all who attended for your support!

Below is NKHR Rescue Fund’s volunteer Christine Pickering’s account:

Arirang TV host Sean Lim presents Kim Cheol Woong, North Korean pianist and the star of the “Every Piece Has a Story” event to great applause.  Kim is warm, effusive, exudes a self-confidence that may seem at odds with his past experience as a North Korean refugee.  A man who has obviously spent a lot of time on the stage, Kim charms his audience with charisma and humor. 


"People say that there are two things about my appearance that does not fit the images they have in their minds.  The first one is that I don’t look like someone from North Korea.” 

The second comment is that I don’t look like someone who would know how to play piano.” 

With these remarks, Kim challenges his audience to re-conceptualize their image of what a North Korean defector should be like. 

The first song Kim performs is the Korean folk song Arirang.  With deft fingers flying expertly across the keys, he adds passion and a joyous energy to the well-known piece.  He also mentions that he is playing a North Korean version of the tune.  

“If you feel that this music is strange, then you can consider North Korea as… a country of aliens.  But if you do not feel that this music is strange, then you should also understand that there are people who are living and breathing in North Korea as well,” he says.

On the subject of difference, Kim is also quick to point out that his experience is atypical of most North Koreans.  Born into the elite, with his father a powerful member of the Workers’ Party and his mother a professor at a university in Pyongyang, Kim lived a life of relative privilege.  At age 7, Kim was among 9 finalists out of 6,000 candidates selected for the prestigious Pyongyang Music and Dance Institute where he played patriotic tunes in praise of the Workers’ Party and the North Korean leader.  He was also sent to Moscow to study at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory for several years.

Kim is highly aware of how his privileged status differentiates him from other defectors.  “My crossing the Tuman River…  [was] very different from the situation you saw in the documentary film,” he says, in reference to the NKHR short film screened before the concert, which shared the harrowing experiences of other refugees who had escaped the country. 

“I pulled out cash and I just waved the bills in the air!” he says.  “And the tone of the person [guarding the border] changed.  ‘Ohhh, please come here,’” he mimics the deferential tone of the guard who he eventually bribed to help him cross the Tuman River in safety. 


Kim now introduces an original composition that he wrote in South Korea called Daybreak.  The sound is discordant and jarring.  Although Kim recounts his training in both Pyongyang and Moscow as being demanding and very rigid in style, this piece seems far removed from that training.  Daybreak is full of the kind of freedom and expression which he must have been restricted from exhibiting.

While most defectors escape North Korea for survival, Kim admits that he escaped to find musical freedom.  As a highly trained pianist, he felt artistically limited by the restrictions placed on the music he was allowed to play.  He complains that “you can’t sing the song you want to even though you have a mouth, listen to the music that you want to even though you have ears, and play the music that you want to even though you have fingers.” 

But his freedom came at a price.  Recounting his torture by Chinese officials upon being identified as a North Korean escapee, he tells how he tucked his hands under his arms to protect his fingers from the beatings.  He guesses that this act made him seem arrogant, and for that reason, he was beaten harder. 


The concert ends on a mixed note.  Thus far, the audience has been regaled with the ups and downs of Kim’s life, rising as a talented pianist from a wealthy, powerful family and then later becoming a refugee working in a Chinese logging camp before making his way to the south. 

The last song Kim plays is Revolutionary Army Game, a North Korean song he was forced to learn in elementary school.  “From a very young age in North Korea, you come to know combat and the idea of combat,” he informs us.

He plays the folk tune, and despite the upbeat melody of the song, its name is a somber reminder of North Korea’s continued militarism and its indoctrination of children from an early age.  But Kim urges the audience not to focus on the cultural differences between the people of the two Koreas, but rather the similarities they share as human beings:  “They are not that much different from you guys.  I think that is why we must save them from suffering.” 

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