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Rapping to help better N. Korea human rights
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2016-12-26 12:13:24
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Defector rapper Kang Chun-hyok rehearses ahead of his showcase for the single "For the Freedom" at a basement bar in Hongdae, Seoul, last week. / Korea Times photo by Kim Ji-soo

Rapper Kang wants S.Koreans to know N.Korea's reality

By Kim Ji-soo

Rapper Kang Chun-hyok's showcase was not held in the trendy Cheongdam-dong area in southern Seoul. Two years after he became known to the public as the defector rapper, Kang performed his first single "For the Freedom" at a quaint bar on the outskirts of Hongdae, AMS.

Several hours before the performance, Kang, 30, was preparing with fellow rappers in the basement venue.

Kang's first taste of fame came when he appeared on season three of the cable TV survival hip-hop show, "Show Me the Money," in 2014. He made it through the first round; but pulled out of the program because he got too nervous in the second round. He did have plans to release a song then, but then became wrapped up in art exhibitions for the next two years.

When he is not rapping, he is an artist holding exhibitions, but also doing menial work to make ends meet. Kang has joined the myriad of single South Korean young people living alone.He lives in Sinwol-dong, eastern Seoul. After arriving in the South, he went through turbulent teenage years.But he made it to and graduated from the prestigious Hongik University in Seoul as a painting major. Kang identifies himself as an artist rapper, rather than either one alone, and in that order too.

Practicing ahead of his showcase, held with the support of the civic group the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Kang was at intervals casual and engaging with friends.

Asked to evaluate his rap performance, he said "I am still an amateur." Did he learn from anyone? Kang looked a little sideways and said "It's a little funny to ask a rapper who he learned from. Rappers learn and train by themselves; they don't learn."

However, he likes and listens to other rappers such as Nas, J-Cole and Eminem. Among Korean rappers, he named YDG (Yang Dong-keun) who was a judge on the survival hip-hop show.

"This is a tragedy, it shouldn't be happening no more," begins the song for "For the Freedom." The single is largely about his life; his crossing of the Tumen River at age 12 in 1998; and living undercover in China and then in Southeast Asian countries. He arrived in South Korea with his family in 2001.

"There, Ri Sol-ju is the nation's mother, but she is not my oemeonni (mother). My mother, she got tuberculosis from Aoji Mine. With money collected from mines, you make nukes," he sings in the music video for "For the Freedom." It is the same line he spoke during the 2014 audition show, but Kang's voice and rap flow is much more solid this time.

Two emcees announce the beginning of Kang Chun-hyok's showcase last Friday in Seoul. The Citizens'
Alliance for North Korean Human Rights supported Kang's single and showcase.
/ Courtesy of Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights

Kang then raps about how his eyes almost popped out when he first arrived in China and how he clung to his last bit of integrity and guts to survive amid the hunger and living like a deaf person, and a target of extortion.

He has another music video, "The Untold Stories," on YouTube; a song with lyrics he had meant to perform at the 2014 show and also a promotional one for Reserve Guards. In that video, his paintings of the North Korean situation are harsher than the lyrics. Asked why he toned them down, he replied: "If I were to sing directly about what I experienced in the North, I could go too far."

In testimony he gave at an international conference — the 4th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees held in Prague, the Czech Republic in March 2003 — he gave a stark but placid account:

"I took it for granted when my friends couldn't come to school because they were too feeble from starving so much. When I was in my third year, a fellow student, Oh Eun Kyung became sick after eating a bowl of wild apricots. For hours she twisted and turned out of agony until she died untreated, medical help being out of reach for her. The only outlet allowed for us was to sob together in silence...

"I cannot even count the number of people who died in our village in 1996 and 1997. Every morning I would wake up to the sight of dead bodies being carried away next door or in the neighboring village, and people began to escape to China."

Now, older and more integrated into South Korean society, he draws and raps to tell his story and the tale of fellow North Koreans. He wants to make an appeal for the hunger and the human rights in North Korea.

"For North Koreans, there is still a threat to life, human trafficking for the North Koreans that flee,"Kang said.

"They say that 30,000 North Korean defectors have settled in the South, but people (still) do not know much about us," he said.

At the showcase, he performed with fellow rapper 3mm. Other bands also performed that night to raise funds to help better the human rights of North Koreans.

Kang's songs have been released more online, rather than in physical form.

His goal with this song? "Just that I want people, the young people in the South, to know North Korea correctly, to shed the biased view, and to create a common bond," he said. "We fled a society but we are one people, and we should prepare for a unified country; and for that goal, young people should know and share a common bond," Kang said.

He said he was not looking to sign up with a talent agency; he wants to be independent.

"I would be the type that would fail utterly in a company for example, I want to work alone, don't want to be tied to something."


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