N.Korean risks life, flees for love of jazz piano
By Frances Yoon
SEOUL (Reuters) – It’s not every day that a jazz-inspired
pianist has to make a life or death decision about his art, and
it is not every day a gifted musician flees North Korea.
Kim Cheol-woong, 31, was a North Korean prodigy who was
trained in classical music and destined to play the patriotic
and martial tunes that hymn Pyongyang’s leaders.
While studying overseas, Kim heard jazz piano for the first
time and was fascinated. He returned home knowing this was the
music he wanted to play, but that he would have to flee the
strictly regimented state to realize his dream.
One night in 2001, he made the perilous trip across the
Tumen River into China and reached Yanbian, an autonomous
Chinese prefecture where many ethnic Koreans live.
He went on to South Korea two years later but still he will
not talk about how he crossed the Tumen or of his attempts to
leave China for the South.
Kim now teaches music at a university in Seoul, and dreams
of playing at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
As an artist, he thought he would die a slow death in North
“We musicians were only a means and a tool to maintain the
regime,” Kim said during a piano rehearsal.
Many North Koreans who flee the country seek asylum from
hunger and oppression, but Kim’s father was a high-ranking
military official and lavishly provided for his family.
This allowed Kim to learn the piano at an elite university
But access to most foreign music is banned. For the typical
North Korean, cultural expression through music, movies and the
performing arts is restricted to extolling the virtues of its
leader Kim Jong-il, his late father Kim Il-sung and their
“All other types of music are all lumped into one genre
they called ‘jazz’, which is considered barbaric because it has
no melody,” Kim said.
“It is the worst, spoiled culture of capitalism,” he said
he was taught.
GIRLS WITH ACCORDIONS
North Korean state TV often shows masses dancing to
military music and schoolgirls playing patriotic tunes on
accordions. A recent state news report said some recent popular
tunes included songs such as “A girl innovator dashing like a
steed” and “Song of coast artillery women.”
People can be imprisoned for listening to South Korean
music, and playing rock and roll can be considered a crime.
Kim said his university education in Pyongyang was based on
classical music composed before the 19th century, access to
which was given only to university students.
It was later, during extended studies at a Russian
university, that he was captivated by the music being played at
a cafe in Moscow, music he was strictly forbidden to listen to
or perform in the North.
“I heard Richard Clayderman’s ‘A Comme Amour’ and was
fascinated by it. This made me want to escape North Korea,” Kim
Kim has since turned his attention to classical piano
pieces by composers such as Chopin, Tchaikovsky and Liszt.
Clayderman, with his soft renditions of pop tunes, is
occasionally derided for composing kitsch, but Kim said the
first time he heard one of his recordings, it was an epiphany.
“I was shaking and entranced. I felt as if I was falling
into the music. It was because I had such a strong notion that
all jazz music was not good. He is still my favorite even
though I have encountered many other genres,” he said.
MUSIC IS MY LIFE
On his return to Pyongyang in 1999, Kim worked for the
North Korean orchestra. He was playing a Clayderman piece on
the piano during practice one day when a security official
caught him and Kim was forced to write a 10-page apology.
“There are famous and honorable musicians in North Korea
but the origin of the creativity is aimed at supporting the
government’s policies and Kim Il-sung. Their music is very good
but the words are all weird,” he added.
In China, to survive, he worked 12 hours a day loading wood
at a factory where his smooth hands became thick and hard.
After seven months, Kim found a chance to play the piano
after finding the instrument at a nearby church. But he
realized that to win musical freedom, he needed to go to South
Korea and, after two failed attempts, finally arrived there in
To support himself in Seoul, he performed at bars and
worked as a piano tutor. He also founded an arts organization
for North Korean defectors.
Since Kim is familiar with music from both Koreas, he hopes
his work can help in a small way toward unifying the two
Koreas, which are technically still at war half a century after
the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an inconclusive truce.
“A piano can play an important part in moving many people
with one melody as opposed to thousands of words,” he said.