August 1, 2006

North Korean girls flee propaganda for pop

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL (Reuters) - The Spice Girls never had to worry about
becoming political prisoners and Britney Spears never had to
remember the words of the "Song of Coast Artillerymen," but the
members of Tallae Music Band surely did.

The group is made up of five young women who put their
lives at risk to leave Stalinist North Korea. Now they dream of
making it big in the capitalist South's pop music market.

With two accordions, a song book of tunes favored by the
senior set and dance moves used in the North's Mass Games, even
their manager admits their music may sound strange to younger
South Koreans.

But it is all steeped in a shared Korean tradition,
delivered by women with smiles made for television to an
audience in the South that has been willing to embrace
entertainment products that come with the theme of Korean

The members of Tallae, which is Korean for a wild plant
that is seen as heralding spring, range in age from 19 to 28.
They left the North seeking freedom, not stardom, but would be
happy to become celebrities in their new home.

They have sung for communist party cadres, danced for
members of the North Korea's People's Army and impressed the
proletariat with feverish fingers over accordions.

"It is our dream to play music that can bring North and
South together," said lead vocalist Han Ok-jung, 28, who once
was a singer with a propaganda band for the North's Workers'

"One day, I hope to be as famous as Britney Spears," said
accordion player Lim Yoo-kyung, 19.

In 2005, 1,387 North Koreans defected to the South compared
to 1,894 the previous year, the Unification Ministry said.


Up until now, a few defectors have achieved minor celebrity
status as entertainers in the South, but there has been no
group of defectors who have made it big in the South's music

"At first I did not like the idea of being called a
'defectors' band'. But that is what we are. If we become
successful, that label will drop and we will be known as
talented singers and musicians," said Lim.

North Korean music, with titles such as "Song of Defending
Homeland," is typically filled with communist ideology.

Most Western music is banned in North Korea. And even
though South Korean pop culture is slowly creeping in, it is
still a crime to listen to South Korean music.

Kim Yong-chul, the manager for the group, said he was
looking for something new and he came upon the idea of a
defector girl group. He found vocalist Han at a symposium on
North-South Korean relations and the others through schools
that help defectors.

"They are singing North Korean songs, in the North Korean
style," Kim said, adding the music is traditional, not

"There is a heightened awareness of the North here, and
even difficult issues can stir an interest about the people on
the other side of the peninsula."

The members of Tallae will wear traditional Korean clothes
for performances as well as modest outfits made for them by a
South Korean designer.

They will stand out in stark contrast to some of South
Korea's top women pop artists, such as Lee Hyo-ri, who is known
for her scanty outfits, steamy dancing and sultry songs.

One of Tallae's first singles is called "My Dandy." It
speaks of innocent love over music suited for a fox trot.


In the studio, the members of the Tallae dress in the
casual clothes favored by young women in Seoul, such as stylish
tops, short skirts and pink baseball hats.

August will be a big month for them with their music
hitting stores and a debut scheduled for national television.

Apart from the worries of whether they will become
successful are concerns about their families back in the North.

North Korea has guilt by association, human rights workers
say, under which it arrests the family of a person who has
committed a crime or defected and sends them to political
prison camps.

Often, defectors take new names in order to prevent the
North from punishing their relatives.

"We are worried that our fame may affect our relatives,"
said dancer Heo Su-hyang, 22, but she hoped the North Koren
authorities won't punish their families because they were
bringing the two Korea together with their music.

Tallae has been together for about a month, sometimes
practicing as much as 16 hours a day. In that short time, they
have developed close bonds.

"We all have suffered through so many things. We try not to
hurt each other through the pain. But the shared experience of
defecting has also made us strong," Han said.

(Additional reporting by Jang Sera)