North Korean Pianist Gives First Concert Since Defection

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Pianist and North Korean defector Chul-woong Kim. Photo: RFA/Jinhee Lee

SEOUL—A North Korean pianist who risked his life to seek greater freedom and creative expression outside the isolated Stalinist state has given his first public concert since arriving in the South Korean capital.

Chul-woong Kim’s emotional rendition of a nationally adored Korean folk song brought the audience in a packed church in downtown Seoul to its feet.

Listen to the traditional Korean folk song "Arirang" from Chul-woong Kim’s concert.

“It was awesome,” one concert-goer told RFA’s Korean service after the Feb. 19 performance. “His performance mesmerized everyone in the room, even those of us who don’t know much about music.”

“He really is an amazing pianist. It’s nice that he came to South Korea. I hope he could find an opportunity to give full swing to his talent here.”

Inspired by Richard Clayderman

Another audience member said: “This was a highly electrifying, thrilling, and moving performance.”

When I see someone inspired by my music, I think that I have made a right decision coming to the South,

A graduate of the Pyongyang Music and Dance School, North Korea’s most prestigious conservatory, Kim named French easy listening pianist Richard Clayderman as a major influence during the time he spent studying overseas in Russia.

“When I see someone inspired by my music, I think that I have made a right decision coming to the South,” Kim told RFA reporter Soo Kyung Lee after the concert.

He explained the reason behind his choice of the Korean traditional folk tune “Arirang” as part of the program.

Listen to Kim's performance of "A Comme L'Amour", written by Richard Clayderman.

“I don't think there was any time when I felt in need to convey ‘Arirang’ at a deeper level than now. In the past, I have just thought of it as ‘Arirang’ the song, nothing more, but now, after what I have been through, for the first time in my life, I can feel an intimate connection to the song,” Kim said.

Pianist and North Korean defector Chul-woong Kim. Photo: RFA/Soo Kyung Lee

Intimate connection to grief

“I think I was able to achieve a deeper level of 'han' [grief and sorrow] in this musical piece because I have gone through some personal trials,” he said.

Kim said his Russian study tour was decisive in his decision to defect.

“You can express your musical and artistic creativity within the limits of North Korean superiority and the greatness of the two Kims,” he said.

“You are like a fish in a fish bowl. You cannot go outside of the fish bowl, and once you are out, you are dead.”

In an interview with RFA’s Korean service late last year, Kim said it was his music that had motivated his dangerous journey away from his homeland.

“I escaped from North Korea because of my thirst for cultural and artistic freedom; I have been told it is possible to acquire musical freedom anywhere outside of North Korea,” said Kim, who arrived in South Korea in 2002.

“I came to South Korea because I learned there are more genres of music than I knew, and I wanted to meet a whole new musical world...”

“It is natural that humans’ emotions always look for beauty whether they themselves look good on the outside or not...It is important to find emotional fulfillment especially when you are angry or sad. Emotionally powerful music gives you peace of mind. The power of music is formidable.”

Original reporting in Korean by Jinhee Lee and Soo Kyung Lee. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated by Carrie Yang and Yoonji Choi. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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