‘Music is My Greatest Love’

A young North Korean defector talks about the influence of foreign music on her classmates in North Korea's closed society.

Lee Hae Yeon (an alias), a North Korean defector and graduate of North Korea’s prestigious Kim Il Sung University, says that 90 percent of the students at the university listen to music on MP3 players.  Often, that music comes from South Korea and the West.

To protect her identity and the safety of her family still in North Korea, Lee requested that no questions be asked about her personal background.

“I have loved music since I was a little kid. I’ve always been able to sing in tune after listening to a song only once. And although no one has ever taught me how to play the piano, I can touch the right keys and get a rhythm going. Nevertheless, in order to reach a higher social level in North Korea, I followed my father’s wish and pursued my studies.”

“Probably about 90 percent of Kim Il Sung University students own an MP3 player. You can purchase them at a market inside North Korea. There’s a very broad price range, from cheap to expensive. One may buy a ‘Samsung,’ assuming that it’s a respectable brand, and then it would break down because it’s a Chinese-made knock-off.”

“I had two MP3s. On one of them, I had popular North Korean songs. And when I went out, I’d put in my earphones and listen to that. The other one contained South Korean songs that I listened to at home, especially right before going to sleep.”

“Depending on whether one gets caught listening to an English-language song, a Chinese song, or a South Korean song, the situation would be rather different. North and South Korea are enemy states, so coming in contact with anything that has to do with South Korea creates a big problem.

“The agents of the government monitoring agency may stop you on the street and check out the song you’re listening to. If the song that’s on at that particular moment stands out a bit too much, they’ll confiscate the MP3 player, take you in for questioning, and listen to all the songs on the MP3 player.

“If there are problematic songs on the MP3, then sanctions will follow—and also a lot of questioning. They’d ask who you had downloaded the music from, and then bring that person in and ask him where he had purchased the song. They would continue with endless questioning … But I haven’t heard of anyone being punished too harshly for just listening to songs

“Music is my greatest love, but pursuing music is not so easy at this stage in my life. Nevertheless, should I find success at a certain point in my life and career, I hope that music will be at the center of it all."

Reported by Songwu Park for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Insop Han. Translation by Greg Scarlatoiu. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.

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