When North Korean defector and pianist Kim Cheol Woong was asked to play his favorite piece, he hesitated.
“There is a song in North Korea called the Song of Joy — it sings of independence from Japan,” he said, via a translator.
“But,” he added, with a twinkle in his eye, “The reason I like it is because when I played it in school it was the only time I got an A+.”
Woong’s playful attitude permeated his talk Wednesday night, which was intermingled with piano performance. He started off his presentation by discussing how, in addition to Western training, North Korean musical students are taught to play North Korean folk songs adapted for piano, a few of which he introduced us to.
I had never heard North Korean music before. As Woong put down his microphone, adjusted his seat and rested his foot above the right pedal, I was preparing myself for sterile melodies that imitated the country’s attitude toward freedom of expression. Instead, I was surprised to hear similar sounds to the classical music I had heard and played on piano growing up. The grandiose chords you might here in a Beethoven concerto, the unbelievably fast finger dance required by a Chopin etude, even common European piano techniques, like trills, all made their appearances in this music from a completely different geographical and cultural context.
And yet, something in these pieces differed from the classical music I had grown up with: a facet that required not listening to the notes, but pondering the meaning behind them.
These pieces, though played in Woong’s characteristically beautiful and purposeful form, were overwhelmingly written in major keys, the musical messengers of bold, bombastic declarations. There was hardly any hint of the elegant vulnerability that makes up, in my opinion, the most integral part of musical emotionality.
In telling us about his life, Woong said that out of thousands of North Korean children, he was selected with only eight other students to pursue music at the university level. After studying piano for 14 years, he won North Korea’s most prestigious piano competition and was selected to study abroad in Moscow. Upon his return, he reconnected with a girl from his university, and they began dating.
After the couple had been together for about a year, Woong began planning his marriage proposal. Because both he and his fiancé-to-be were pianists, Woong felt that music, and piano in particular, needed to be central to the proposal. In preparation, he began looking through all of the Western music the North Korean government had banned, and he ultimately decided on a French piece, which he went on to play for us. It was slow, elegant and romantic — in sharp contrast with the style of North Korean music he played earlier in the program and that he had studied during the beginning of his musical career.
But Woong’s romantic plans went awry when he was overheard practicing the piece in his home and was subsequently reported to the North Korean National Security Agency. There, he faced interrogation and the possibility of being sent to one of North Korea’s notoriously brutal prison camps.
“The moment I realized I was playing music that was controlled by someone else I felt like there was no hope in this world,” Woong said. “I believe everyone has freedom of expression and for me, the piano is like my mouth.”
Woong is publicly a strong promoter of the reunification of the Korean peninsula, and when probed, he revealed that his reasoning behind this position is closely intertwined with his own personal story.
“I don’t want reunification for political reasons,” he said. “But I think it is the only way I will be able to see my closest friends again.”
The moment of this reveal was, to put it mildly, heartbreaking — for me, and, as evidenced from the ensuing silence, every other audience member in Sudler Hall.
Woong is an undeniably charismatic and passionate artist. Throughout the night he was cracking jokes, and he even mocked the audience for asking questions that were too serious. His lively and cheerful disposition makes it difficult to remember the immense struggles he endured to defect from North Korea and that continued to plague him during his escape through China to South Korea.
Though Woong said that playing North Korean music brings back a lot of sad memories, he feels it is necessary to plant the seeds for his goal of unification.
“I believe the word music is the true meaning of peace,” Woong said. “Wherever there is music, there is always peace.”
And then it hit me. To Woong, music, narration and political storytelling are all inextricably linked. This might be a common sentiment, but I think Woong goes beyond seeing music as a political or storytelling tool. He has a vision of the world as a place where music, narration and politics are all one and the same — noises and voices trying to modulate to a key that is unified, bright and, most importantly, hopeful.
At the very beginning of his talk, Woong joked that in order to transcend the daunting language barrier between himself and the audience, he was going to “talk music.”
And though he spoke not one word of English, he left the auditorium with a resounding standing ovation.