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North Korean Piano Prodigy Says He Defected for Art's Sake

  • Kurt Achin

Thousands of North Koreans have defected to South Korea over the past ten years, many of them fleeing repression and near starvation. But some defectors make the dangerous journey to the South even though they enjoyed relatively high living standards at home.

Kim Cheol Woong did not always play with such a soft touch.

As a boy in North Korea, he showed an early talent for the piano. The authorities there began grooming him to play the kind of rousing martial anthems favored by the communist party elite.

North Korea prohibits its citizens from any contact with music that the party views as subversive. That means for most of his 31 years, Kim was completely isolated from just about every musical style of the 20th century.

That changed during a 1999 visit to Moscow. When a smooth, delicate piece by French musician Richard Clayderman reached his ears for the first time, Kim says he felt something completely new.

He says he could feel the sweetness of the melody - something altogether different from the powerful, masculine army songs he was used to.

Two years from that moment, he crossed North Korea's border with China, and then arranged passage to South Korea - a voyage he does not like to discuss.

Kim says he was driven by a need for the freedom to play beautiful music.

Kim does not fit the typical profile of a North Korean defector. He is tall, handsome, and university educated. His high status in North Korean society spared him the malnutrition problems so many of his countrymen face.

His mother succeeded in defecting to the South a year after he did. Family members of defectors have often faced harsh punishment, but Kim says his mother was spared because of a change in North Korean policy.

Kim says in the late 1990s, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il decided to take a more merciful attitude toward the families of high-profile defectors. That decision, Kim believes, was not due to kindness, but rather to fear of a possible backlash from Pyongyang's elite.

Starting over in the less-forgiving free market of the outside world will be an uphill climb for Kim Cheol Woong, who is trying to win the kind of status here he once enjoyed in the North. As he tries to further his career, he plays in hotel lounges, and teaches a music course at a university here in Seoul.

One of his favorite songs to play is Arirang - a traditional melody known to all Koreans, North and South.

Kim says Arirang's blend of light and dark tones tells the Korean story, as well his personal one. His dream, he says, is one day to perform it in New York's Carnegie Hall.

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