North Korean Pianist Punished For Playing The "Wrong" Song

Indrani Sengupta
The punishment may not have been as extreme as the assorted executions Kim Jong-un has mandated, but the damage was done for this pianist.

Kim Cheol-woong was once a successful pianist living in North Korea. His talent had been spotted early in life, and he had the opportunity to study classical music at an elite Pyongyang university.

But fifteen years ago, something went terribly wrong. And we all know what “wrong” means in the context of North Korea.

In 2001, Cheol-woong was caught playing the “wrong” song. It wasn't even during a live performance—he was merely practicing privately, when someone overheard him. Cheol-woong was planning on playing “A Comme Amour” (L For Love), a mawkish French ballad by Richard Clayderman, during his proposal to his childhood sweetheart. The two had learned to play the piano together, so the number had special significance.

Cheol-woong didn't know that the playing of Western songs was prohibited under Kim Jong-il's regime. A passer-by overheard him, and reported the incident to the state security department. 

"I didn't realise that playing a banned song could be such a dangerous thing.”

Cheol-woong soon found himself under interrogation, and it lasted for hours.

"Where did you hear that music first? How did you feel when you heard that music? Who have you played this song to?" 

He was forced to submit a 10-page written apology, and he believes he would have suffered further, had he not come from such a powerful family.

But Cheol-woong could no longer deny the state of his country, and he was moved to consider whether this was where he wished to spend his life. 

"When I was in Moscow many people made severe criticisms about North Korea but you feel a more patriotic man when you're abroad. I thought, 'Whatever they say, I will not be concerned, I will do my best, be loyal, and serve my country with my musical ability.' 

"I began to realize I would have to sacrifice many things to live as a pianist in North Korea, and I felt disillusioned. I spent three days in agony deciding whether I should escape from my country or not." 

He fled, though he was worried his family would be punished for his decision. He wasn't even able to say a proper goodbye to his beloved. He simply left a note telling her not to wait for him.

"It wasn't possible to talk about an escape with anyone, so I prepared by myself. I was told that if you cross the Tumen River then you could get to the free world via China. So I headed towards the river. Since I was a Pyongyang citizenship holder, I wasn't caught at ID inspection points." 

He ended up in Seoul, now one of 5,000 young North Korean defectors living in South Korea. He founded a youth orchestra, in which North and South Korean teenagers are able to play together, become friends, and overcome the political strife between the two nations in some small way.

As for “A Comme Amour,” Cheol-woong has never stopped playing it. 

Read more: Defector Scientist To Expose "Human Experiments" In North Korea