The Concert Pianist Who Fled North Korea For Playing The Wrong Song

Man playing vintage piano
“Music has no subject beyond the combinations of notes we hear, for music speaks not only by means of sounds, it speaks nothing but sound.” —Eduard Hanslick

In A Nutshell

In 2001, Kim Cheol-woong was a successful pianist living in North Korea who was getting ready to marry his childhood sweetheart. Then a passerby reported Cheol-woong to the North Korean state security department for playing a banned song in his own home. He was interrogated and forced to apologize. The episode frightened him so much that he quietly escaped the country, leaving his family and his jilted girlfriend behind with no warning. Cheol-woong went to China and eventually became a South Korean citizen. Today, he’s married and has a flourishing career as a concert pianist. His childhood sweetheart stayed and married an actor.

The Whole Bushel

In 2001, Kim Cheol-woong was a successful pianist who was getting ready to marry his childhood sweetheart. Then someone passing by his house overheard him practicing a French love song, A Comme Amour, that he wanted to play for his fiancee when he proposed to her. The unidentified passerby reported Cheol-woong to the state security department for playing a banned song in his own home.

According to Cheol-woong in an interview with the BBC, he was interrogated for hours by security officers: “Where did you hear that music first? How did you feel when you heard that music? Who have you played this song to?”

The answers were quite innocent. Cheol-woong was so talented that he had studied music at the Moscow conservatory. Hearing the love ballad in Russia, he was determined to remember it so that he could play it for his fiancee upon his return to North Korea. He was not planning to overthrow the state with a schmaltzy love song.

Nevertheless, Cheol-woong was forced to write a 10-page apology. He was spared more extreme punishment because he came from a prominent family. But the episode frightened him so much that he quietly escaped the country, leaving his family and his jilted girlfriend behind with no warning. His only goodbye to his girlfriend was a note that said: “Don’t wait for me!” Although he realized that his family could be punished for his leaving, he felt that they would be supportive of his actions.

On his journey to the free world, Cheol-woong went to China first. But it wasn’t a smooth crossing. He had to bribe some undercover army guards at the Tumen River with $2,000, the only money he had on him, to let him through to China. When he reached a small village there, he informed the residents that he was a pianist. They didn’t care. He had to work on their farms and as a mountain logger. But eventually, he met a fellow defector from North Korea who told Cheol-woong about a nearby church with a piano. Soon, he became their regular pianist.

Still, he was careful, telling everyone that he was from South Korea.

Over a year after he left North Korea, his story became true. With a forged passport from South Korea, he began a new life in Seoul and eventually became a citizen there. Today, he’s married and has a flourishing career as a concert pianist. His jilted girlfriend married an actor in North Korea.

Cheol-woong has started a youth orchestra with both native South Koreans and young North Korean defectors who live in South Korea. “These young children have already experienced unification, they became one,” Cheol-woong told the BBC. “So we can imagine the future of a unified Korea through those young people. Moreover, this orchestra could deliver a message of musical harmony to adults who are fighting each other around the world.”

Actually, there’s little chance that the North Koreans will hear any kind of musical message soon. In July 2015, North Korea banned foreign songs and some local ones. Supposedly, the music could be a threat to Kim Jong Un’s regime by fomenting dissent among the North Korean population. “The local propaganda departments are getting inminban [people’s unit] heads to collect cassettes and CDs from people’s homes and are combing through them,” said an unnamed source speaking from inside the country to The Guardian. “If even one song from the banned list is discovered, they incinerate the whole thing.”

It’s unclear what the ultimate outcome will be from the ban. Some North Korean residents are quite angry about having their music collections incinerated. This may backfire on Kim Jong Un. But it’s difficult to know. The North Koreans keep a tight rein on the media in their country. In July 2015, North Korea also banned foreign diplomats from keeping any material—whether literature, photos, movies, or computer files—that is critical of the regime or Kim Jong Un.

Show Me The Proof

BBC Magazine: Interrogated for playing the wrong tune
The Guardian: North Korea orders house-to-house searches to confiscate banned music
Time: North Korea Has Banned Foreign Envoys From Having Media Critical of Kim Jong Un