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The Other Pianist

A North Korean musician tours the United States.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2008 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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Last month the North Korean pianist Kim Cheol Woong gave two special performances in Washington, D.C. He first played at the State Department and then, near nightfall, in the dim, chandeliered rooms of the Polish Embassy. His purpose wasn't to win laurels or make a name for himself. There weren't even CDs for sale. Instead, as he told me with the help of a translator, his one aim is "to help make North Korea, where people live, a place where people can freely live."

Kim's brief U.S. tour, which began in New York and ended in Boston, follows on the heels of the New York Philharmonic's joint concert with the State Symphony Orchestra in Pyongyang last February. While some criticize the concert as politically naive, Kim considers it a step forward. "The cultural approach in dealing with human rights is very important," he told the embassy audience. "We were taught 'American music is evil.' In the past, this event would not even be imaginable."

Kim has firsthand experience living in a nation where art is synonymous with propaganda. "Music today in North Korea is not artistically pure," he says. Kim Jong Il has whittled down music, like all the other arts, to such a narrow definition that it does not "express the genuine heart of the people." He has twisted it into "a weapon to use against them to make all the nation's shortcomings seem like a good thing." Most foreign music is banned under his edicts, as well as anything composed after the 19th century. Even the people's folk music was prohibited until recently.

Kim considers his proudest moments when he plays traditional Korean songs that are not propaganda and then receives a standing ovation. In those times, he knows he has shared with an audience the North Korean people--and not their crooked government. One such song is "Arirang," a popular ballad of love and homecoming known by North and South Koreans alike. He says, "I feel a little breathless after playing those songs."

Kim, 33, was born into the family of a high-profile member of the Politburo. At 8, half-forced by his parents, he entered the prestigious Pyongyang University of Music and Dance, from which he graduated in 1995 as top pianist. Like other musicians in his class, Kim packed his bags and headed for the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow. It was there, in another city's bars and cafes, that he first heard a new order of music, "jazz," which struck him as free and absolutely dazzling. (In Korea, the term "jazz" is a blanket term for both jazz and pop styles.)

The song that moved Kim to defect from North Korea upon returning home from Russia was Richard Cleyderman's "Autumn Leaves." He fancied that song--soft and sweet, unlike the bombastic tunes back home--because he could use it in courtship. Kim practiced the song many times for the girl he planned to marry; but someone overheard him rehearsing it in North Korea and reported the offense. Kim's penalty was to write a 10-page apology. He performed "Autumn Leaves" on the embassy's elegant Steinway, which belonged to the Polish composer and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941). And as for the girl, Kim said that she's still in North Korea.

After fleeing the country twice (and after being forcibly repatriated twice), Kim successfully defected through China in 2003. "I tried many times to be a normal Korean," Kim remembers, "but my love for music was too strong and that is what compelled me to leave." And, as he told another audience, "People do not leave because they know that they deserve food, but because they know they deserve freedom."

Before Kim first left, he was at the height of his career as the principal pianist of the State Symphony Orchestra. Once repatriated, however, he was thrown into a Chinese political camp where all the usual offenses of totalitarian regimes--beatings, public executions, self-criticism hours, paltry meals--were happening in full. Kim himself worked from five in the morning til after midnight hauling giant timbers, some measuring as long as 18 meters. When he abandoned North Korea for good, Kim came across a modest Chinese Korean Church, where he learned to play with callused hands "Amazing Grace." He played his own arrangement at both Washington venues.

Kim also played works by his favorite composer, Frederic Chopin, including Nocturne in C sharp minor. He prefaces that work with a story, noting that it begins Roman Polanski's movie "The Pianist." Kim says it's his favorite movie because he can identify with the protagonist, the Polish Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who endured a Nazi-occupied ghetto in Warsaw. One scene in particular moves him: when Szpilman plays, in Kim's words, "an empty piano." In hiding and knowing he has to be silent so as to not be reported, Szpilman plays without touching a single key. His fingers dance above the ivories as he hears the song play out in his imagination. "It is a scene any musician would understand," he says.

Kim worries that there are some people who think "as a musician he is being too political and not being pure enough." "I do not know why people," he said, "keep putting the word 'defector' in front of me."

When Kim played at the State Department, top U.S. officials were meeting with North Korean officials to salvage delicate nuclear weapons negoations and see whether America should, as they later did, strike the Dear Leader's country from the terror blacklist. But he didn't brush back his coattails and play in America to make just a political statement. He came to stress the primacy, and efficacy, of art, and that it can be used for good just as fiercely as it can be used for ill.

When I asked him what he thought of the famous Auden line "For poetry makes nothing happen," he laughed, then volleyed back, "I would ask him if he knows how to sing."

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.