The Blog

The Other Pianist

A North Korean musician tours the United States.

11:00 PM, Nov 6, 2008 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.