North Korea: Exiled because of passion for jazz



North Korea:
Pianist exiled because of his passion for jazz

Classical pianist Kim Cheol-woong (Cheol Woong Kim) had to flee North Korea to realise his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. Since 2003, he has lived in South Korea

In North Korea, access to most foreign music is banned. People can be imprisoned for listening to South Korean music, and playing rock’n’roll can be considered a crime. For the typical North Korean, cultural expression through music, movies and the performing arts is restricted to extolling the virtues of its leader Kim Jong-il, his late father Kim Il-sung and their communist policies. All other types of music are all lumped into one genre they called ‘jazz’, which is considered barbaric because it has no melody. People are taught that “it is the worst, spoiled culture of capitalism”.

This is explained in a Reuters interview by the 31-year-old North Korean pianist Kim Cheol-woong. He was trained in classical music at an elite university in Pyongyang, destined to play the patriotic and martial tunes that hymn the leaders of the country. While he worked for the North Korean orchestra in Pyongyang, one day he was playing a Clayderman jazz piece on the piano during practice. A security official caught him in the act, and he was forced to write a 10-page apology.

“There are famous and honourable musicians in North Korea but the origin of the creativity is aimed at supporting the government’s policies and Kim Il-sung. Their music is very good but the words are all weird,” he is quoted saying to the Reuters journalist, Frances Yoon.

While studying overseas at a Russian university, Kim heard jazz piano for the first time and was fascinated. At a cafe in Moscow he heard music which was strictly forbidden to listen to or perform in North Korea: Richard Clayderman’s ‘A Comme Amour’. He returned home in 1999 knowing this was the music he wanted to play, but that he would have to flee the strictly regimented state to realise his dream. One night in 2001, he made the perilous trip across the Tumen River into China and reached Yanbian, an autonomous Chinese prefecture where many ethnic Koreans live. He went on to South Korea two years later and now teaches a music course at a university in Seoul. He has also founded an arts organisation for North Korean defectors.


“If you are not loyal to the leader, you may have to leave the music field, and to work elsewhere, such as in cole mines…”
Cheol Woong Kim, exiled North Korean musician to CNN


Radio interview with Kim Cheol-woong
Voice of America – 31 March 2006:

‘North Korean Piano Prodigy Says He Defected for Art’s Sake’

Reuters – 29 March 2006:

‘N.Korean risks life, flees for love of jazz piano’

Update June 2008

TV interview with Kim Cheol-woong (Cheol Woong Kim)
CNN – 7 May 2008:

‘Musical defectors’

The New York Sun – 23 May 2008:

‘A Musician Flees North Korea For Cultural Freedom’

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