North Korea: Three years in prison for simply singing a wrong song

9 June 2008

Because she had sung a South Korean folk song and taught it to four others in 1992, the North Korean singer Ji Hae Nam (Hae-Nam Ji) was imprisoned for three years, tortured and sexually abused.

“Normally, concerts in North Korea are limited to performances of music that [the country’s leader] Kim Jong-il himself is (falsely) credited with having written or at least approved. Merely to listen to radio broadcasts from other nations is to risk imprisonment. During a party on Christmas in 1992, one of the regime’s former propaganda officers, Ji Hae Nam, made the mistake of singing a South Korean song. She was sentenced to three years in jail and, as she testified to the United States Congress after her escape, beaten so severely she could not get up for a month,” wrote Richard V. Allen, co-chairman of the United States Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in New York Times on 28 October 2007.

The North Korean government encourages light, state-sponsored music, or music with patriotic worker-driven themes played on radios or in public by large worker’s orchestras. Kim Jong-il only permits music that sing the praises of his every move, or otherwise the ideals of communism, and songs have titles like ‘Our Life Is Precisely a Song’, ‘We Shall Hold Bayonettes More Firmly’ and ‘The Joy of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst the Song of Mechanisation’.

Click to see transcript

CNN interview in 2008
On the occastion of New York Philharmonic’s concert in North Korea on 26 February 2008, CNN’s star reporter Christiane Amanpour travelled to South Korea to meet the exiled singer. Amanpour’s report was aired on 11 May 2008, and CNN has published the following transcript of the tv interview on their website,

JI HAE NAM, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR (through translator):

    “In North Korea, you have been brainwashed since you were young. You can only sing songs about the party, Kim Il-Sung and [his son] Kim Jong-il.”

For 15 years, her government job was to spread the word of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il through song. But it never occurred to Ji that singing a song in the privacy of her own home would be considered a crime.

HAE NAM (through translator):
“I sang a South Korean song.”

AMANPOUR (on camera):
“And what happened when you got caught?”

HAE NAM (through translator):
“I was interrogated for five months. I was sentenced to jail.”

AMANPOUR (voice over):
She says she was starved and tortured for three years.

(On camera):
“All of this for singing an unsanctioned Korean folk song?”

HAE NAM (through translator):
“I was charged with a crime of spreading punk ideology to a healthy society. ”

AMANPOUR (voice over):
Ji Hae Nam was released from prison in 1995 and made a desperate escape to China. She eventually found her way to South Korea, where today, 13 years later, nobody could be more amazed about what’s about to happen just 150 miles north in Pyongyang…

In February 2008, North Korea was putting on its best face for its American guests, the New York Philharmonic. When they performed in the capital Pyongyang, they were “bridging a divide between the United States and North Korea which is based on hatred, fear and ignorance,” said Christine Amanpour, who ended her CNN-report with these words: “For a few hours at least, these sworn enemies shared the love of beautiful music, and the hope perhaps that a few notes might signal a new beginning.”

Ji Hae Nam sang ‘songs of loyalty’ in North Korea

Excerpt of the CNN report from South Korea – 7 May 2008:

‘Musical defectors’

Tried to commit suicide
Jae H. Ku who is the director of the North Korea Initiative in USA wrote a more detailed description of Ji Hae Nam’s refugee story in 2005 on

“Born in 1949, she was a model North Korean, working as a Korean Workers’ Party propaganda cadre. In 1992, after watching a North Korean tv show ridiculing the former South Korean President Park Chung Hee, Ji was taken with a popular South Korean pop song, ‘Don’t Cry, Hongdo’.

After memorizing the song and its melody, she and four of her friends sang the song in one December night in 1992. Overheard by the neighbours, Ji was reported and arrested. She was sent to the People’s Safety Agency jail, where she was beaten and sexually abused. Unable to bear the punishment and humiliation, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing concrete pieces of cement.

She served 26 months of her three-year sentence; she was released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. Her four friends were given eight months of hard labor.

Unable to make a living as an ex-convict, she fled to China in 1998. In China, her nightmare would be relived. Upon entering China, she is caught by a “trafficker and sold to a physically deformed Chinese man who locked her up as a ‘sex toy’ for seven months before she was able to escape.”

After some odd jobs, she teamed up with six other North Koreans in China; they steal a boat, only to have the boat take on water. They are captured by the Chinese authorities and forcibly returned to North Korea, where they are sent to a detention center. Again, she is physically abused; the younger women are physically and sexually abused.

After spending five weeks in a detention center, Ji made another attempt to flee North Korea. In China, this time, she found a Korean pastor who helped Ji and the group she was with cross into Vietnam where she was able to seek asylum in South Korea.

Ji’s experience in North Korea and in China must be experienced by tens of thousands of women in similar situations. As many as 200,000 North Koreans are hiding out in China. Women are bought and sold into prostitution or as wives to Chinese farmers. Almost all of them live dangerously precarious lives.”


Institute for Corean-American Studies – 19 May 2005:

‘The ICAS Lectures’


Foreign songs forbidden
Some estimate that as many as 300,000 North Koreans have escaped to China and remain stranded there, without resources to make the dangerous trip to Seoul and fearful that the Chinese will capture and repatriate them. As the case of Ji Hae Nam illustrates, their fear is entirely justified, wrote Rachel Zabarkes Friedman, associate editor of the biweekly magazine National Review from New York City in 2004.

Ji Hae Nam stated in her US-congressional testimony in 2003:

“The beatings I recieved in jail were so severe that my entire body was bruised and I was unable to get up for a month. I was sent to an enlightenment center after receiving a sentence of three years. I was confined in the Security Protection Agency of Hamju-kun for being the leader of disseminating revisionism in the society instead of singing songs of loyalty to Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il. At the time according to the decree regarding social order, those who criticized the social order, those who sang foreign songs, those who wasted state assets, those who ate but did not work, those who dring, whose who swindle were harshly punished and were even subject to a death sentence…”

She concluded her congressional testimony with a plea:

“I would like to ask the human right activists… to expose the human right abuses inflicted by the feudal and corrupt North Korean government to the world so that the people in North Korea could escape from a life of humiliation and live freely as soon as possible.”

Ji Hae Nam’s testimony is four pages long and can be found on the home page of the American Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs:

Senate Foreign Relations Committee – 5 June 2003:
‘Testimony of Mrs. Hae-Nam Ji. North Korean defector’


Other sources:

New York Times – 28 October 2007:

‘Concert Without Strings’
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