Playing "jazz" is a crime in North Korea

Kim Cheol Woong was the country's star pianist before his musical taste landed him in trouble

Published July 24, 2013 7:05PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Cheol Woong belonged to North Korea’s coddled elite. Then in 2001 he was accused of treachery.

His crime: playing a Richard Clayderman piece on his piano.

Scion of a privileged political family in the reclusive state, Kim was a star pianist in North Korea’s state symphony. He grew up memorizing garish children’s songs like “Revolutionary Army Game” — part of the nation’s required piano curriculum.

One day, alone in a room, he practiced the “capitalist” piano piece. He was hoping it would help him woo a woman he loved. Outside, a snitch heard the saccharin melody, and then reported the instrumentalist to authorities.

The piece in question was Richard Clayderman’s classic, “'L’ for Love,” an elevator standard that Kim first heard while studying at the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. Clayderman is a French pianist known for his pop ballads and easy listening style.

Some Westerners may wish Clayderman’s sleepy banquet-hall melodies would be banned. But regardless of where you stand, in reclusive North Korea the “crime” reflects the regime’s stark morals.

The government accused Kim of playing “jazz,” a blanket label for depraved Western music not sanctioned by the state. Police made him write a 10-page self-criticism over and over. Humiliated and angry, he fled his fatherland.

“Even if you are the greatest pianist in the world, you cannot play piano if you do not show sufficient loyalty to Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung,” said 39-year-old Kim, referring to the two former dictators of North Korea.

After a secret trek across the border to China, the performer realized that his comfortable life was finished.

In China, “people called North Koreans beggars and bastards,” he said at a July 13 concert. “I was ignored and humiliated by other people.”

Kim worked at a logging camp and then as a house servant. He eventually found a job as a church pianist and converted to Christianity.

After three unlucky arrests, however, Chinese police put Kim on a list for repatriation to North Korea. He narrowly escaped detention both times.

China sends home North Koreans because it considers them economic migrants and not political refugees protected under international law. But once in North Korean hands, returnees can expect months or years of beatings and hard labor.

With the help of a missionary network, Kim finally caught an airplane to Seoul in 2003.

Today he continues to raise awareness through his concerts, and has even performed at esteemed venues like Carnegie Hall in New York. In mid-July, he played piano in Seoul on behalf of the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights (NKHR).

Such performances wouldn’t fly in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s broad use of the word “jazz” to vilify foreign music dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when genres like bebop, post-bop, and cool jazz were trendy in North America and Europe.

Communist regimes associated the American art with drugs, beatnik culture, and the vanities of so-called capitalist life.

“It generally follows the Soviet idea that jazz was basically bad — even though in the USSR it was also emphasized that in some cases it might be good as a 'progressive Negro music,'” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian historian of North Korea.

Saxophonists like John Coltrane and Archie Shepp put their tunes toward social and spiritual advancement. But the musical egalitarianism never played into North Korea’s thinking, Lankov said.

The regime continues to denigrate many foreign genres. The ruling party mouthpiece, the Rodong Shinmun, pens the occasional editorial criticizing ex-communist states for their love of jazz and rock.

Western, non-revolutionary music contributed to ideological decay during the Cold War, while the North Korean regime stayed put and resisted evil influences, the newspaper opines.

But those strict social mores are changing. Today, North Koreans can buy bootlegged South Korean and American DVDs and CDs. The items make their way across the Chinese border and onto the black market, where they’re sometimes sold out in the open.

The foreign media has become so prevalent — at least since a famine broke down total state control in the 1990s — that even the police and soldiers watch them together, one former North Korean police commander told GlobalPost.

Yet the state still regards it as “enemy propaganda” and prohibits viewing it, at least on paper. It’s also illegal to own a radio or television that can be tuned to unapproved broadcasts, although Samsung televisions are sold on the black market, too.

By Geoffrey Cain

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Globalpost Jazz Kim Cheol Woong North Korea Revolutionary Army Game