South Korean Violinist Wants Border Concert With North Korea
By Hyung Jin Kim 7 July 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — Violinist Won Hyung Joon wants to bring North and South Korean musicians together next month to perform on each side of the world’s most heavily armed border. Standing in the way is the rivals’ long, frustrating inability to move past their painful shared history.
Won says North Korean diplomats in Berlin have tentatively signed off on a plan for a renowned German conductor to lead a 70-member South Korean orchestra through Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Korean folk tune “Arirang” while accompanied by a choir of 70 North Koreans just across the border on Aug. 15, the 70th anniversary of the 1945 liberation of a single Korea from Japan’s 35-year colonial rule.
Wary South Korean officials, however, want a more formal endorsement from Pyongyang before they give their agreement to a concert at the border village of Panmunjom, where an armistice ended the three-year Korean War in 1953. Won and his German partners are pushing for that formal go-ahead from Pyongyang.
Dozens of Korean musicians joining their instruments and voices in harmony across the border, Won says, could dramatically illustrate the continuing tragedy of the Korean Peninsula, which, after liberation from Japan, was divided into a pro-US South and Soviet-backed North and remains in a technical state of war because a peace treaty formally ending the eventual Korean War has never been settled.
“We won’t be able to talk to each other or hug each other. We’ll just stand face to face and commune through music,” Won said. “We want to do something meaningful at a meaningful place on a meaningful day.”
First, though, he has to win support from two governments whose reluctance to cooperate, even on the most seemingly mild proposals, is often ingrained.
The countries, which enjoyed a period of rapprochement in the 2000s, bar their citizens from exchanging visits, phone calls, letters and email without government permission. Naval skirmishes occasionally happen. And Pyongyang, which faces global condemnation for its nuclear bomb program, has recently responded with fury to the opening of a UN office in Seoul meant to monitor what defectors, activists and many countries call an abysmal human rights record.
Won and some outside analysts believe the concert will likely happen. Pyongyang may see it as a way to improve ties with Seoul, which could then stimulate a flow of aid and investment that the impoverished country needs to help revive its decrepit economy. Better relations with Seoul could also help offset North Korea’s fraying ties with China, its only major ally.
German maestro Christoph Poppen, who has agreed to do the conducting on Aug. 15, called music the only “language which you can understand all across barriers.”
“It’s simply much stronger than language, and it can overcome also emotional conflicts and problems,” he said.
Still, Won, 39, knows that bitterness over the Koreas’ tangled past can easily get in the way. In May, for instance, Pyongyang, on the eve of a planned trip by UN chief Ban Ki-moon to a jointly run factory park across the border in North Korea, canceled the invitation.
If the North-South concert on the border doesn’t happen, Won plans to gather the South Korean musicians and play someplace else, possibly near a South Korean border checkpoint or a former frontline US army base.
Won, executive director of Seoul-based Lindenbaum Music, said the concert idea was inspired by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a troupe of Israeli and Arab musicians founded in 1999 by Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian academic Edward Said as a gesture of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East.
Arts, sports and other non-political events have sometimes helped smooth relations between rival countries.
In 1989, for instance, Soviet exile and renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall before making a return to Russia to perform with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra the next year.
A previous flurry of cultural and sports exchanges between the Koreas largely ended when conservatives took over from previous liberal governments in Seoul in 2008, though there have been sporadic exchanges between Pyongyang and the West. The New York Philharmonic held a concert in Pyongyang in 2008, while a North Korean and a French orchestra performed together in Paris in 2012 under the baton of noted South Korean-born conductor Chung Myung-Whun.
In 2011, Won partnered with then Philadelphia Orchestra chief conductor Charles Dutoit to push for a joint youth orchestra performance, also on Aug. 15, but in Pyongyang.
Dutoit visited North Korea, conducted the country’s symphony orchestra and earned support from culture officials for the project. But the plan fell apart after Pyongyang wanted to reschedule the concert for October 2011 because of annual summertime military drills between Washington and Seoul that it sees as invasion rehearsals.
Won is working this time with Uwe Schmelter, a Korea expert and retired regional director of the Goethe-Institute in East Asia, who has persuaded the North Korean Embassy in Berlin to sign off on the concert. Now it is a matter of winning an endorsement from a higher-level organization in Pyongyang. Schmelter said last week he’s acting as a mediator but declined to provide details about the delicate negotiations.
“With a project of this magnitude, there really is no easy or ideal time,” said violinist David Kim, concertmaster at the Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of Won’s team. “Relations between the two Koreas are always complicated and everyone knows that. But music itself is not complicated at all—it touches and softens people’s hearts.”
“In order to pull this off, there has to be a visionary, a dreamer … who believes in the cause with all their heart and is unwilling to accept no for an answer. That person is Won.”