Kim Cheol-woong (2)


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We can imagine a unified [united, one whole] Korea through these young people. I want my orchestra to give the message of musical harmony to adults. . . .” — Kim Cheol-woong

       § STORY SUBJECT: Music and freedom.

KIM Cheol-woong grew up in North Korea. In North Korea he was a successful pianist even when he was young. He had special lessons at the best music schools. Then he went to Moscow, Russia to study at a famous conservatory [music school] there. 

     In 2001, Kim went back to North Korea. One day he sat down at the piano to practise a French love song. He wanted to play it for his girlfriend and then ask her to marry him. They met when they were both eight years old and they started learning the piano together.

     As he started to practice, a neighbor heard him playing western music and reported Kim to the state security [police]. Kim was called into the security office and asked questions for many hours. “Where did you hear that music?” they asked. “How did you feel when you heard that music? Have you played this song for anyone? Who?” 

     Kim thought he would go to prison. But because he comes from a powerful family, the family was able to keep him from prison. Kim had to write a 10-page apology [words saying he was wrong] for playing western music. He knew he could not be a real musician in North Korea. He planned to escape [leave the country], but he could not tell anyone. It was very hard to make this decision. He sent his girlfriend a note with 4 words: “Don’t wait for me!” He never said goodbye.

     He left North Korea and began to walk to China. All he had with him was the clothes he was wearing and $2000. The first night he was caught by North Korean soldiers. Kim gave them all his money and they helped him cross a river into China.  At first Kim lived in a small village.  There he worked as a farm worker. He was always tired, hungry and cold. Finally, he met a man who also left North Korea. That man told him about a church that had a piano. It was an old, bad piano, but it saved Kim’s life because he could play the piano again. He came alive again and started to have hope.  “When I played a piano again, I was so emotionally moved,” he said.

     Kim became the pianist for the church. Everyone was amazed at his skill. A year later he got a fake  South Korean passport and went to Seoul to start a new life. He got married, had a family and became a successful concert pianist, performing around the world. He started a charity [an organization that helps people] that gives music lessons to children from families who left North Korea. Kim also started his own orchestra called the Arirang Youth Orchestra. Arirang is an old Korean folk song about love and loss. Kim says it is the only song that both South and North Koreans know.  

     “I want to help these children through music,” said Kim. “Through the children, I want to show a future where there can be unity. That’s why I made South Korean children join this orchestra along with North Korean children. At first, there was silence between them. But then they started to play music together and became friends. Music and teamwork gave these children a chance to begin to help each other. These young children are already one nation. So we can imagine the future of a unified [united] Korea through these young people. I want my orchestra to give the message of musical harmony to adults who are fighting each other around the world.” 

Kim performing:

New York Philharmonic performs Arirang in North Korea:

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 ©InterestEng. July 2013 - April 2022 §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff photos or used with permission.  §  To contact us: