South Korean violinist Hyung Joon Won stands with his violin in Brookfield Place in New York. Won spearheaded an orchestral project at the heavily fortified Korean demilitarized zone in 2015, the topic of the short documentary "9 at 38" premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
NEW YORK, April 20 (UPI) -- When South Korean violinist Hyung Joon Won was stopped at the Korean demilitarized zone with his orchestra in 2015, he had a revelation.
Sitting on a coach bus that had brought him and his fellow musicians to the North Korea border waiting for special permission to cross, he recognized a peculiar irony about being denied entry into the DMZ.
Won, a Juilliard-trained classical violinist and founder of the Seoul-based Lindenbaum Orchestra, had received authorization weeks in advance from the South Korean government to perform in the area with a North Korean chorus group on a national holiday.
It was a daring foray into civic exchange at a time of rising tensions.
A landmine incident that injured two South Korean soldiers on Aug. 4 had led to tightened security, and the international administrators of the DMZ, a narrow strip of land that divides the two Koreas, was banning civilians like Won from entering.
"That was Korea's National Liberation Day," or Aug. 15, Won told UPI.
"So at the time I thought, I'm Korean, and yet on the 70th anniversary of Korea's independence day, why is it that I cannot enter Korean territory?"
The frustrations of being stopped at the border for Won and his musicians are captured in a new documentary 9 at 38, playing at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
If tensions ran unusually high when Won tried to realize inter-Korea harmony through music in 2015, rapidly changing politics in 2018 indicate the musicians, like other South Korean advocates of civic exchange, might finally realize their goals.
But for Won, like many other South Koreans, uncertainty prevails about the outcome of the upcoming summits.
Ahead of historic talks between North and South Korea, and between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, the musician said he feels apprehensive, particularly regarding the Trump-Kim summit, expected to occur either in late May or early June.
"We don't know what will happen next," Won said. "Early June, late May, we won't know whether things will become better or worse until then."
Trump recently warned he would "walk out" of talks if they are not fruitful, which would, according to experts like U.S. analyst Victor Cha, "leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy."
An outbreak of military conflict on the peninsula is a possibility South Koreans like Won have prepared for since youth.
Conscription in South Korea requires men between the ages of 18 and 35 to perform about two years of compulsory military service.
Won, who entered mandatory military service more than a decade ago, trained as an infantryman, but was discharged after injuring his shoulder.
"I was afraid I could no longer play the violin," Won said.
The violinist said his military discharge and injuries led to a difficult period in his life, but also led to new realizations.
"I used that time as an opportunity to begin thinking about music, and how it could be used as a form of reconciliation between North and South," Won said, describing a period that included an arm operation prior to his discharge.
It is a vision that he has not stopped pursuing since 2009, despite the sidelining of civic exchange.
"To pursue civic exchange in tense times is considered crazy" in South Korea, said Won, whose extended family was divided after the 1950-53 Korean War.
"Your family worries a lot, because they think many bad things could happen to you."
Any warnings from loved ones have not stopped Won, who has recently lectured on the role of civilians in inter-Korea peace at the United Nations in Geneva, and performed at the University of Chicago.
The globetrotting aspect of his music activism is important, he said, because Korean division reflects more widespread problems, including the rise of extremism and political polarization around the world.
"Korea is a uniquely divided country," he said. "U.N. troops are still there, and the two sides are technically at war."
Korea's experience with polarization in its politics is a universal one, he said, a history South Korea appears keen on changing at least since the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday a peace treaty must be pursued to formally end the Korean War.
That might be music to Won's ears.
Three years earlier, he had attempted to bring an inter-Korea concert performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 to the DMZ.
"At that point, there is no you versus I, no North versus South. Nuclear weapons do not matter, when an orchestra and a chorus come together," Won said.
"That's how I see music. It would be good if we can make an opportunity to make that happen."