South Korea violinist: Joint concert almost canceled after North Korea test

By Elizabeth Shim
South Korea violinist: Joint concert almost canceled after North Korea test
South Korean violinist Hyung Joon Won performed with North Korean soprano Kim Song Mi on May 12. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, June 13 (UPI) -- The concert in Shanghai where a South Korean violinist performed with a North Korean soprano almost didn't happen, according to the Seoul-based violinist who worked for years to share the stage with North Koreans.

Cultural exchange with North Korea needs to be protected from unpredictable politics, he said.


Hyung Joon Won, a Juilliard-trained classical violinist and founder of Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra, realized his long-term goal of performing with a North Korean musician a month ago, amid uncertainty following North Korea's multiple tests of short-range missiles.

Won met his North Korean colleague Kim Song Mi in China on May 8, a day before North Korea's second round of tests. The concert, scheduled for May 12, was a dream come true for Won.

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After North Korea's projectile tests, Kim had some bad news for her South Korean counterpart.


"Kim said a phone call could come from Pyongyang," Won told UPI. "In the worst case scenario, the performance would not go as planned."

For three days, the pair prepared under "difficult circumstances" as they waited for a possible last-minute directive from the Kim Jong Un regime.

"We were actually not nervous but with strengthened will, prepared for the concert," Won said, adding they bonded over their shared passion for music.

The show went on.

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A month later, Won said he realizes the need to create a sustainable platform for cultural or civic exchange, so plans are not disrupted by the roller-coaster of geopolitics.

The South Korean violinist's observations come as the United States and North Korea have yet to break the impasse that has remained since President Donald Trump walked out of talks with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. The collapsed summit has also chilled inter-Korea relations.

Evans Revere, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, told UPI he doesn't expect progress anytime soon, despite Trump's latest revelation he received a "beautiful" letter from the North Korean leader.

"Kim Jong Un in Hanoi made it quite clear he is determined to prevent the elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program," Revere said. "President Trump had no choice but to walk away. We're basically stuck where we were in the aftermath of Hanoi."


Lessons from philharmonic

Revere, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, served as one of the chief organizers for the historic 2008 performance of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, an event, he said, that in retrospect had little to no effect on the diplomatic front.

"Cultural exchange and everything that happened during that tumultuous and historic event was insufficient in changing the broader dynamic of bilateral relations, which was going downhill pretty quickly at the time," Revere said.

But the U.S. diplomat also said the concert provided an opportunity for a different kind of breakthrough --- one that could change perceptions of the United States among ordinary North Koreans.

"For a fleeting few hours in North Korea, anybody who had access to television saw a side of America they had been told by their regime did not exist," Revere said, referring to the live broadcast of the orchestra in the country during his visit. "We had the people in the audience in tears, as they watched this orchestra, this multicultural, multiracial group of wonderful musicians."

Catherine Killough, a North Korea analyst at the Ploughshares Fund in Washington, told UPI cultural exchange is important because it is "one of the greatest acts of resistance against an oppressive government."


"What happens on an interpersonal level has real, tangible effects at a political level. It may take years to show, but it has to start somewhere," Killough said.

Won, who said he came away "impressed" by his North Korean colleague's professionalism in Shanghai as the fate of their concert hung in the balance, thinks politicians can borrow a page from the culture world.

The South Korean violinist said it is true "nothing has changed" in inter-Korea relations after his concert with Kim, where they performed with a Chinese orchestra.

"It's not like unification has arrived," he said.

But after days of rehearsals, Won said the two musicians learned to listen to each other, a practice that could be as applicable to the negotiating table as it is onstage.

"We just tried to understand each other a little bit and practice patience. Through such a process, we were able to carry out a good concert."

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