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Singer welcomes discovery of artistic freedom in South Korea

Kim Hye Jin, intern  |  2016-11-09 09:58

This is the fourth piece in a defector resettlement series produced by university students from both Koreas as part of a journalism workshop held by Unification Media Group in collaboration with Korea Hana Foundation.

Han Oak Jeong [pictured left], a North Korean singer with an art propaganda squad, defected in 2006 to South Korea where she continues to perform. Ms. Han recently sat down with Daily NK to share details of her journey. Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been edited for clarity.

-What have you been up to recently? 

Ive been giving lectures on national security issues at schools and training workshops for public servants. Also, because Im a singer, Ive been performing at events. This is all on top of my role as a promoter for various organizations, including the Korean Firefighters Welfare Foundation.

-I know that you were in the Art Propaganda Squad when you lived in North Korea, and worked as a singer and MC. What is the role of the Art Propaganda Squad?

Unlike in South Korea, where singers are free to sing about anything they like, the role of art in the North is strictly to convey the Partys messages to the people. For instance, if Kim Jong Un makes a speech, the Squad is ordered to create songs and dances based on the speech. The role of the Squad is considered important, because artistic performances can help ordinary people understand complicated topics. Kim Jong Il once said, One bullet can pierce only one heart, but one song can move a thousand hearts. 

-Do the actors and singers create the production themselves?

Each Squad has directors, composers, actors, and singers, etc. Once a production is made, it needs to receive the Partys approval. Then the actors and singers can travel to perform at places like factories, companies, and army bases, etc. 

-How did you enter the Squad?

I began learning music at the age of six. Once in school, a Party department keeps close track of your weight, height, and body measurements until graduation, then selects the most desirable candidates at graduation. Another important consideration is social background. Since my dad was a mine laborer, I was also assigned to be a laborer. However, I rather daringly went to the Squad myself and told them that I had sung from a young age and asked to be chosen. Although being selected by the Squad isnt easy, I passed their test and was accepted.

-I heard that North Koreans who are involved in the arts receive a grade. Did you receive a grade?

My grade was 6. This grading system is similar to that of public servants. Every one or two years, those involved in the arts must take a test. The test results, along with the candidates abilities and years of experience are taken together and tallied up to decide whether a promotion should be given. The leader of a Squad is usually a grade 4. Grade 1 is generally reserved only for the top Squad in the country. 

-Were you paid well?

Although singers get paid well in South Korea, it is not the same in the North. In fact, singers in North Korea get paid less than ordinary laborer. For instance, if a laborer is paid 80-90 KPW, then singers are paid around 70 KPW. Moreover, the salary is dependent on ones grade, and grade 6 was the lowest. In North Korea, I received 70 KPW, which was not enough to buy 1 kg of rice (120 KPW at the time), and I didnt even get all of my salary.

-Do singers turn to side jobs to make a living?

There are many singers who turn to the marketplaces. Nonetheless, belonging to a Squad is considered a prestigious position for women. For one, they are given nice clothes and shoes, which makes them more attractive, so it is easier for them to find eligible bachelors. Also, because all Squad members have been vetted by the Party, some Squad members can marry Party members or the social elite. 

-Did you hear South Korean or other foreign songs while in North Korea?

I heard a lot of South Korean music. The music that I performed in the North requires a voice thats more fit for classical music, but I always felt that my voice was more suited to South Korean trot music (a genre of South Korean pop music). North Korean music is very boring and did not fit with me, so I lost the desire to sing for some time.

-Which Korean trot song did you like the best?

I liked Maze of Love and Dont Cry, Hongdo. Those were easy to sing because I could sing them naturally. But since those songs obviously did not aim to further the Partys purposes, I was not permitted to sing them freely. I was able to sing them when we went camping around mountain streams with close friends. 

-Why did you decide to become a singer in South Korea?

From a young age, it was the only thing that I was good at and liked doing. I happened to see a KBS program while in China on the way to South Korea, and I really wanted to be a performer on stage. After I arrived, I went to KBS, where an employee directed me to the Korea Singers Association. I began as a freelancer, but after a few performances, I was signed by a company and later made my debut on TV.

-What are your thoughts on the differences in music between the two Koreas?

Firstly, there is a great difference in musical culture between the two countries. What I really like about performing in the South is that you can become one with the audience. The audience will often clap along and react to the music, whereas in the North, the audience and performer are separate. Even if the performance is outstanding, the audience will restrain their reactions. 

The singing technique is also different. In the North, the proper way to sing is with a clear voice, which, in my opinion, is too awkward and impersonal. There are exceptionally talented North Korean singers, but because everyone sings the same way, they do not stand out. Although I keep saying that I dislike the North Korean way of singing, it is still second nature to me. The way I sing now is a mixture of the two styles, and I dont want to stick with one style to the exclusion of the other. I can sing in either style at will. I dont think you necessarily have to lose the Northern style here, whether it is for speaking or singing. 

Being from North Korea can be a hidden advantage, so to speak. When I debuted as a singer, I used my North Korean origin to appeal to people who didnt know me, and this unusual characteristic also made me stand out. 

But it can only be an advantage when youre open about your North Korean origin. Most defectors dont even like the term defector. By hiding ones background, its difficult to develop your self-confidence.

-It must have been a challenging path to become a singer here. What did you find most difficult?

I didnt find any one thing to be particularly difficult, because I was not afraid of the hardships that I knew I would face. In particular, I was never ashamed of the fact that I didnt know everything, and wasnt shy to ask for help. The pretense of knowledge can be the most awkward thing. 

-Did you receive any negative feedback for being the first-ever defector to be a singer in South Korea?

Not really. People became more interested when they learned that I was from the North. It helped to attract attention not only here but also worldwide. 

The one drawback is that whenever North Korea engages in provocations, I feel terrible even though I have nothing to do with it. Also, when defectors are featured in the news for a negative incident, Im afraid that it will reflect badly on all defectors. I hope that defectors who strive to make a good living can be featured in the news more frequently. 

-What has made you the happiest so far?

That was when I felt that I had succeeded as a singer in South Korea. Everyone has different standards for success. I think that when you look back and dont regret the past, then that counts as success. I also get the feeling of success when I teach others. One specific moment when I felt very happy was receiving the Korea Peace Security Award in June. 

-What kind of impression of North Koreans do you want South Koreans to have?

I hope that they wont have any specific or prejudiced opinion. Because when reunification takes place, then the North will just be another region of Korea. Its true that North Koreans do live without any freedom right now, but they also live ordinary lives that arent as different as youd expect. Whats needed on the part of South Koreans is an open mind and the willingness to understand. 

-Do you have any dreams for the future? 

I dont have any big dreams. I want to be on the stage as long as I live. I want to sing the songs I want to, and speak the words I want to say, and make the audience happy. Ive never thought of giving up the microphone. 

-I think that there are many who want to follow in your footsteps. Do you have any advice for them?

They should consider whether they will enjoy it and whether they arent afraid of receiving any scars. When I first became a singer, some people didnt like me because I was an outsider, and so I had my critics. To become a public figure means having the ability to tolerate such things. If one isnt ready to put up with such things, then there are other career paths that are easier. 

*Translated by Abraham An
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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