A tuneful campaign for unification

By Korea Herald

Once a rebel, singer Lee Seung-chul spreads message of inter-Korean peace

  • Published : Aug 8, 2014 - 21:25
  • Updated : Aug 8, 2014 - 21:53
On Aug. 14, one day before Koreans mark their independence from Japanese colonial rule, Lee Seung-chul will embark on a tuneful campaign for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

With a group of young North Korean defectors, the singer-songwriter will travel to the easternmost islets of Dokdo, where they will together sing his “unification song” and “Arirang,” an iconic folk song loved by Koreans on both sides of the border.

The performance will be primarily symbolic with hardly any audience expected, as the rocky islets are mostly uninhabited.

Still, Lee is not letting things loose. He’s practicing with the defectors’ choir, pushing their craft to as close to perfection as possible.

“The choir is quite good, actually,” he said at his studio downtown Seoul at the end of last month. “They have been singing together way before I joined (as their artistic director).”

This is his third time conducting a choir.

In 2011, he led a group of inmates at a prison for juveniles in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province, to an emotional choral performance. Back then, he had to start the choir from scratch, teaching members the very basics of singing. The whole process was broadcast as a TV documentary.

Last year, he led another group of youngsters ― high school students with records of bullying and violence ― to an international choral competition in Poland. That too was made into a reality TV program.

This time, the choir is more experienced both in singing as well as in life. The group, With-U, consists of 55 women and men between ages 20 and 30, all having fled North Korea. 
Lee Seung-chul leads the rehearsal of With-U, a choir of North Korean defectors, in Seoul on Thursday, a week before their performance of the unification song on Dokdo. (Lee Eun-surk)

It was the choir’s leader, also a defector, who approached him with the idea of making a unification song and singing it on Dokdo, Lee said.

The defectors chose Dokdo because it is one of very few issues that unite South and North Korea, he explained. Both South and North Koreans respond angrily at Japan’s territorial claim on the South Korea-controlled set of rocky islets.

Had the singer been personally interested in issues like unification and human rights conditions of North Korean defectors before the proposal?

Lee’s answer was surprisingly and disarmingly candid.

“Not at all.”

“What drew me into this was their (choir members’) dreams. They came here with a dream, leaving everything behind and risking their lives. Then the life in the South is ... you know … harsh. I wanted to help them realize their dreams,” he said. 

‘One Nation’

The Dokdo performance will mark the start of a bigger campaign, “One Nation,” with which Lee has some pretty lofty goals.

He wants to put his choir and the unification song, “The Day,” in the global spotlight, performing at more symbolic places like the United Nations headquarters in New York.

“I wanted to bring in a global perspective. To attract the attention of the global audience, we’ve got to go to places that symbolize world peace,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s on the U.N. premises or outside.” 
Lee Seung-chul (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

“One thing led to another. I thought it would be good if we got a world-renowned singer to collaborate with me for this unification song,” he continued.

One by one, his ideas have turned into reality.

He will sing at Harvard University, and hopefully at the U.N., at the end of this month.

Talks are going smoothly to get a world-star musician on board, although he couldn’t yet disclose the identity of the artist.

People who have joined him for the campaign so far include Spanish artist Eva Airmisen, Grammy-winning mixing engineer Steve Hodge and cross-over musician Yang Bang-eun.

After the Dokdo performance, “The Day” will be released in three versions ― Lee’s solo version in Korean, the choir version and an English-version with a yet-to-be-unveiled world star. Proceeds of the song’s sales will go to a fund for unification preparations. 

Finding true power of music

As one of the country’s most loved vocalists, Lee has had an illustrious career, boasting 11 solo albums, a long list of hit songs and over 2,000 concert performances so far.

“If you have been in the industry for nearly 30 years, it doesn’t really matter whether you make one more hit song or not,” he said.

“My thoughts are now on things like how I can be an example for younger generations of musicians or how I can be of a positive service to society with my music.”

For many young fans of K-pop as well as aspiring K-pop stars, Lee’s name carries weight.

He is the sharp-tongued judge on audition program “Super Star K,” the inspiration behind hottest female K-pop group Girls’ Generation and an established musician who graced the stage of the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

But the guru had his rebellious rock-star days back in ’80s.

After debuting in 1985 as the main vocal of rock band Boohwal, he rose to stardom with his first solo album, “Don’t Say Good-Bye,” released in 1989. With strong vocals and knack for writing ear-grabbing tunes, he enjoyed popularity similar to that of K-pop idols today.

He believes the peak of his nearly three-decade career is, surprisingly, now.

“Back then, I had no clue. Now I think I know something about what I am doing,” he said.

“My fans have grown older with me. They are the people who are leading this country with whatever they do, which means that I can have greater leverage with music,” he explained.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of his debut.

“Thirty years? What’s the big deal? Our big bro, Yong-pil, just had his 45th anniversary,” he said, referring to 63-year-old Cho Yong-pil whose song “Bounce” topped the K-pop section of the Billboard charts last year.

In fact, the 47-year-old Lee has many album plans going forward, which include some ventures into new genres such as children’s songs and trot.

“I have a stock of more than 50 unreleased songs in my smartphone,” he said.

For him, music is not something that one can retire from. The end of his career can only be decided by the audience.

“As long as there is an audience who likes to listen to my music, I will continue,” he said.

By Lee Sun-young (