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South and North Korean musicians perform together in China

SHANGHAI (AP) -- A South Korean violinist and a North Korean singer held a rare joint performance Sunday in hopes of bringing the divided Koreas closer together -- especially at this time of emerging tensions amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy.

Violinist Won Hyung-joon and his North Korean soprano partner, Kim Song-mi, performed together at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center with a Chinese orchestra. Their concert took place three days after South Korea said North Korea fired two suspected short-range missiles toward the sea -- the North’s second such weapons test in five days. 
North Korean soprano singer Kim Song-mi and South Korean violinist Won Hyung-joon perform at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center in Shanghai on Sunday. (AP-Yonhap)
North Korean soprano singer Kim Song-mi and South Korean violinist Won Hyung-joon perform at the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center in Shanghai on Sunday. (AP-Yonhap)

For both Won and Kim, it was their first concert with a musician from the other side of the Korean border, the world’s most heavily fortified. They met several times last year in Beijing and agreed on a joint performance to help promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.

For a duet, Kim sang Antonin Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” while Won played the violin. Kim later sang “Arirang,” a Korean traditional folk tune beloved in both countries, accompanied by the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra.

“When I met her (Kim) for the first time, I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend who’s been on the same wavelength with me,” Won said before Sunday’s concert. “This performance shouldn’t be the end ... and what’s important now is what other dreams we can have together.”

In a pre-concert written interview, Kim also said she “heartily wishes” that her songs help bring back the Koreas’ reconciliatory mood. “I’m nervous and anxious about what inspiration the audience would have and what reaction North and South Korean compatriots would show to our joint performance,” she said.

A music performance by a North Korean musician and a South Korean musician together is extremely rare as their governments don’t even allow their citizens to exchange phone calls, letters or emails without special approval. Last year there was an uncommon wave of cross-border exchanges after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un entered talks about the fate of his nuclear arsenal. A group of North Korean dancers and singers performed in South Korea during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and South Korean K-pop stars later flew to Pyongyang and sang in the presence of Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju. Each event was the first of its kind in more than 10 years.

But such exchange activities are now becoming a rarity again as North Korea is resuming provocative weapons tests in an apparent protest against the lack of progress in nuclear negotiations with the United States. Kim returned home empty-handed after a second summit with US President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February after Trump rebuffed his calls for major sanctions relief in return for a promise to conduct partial disarmament measures. No publicly known high-level meetings between Pyongyang and Washington have since been reported.

Sunday’s concert won’t likely serve as a breakthrough in the stalled nuclear diplomacy. But it could still “establish an environment” that could make it easier to improve ties between the Koreas, said analyst Cho Han-bum at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

Inspired by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999 to bring together Arab and Israeli musicians together and promote mutual understanding, Won, 42, has been pushing for the establishment of an inter-Korean orchestra for nearly a decade. He’s contacted both governments on numerous occasions, and has sometimes partnered with renowned foreign maestros such as Charles Dutoit and Christoph Poppen.

But his push for a Korean orchestra performance had never been realized, with events often getting scrapped at the last minute due to the delicate nature of ties between the Koreas, which are still technically at war because the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty. Among the incidents that ruined his earlier plans were the 2015 mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers and the 2011 tensions touched off by annual South Korean-US military drills, which North Korea sees as an invasion rehearsal.

Sunday’s performance may have been less difficult to achieve as it involved just one person from each Korea, not the dozens of musicians required for an orchestra, and it happened in China -- a third country that is the North’s major ally but also the South’s biggest trading partner.

Jointly performing with the two Koreans was the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra, the first and biggest amateur symphony orchestra in China. The orchestra had earlier invited Won and Kim to its annual charity concert, “Love In The City, Pyongyang Shanghai Seoul,” before it and Won’s Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra decided to co-organize the event, according to Won.

In response to questions from the Associated Press last week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it had approved Won’s contact with Kim as part of efforts to support diverse kinds of civilian exchanges between the rival Koreas. The South Korean government is led by President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who espouses greater rapprochement with North Korea and has shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington ahead of two summits between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump.

Kim Song-mi, 33, a graduate of Pyongyang’s prestigious Kim Won Gyun University of Music, is the North Korean representative in China of the Korean Association for Art Exchange. She’s been living in China since 2010. Known for her classical crossover singing technique, she has released several albums featuring North Korean pieces as well as well-known classical music works. South Korea media have reported that she is the first North Korean to have been sent abroad as a singer.

Won said when he first met Kim last spring, he felt it was easier for him to communicate with her and explain his dreams than when he dealt with North Korean diplomats.

“When I talked about music with (North Korean) diplomats, I had to explain why we need music and why music is good. ... But I didn’t need to do that when I met Kim, and we could just get to the point,” Won said.

Kim said Won’s works have led her to think again about her “love” of the Korean people and that she’s willing to contribute to any efforts to foster inter-Korean cooperation.

Won said he’ll work together with Kim to realize similar joint performances on bigger world stages. But he also understands how difficult it is to organize a concert like Sunday’s.

“If we can do music together, that means we can understand each other,” Won said. “People are talking about unification, an inter-Korean railway, a peace treaty and the end-of-war declaration. But can we really do those while failing to do an easy thing like doing music together?” (AP)