Dancing across the borderPaek Hyang-ju says she woke to the joy of dancing on New Year’s Eve 1986, when she performed for the North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. She was 11 years old, part of a troupe selected to perform for the holiday celebration. She still vividly remembers the taste of the fine cream puffs, served on a silver tray, in her luxurious quarters in Pyeongyang.
Born in Japan, raised in Tokyo among families fiercely dedicated to North Korea and trained largely in communist countries, Ms. Paek is now 27, and dancing in a place she never thought she’d be: South Korea. On Sunday, she will give a solo performance from her North Korean dance repertoire at the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts in Seocho-dong, in southern Seoul.
Coming to the South meant alienating members of her tight-knit community in Japan, who saw it as a betrayal of their North Korean heritage. But to Ms. Paek, art is the only way to put her broken homeland together.
Trying on her first ballet shoes at the age of four, under the eye of her father, Paek Hong-cheon, himself an eminent dance master, Ms. Paek has led the elite life of an artist since early childhood.
Learning Asian folk dances as well as classical ballet at her father’s dancing school in Tokyo, Ms. Paek at the age of nine was chosen to spend part of each year in Pyeongyang studying dance as part of a cultural exchange. As she developed as a dancer, she went on to travel and study in other communist countries such as China and the Soviet Union, learning Asian folk dances and staging more than 200 performances. Her talent and her beauty made her a success in Japan as well as in North Korea, where she was admired as a virtual reincarnation of Choi Seung-hee, the North’s legendary modern dancer of the 1950s and ‘60s.
But Ms. Paek eventually began to feel that to complete her understanding of Korean dance, she needed to come to South Korea.
“In the communist North, tradition is something to be abolished and re-created,” Ms. Paek says in an interview at a cafe in downtown Seoul. “After mastering the North Korean style, which values new skills, I wanted to learn the well-preserved traditions in the South.”
But because of her identity as a pro-North Korean living in Japan, this would involve a bigger change than simply buying a plane ticket to Seoul.
Korean families in Japan like Ms. Paek’s, who maintain their allegiance to the North, refuse to take Japanese nationality. Known as Jochongryeon, or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, they socialize together and send their children to the same schools, where they’re taught in Korean.
Refusing Japanese nationality, they don’t hold Japanese passports; when they travel abroad, it’s with a special document from the Japanese government. This makes it harder to travel, and next to impossible to travel to South Korea. To do so, Ms. Paek had to take her name out of the Japanese government’s official Jochongryeon registry, and get a South Korean passport.
Her decision was not well received in her community in Japan, or in North Korea, where she still spent much of her time. When she broke the news to her North Korean dance teacher, Kim Hae-chun, under whom she’d studied since her early teens, he said point-blank, “What can you possibly learn from the South? Nothing. Forget it.”
But Ms. Paek was adamant. When she said goodbye to her teacher, she saw him weep for the first time.
“He told me that it was like somebody was taking his precious baby away, never to return,” Ms. Paek says, herself trying to hold back tears.
The news isolated Ms. Paek’s family from the Jochongryeon community in Japan. Ms. Paek says that was when she realized that the two Koreas were still enemies.
Her family, while not pleased, came to accept her need to go to the South. “Without my family’s sacrifice and understanding, I could not have dared to come,” she says.
But Ms. Paek had no intention of denying her past. She is still proud of her pro-North Korean identity. “Going to pro-North Korean schools, using Korean, I could bear in mind my original identity,” Ms. Paek says.
Her South Korean passport doesn’t define Ms. Paek as a wholehearted South Korean, for she did not take full South Korean citizenship. Ms. Paek is registered only as an overseas South Korean. Legally, she says, she is not a citizen of any country.
By early this year, she was prepared to start a new life in Seoul, at the Korean National University of the Arts. She landed at Incheon International Airport in March. Seeing signs on the street, with familiar Korean characters spelling out very unfamiliar messages, Ms. Paek felt a lump in her throat.
“Then I realized that I’m neither North nor South Korean,” Ms. Paek says. “I’m simply Korean.”
It didn’t take long for Ms. Paek to be struck by the differences between the real South Korea and the one she’d imagined. High expectations led to disillusionment.
“For the first few months, I thought I’d made the wrong decision coming to the South,” she says.
What most disappointed her was the South Korean emphasis on titles and credentials, as opposed to ability. “What it takes, for dancers, is real talent on stage, not some doctoral degree,” Ms. Paek says.
She also found herself disenchanted with the South Korean approach to traditional dance.
North Korean style stresses giving new interpretations to traditional methods, coming up with dynamic new steps. This was the method of Choi Seung-hee, the dancer of the North to which Ms. Paek was often compared.
In the South, on the other hand, dance traditions are to be kept as they are, without further interpretation. To Ms. Paek, who grew up learning a thoroughly North Korean style, this was a static approach, no more than mimicry of the status quo. “It’s like trying to imitate ‘Swan Lake’ without warming up,” she says.
After a few rocky months, however, Ms. Paek came to feel attached to her new home. “I was lucky to meet a few mentors in the South, who taught me the essence of Korean traditional dance,” she says.
Chung Byung-ho, an honorary professor of dance at Chung-ang University, is one such mentor.
“Paek Hyang-ju is a real, professional dance performer, which, unfortunately, is a rarity in the South,” Mr. Chung says. “When she happens to skip training a day, she never eats a single meal.”
“When her North Korean techniques and South Korean tradition become one,” Mr. Chung adds, “it will be a landmark step in overall Korean dance history.”
Ms. Paek herself also believes she has a mission. “I feel responsibility as the only one who can integrate North and South Korean performing arts into one,” she says. “I want to show that there is no 38th parallel in art, after all.”
by Chun Su-jin
For more information on Sunday’s performance, call (02) 3464-4998.