Defector finds salvation in musicShe was seven years old when she held a rather heavy accordion against her chest for the first time. The sad, soft tone touched her, although her short fingers fumbled on the keyboard. She had no idea that 30 years later, the accordion would be all she had.
Accordion artist Chae Su-rin says she feels only seven years old. She was born in 1962, but has been in South Korea since only 1999. Seven years ago, she ended her life as a soldier and a musician in North Korea and fled the North alone. The South was close yet distant, familiar yet foreign. It was also a tough place to adapt to, particularly for a defector.
She had no money. Having once played accordion in front of the late Kim Il Sung and the North’s current leader, Kim Jong-il, she was unrecognized as a musician in the South. She had no hope ― three times she tried to commit suicide.
Most defectors arrive with nothing. Ms. Chae in that regard is lucky ― she came with both a highly-developed skill and a tool to show it off: her accordion.
“Thanks to the accordion, I met people who reached out to me, and thanks to them my life in Seoul warmed up,” she said.
The name of a song she wrote about her life in the South says it all: “Accordion, my life.”
It’s a life that weighs only 30 kilograms (66 pounds). Twelve of that is for the accordion itself, 10 for the other equipment and eight for her performing clothes. She carries it all in a bag on her back, so heavy it makes her legs shake. She likes the feel of the weight, she says. She carried it with her all the way to South Korea.
She started performing here in churches, schools, nursing homes and even on the street, sometimes to crowds, rarely earning any money. She said she would recall what her mother had said: As long as there is someone listening, a musician doesn’t have to cry. Her mother was right, she says.
Her life in Pyongyang was comfortable. Her mother was a bassoon player and her father was a scientist. Both her parents had studied abroad and enjoyed the trust of the regime. She was the eldest of two daughters and two sons and had little reason to envy anyone. When she was 12 ― and again when she was 14 ― she played the accordion in major performances attended by the North’s father-son leaders. She received a scholarship to attend the Pyongyang University of Music and Dance. After graduating from middle school, she joined the army. She was at the scene of an auto accident at one point and managed to rescue a few soldiers; in recognition of her “meritorious deeds,” she was allowed to join the Workers Party when she was only 19 years old. Her future as a politician and musician seemed set.
Things in the North can end perilously fast. A friend, not a close one, called her and asked for help ― what, exactly, she didn’t say. She helped him, she said, and found out later that he was a political criminal. Having abetted him, she was also marked and would have to flee.
She came to Korea through China. Having known only music and guns, life here seemed too fast, too complicated. She didn’t know what to believe, what to think. She couldn’t sleep, worrying about her family in Pyongyang. She didn’t know what happened to her parents, husband and two daughters. Rashes broke out across her body; everything she ate made her stomach turn. Fortunately, she was able to find work at a store selling musical instruments. She didn’t earn much, but was happy that at least she could listen to music all the time. Even the rhythm and tone of music here was different from those of the songs in the North, she said, adding that she memorized 40 songs a day.
After thinking it over for some time, she concluded that music was the only thing she could do, and wanted to do. She quit her job and bought a new 16-million-won ($16,780) classic accordion with resettlement money from the government. Then she started giving accordion lessons and doing performances, little by little.
She played all kinds of genres, including trot and gospel. She performed almost everywhere except nightclubs. Being unknown, she was paid only 100,000 won, mainly for transportation, while other performers were paid 3 million won. She once lived for 20 days on only 10 bags of instant noodles. Her annual income was less than 5 million won. One time she went to Daegu and played for three days, but the person who was supposed to pay her disappeared. She had no money to buy a ticket back to Seoul and no one to help her.
In 2001, she accompanied a male chorus playing at the Seoul Arts Center. It was a major career-booster; she started to receive requests for performances. She then collaborated with the Seoul Pops Orchestra and the Suwon Philharmonic and performed in various concerts. She earned some money, which she said she promptly put in the bank. When someone she considered a friend asked for money, she didn’t hesitate to hand over her bankbook and stamp, only to lose all the money and her friend, who took what he could and ran off.
By 2003, things seemed hopeless. She tried to kill herself by inhaling gas, and nearly succeeded.
She still hadn’t learned her lesson, however. The next year, she loaned money to a friend and was abandoned again. No longer trusting anybody, she again tried to take her life. For the next six months, she stayed in bed all day and wrote words of bitterness and blame across the walls of her room.
Five years after coming to Korea, she received a passport. She packed her accordion and went to the airport, hoping to go anyplace else. She said she stood for four hours in front of the flight information board with a list of countries she had never heard of. In the end, she said, she couldn’t take being uprooted for a second time.
She kept looking for work and met people in the film industry who needed a person who could teach actors to speak in a North Korean dialect. The film’s title was “Welcome to Dongmakgol,” and it went on to become a smash hit in Korea.
With her new job, she regained her zest and vigor. “My views were taken into account in imitating North Korean soldiers’ speech and making North Korean characters more realistic,” she said. She took the same job for the movie “Wedding Campaign.”
“I’m always discontented with North Korean characters in films such as ‘Swiri’ or on television,” Ms. Chae said. “I was proud that I could help overcome prejudice and misunderstandings on screen.”
She resumed performing. In May, she signed a contract with a record label to participate in a concert with the crossover band Adam’s Apple.
These days, she’s studying jazz. She says her life is difficult but fun, and that it feels like she’s starting all over again.
“There were more people who saved me than who abandoned me. A police officer, who was like an older sister, trusted me enough to let me take care of her child. There was a person who was so impressed with my performance that he let me use his office as an accordion classroom. When I had no income, there were many church friends who brought me rice and side dishes,” Ms. Chae said.
A 70-year-old grandmother once even bought her a compact car. “Carrying a heavy instrument could make you ill,” the old woman explained, and added that her brother was abducted by North Koreans a long time ago. It was like a gift for her brother, she said. Ms. Chae thanked the old woman, who replied, “Don’t mention it. Live a pleasant life. That’s how you pay me back.”
“The owner of a music store gave me a digital accordion worth 8 million won and told me I could pay him back little by little when I had money,” Ms. Chae said. “Park Kwang-hyun, the director of ‘Welcome to Dongmakgol,’ read the loneliness on my face and treated me like a member of his family. So did the actor Yim Ha-ryong.
“I owe [my success] to them. I wanted to be industrious. I was taught that in a capitalist society, success means money. In the beginning I thought that way and struggled to make money. I played accordion because it was the only way to make money, but when I realized that music does not lead to enough money to live, I felt very bad,” Ms. Chae said. “Not any more. I know now that success is one’s confidence in one’s life, the confidence that allows me to say I worked hard.
“That’s what I realized, thanks to the people who helped me. No matter how lonely and hard it is, I want to live for them,” she said.
She said she wants to go to Italy to study. When she comes back, she plans to teach music to Korean children. She says doing so would be a way of saying what she wants to say to everyone: “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
by Shin Eun-jin