Band on the run is more than five pretty facesThere is a sentence in Proverbs that says our passions are the winds that propel our lives. For Han Ok-jung, 27, the lead singer of the Dalrae Music Band, these words could be written on her heart.
The group is made up of five women aged 19 to 28 who fought for years to escape North Korea. Han Ok-jung escaped in 1998 and spent five years in China. She then faced almost another 10 years of studying and performing on stage before her passion for music began to propel her to stardom.
“I have no regrets about leaving my homeland. It still feels like a dream that I am living as a musician in South Korea,” said Han.
The Dalrae Music Band, which debuted this July with an album entitled “Meotjaengi” (stylish person), has been receiving steady attention from the media as a “defectors band.”
“At first, the reporters all asked the same questions, mainly about our reasons for leaving North Korea and our family members back home,” said Han, with a weary smile.
“I guess we became sort of a ‘hot topic.’”
The five girls’ youth and determination might help them achieve longevity as entertainers in South Korea ― or it may not. According to the Unification Ministry, a total of 1,387 North Koreans escaped to the South in 2005. When counting first began, in 1991, there were only nine. Several escapees have pursued careers in the entertainment business ― in particular, singer Kim Yong, who came to the South in 1991, and Kim Hye-young, a singer and actress, who arrived in 1998 with her family. Although the two entertainers initially received heavy media attention, the spotlight no longer shines upon them with much intensity.
“We got used to it,” said Huh Su-hyang, 21. “I think our being from the North as an ‘issue’ can’t last for long. It’s up to us to prove ourselves through music.” Han added, “We are so green at this, so, although we worry about those things, we can’t help but be giddy about having this chance to express our art.”
The group’s production company, Orange Enterprise, came up with the idea of an “escapee band” and had been looking for the perfect combination of talented entertainers who had fled North Korea. “It was a very competitive audition process,” said their manager, Kim Yong-chul, of Orange Enterprise. Since last October, the company auditioned more than 100 people for spots in the group.
Two members, Kang Yoo-eun and Im Yoo-kyung, both 18, play the accordion, two perform traditional Korean dance (Huh and Lee Yoon-kyung, 21) and all sing with Han as lead vocalist. Their songs are a blend of South Korean middle-of-the-road trot music with traditional vocal arrangements from North Korean music, all mixed with cheerful, upbeat rhythms. With North Korea having almost no cultural interaction with the United States, Europe or South Korea, the Dalrae Music Group’s melodies might sound odd at first for young South Koreans who are used to Western music genres. “Before we came here, we had no idea that there were so many different styles of music,” said Lee Yoon-kyung.
The girls, who were classically trained since childhood, are enthusiastic and curious about different musical genres. “I see that in South Korea, there are few female musicians doing hip-hop music. I would like to do hip-hop one day,” said Im Yoo-kyung, while other members urged her to do a rap verse.
As Im proceeded to rap a line from South Korean rapper MC Mong, all five girls giggled and Im turned bright red. Seeing their playfulness, it was hard to imagine what they have been through to pursue their passion.
Of the five girls, Im Yoo-kyung is the only one who lives with her whole family. Han lives with her mother and two siblings while her father remains in North Korea. Family members of defectors are often punished in the North, with many judged “guilty by association” and sent to prison camps.
“Recently, I heard rumors about my father, that he is dead or in prison camp. I haven’t seen this in person, so I go on hoping that it’s not true,” said Han.
Lee Yoon-kyung, who lives alone in Seoul, has no contact with her family. Her father is dead and her mother and sister are missing.
In 2000, she escaped North Korea to China, where she unsuccessfully searched for her mother. Despite these sad circumstances Lee can still make a lighthearted joke about her escape. “The Duman River [on the border of North Korea and China] is actually very narrow, around 50 to 100 meters. During the summer, people swim away, while during winter, people run across the ice. I used a sled,” she laughed, making a “swish” sound to end her story.
Even though it has been only four months since their official debut, the group has made some important appearances. On Nov. 21, they visited the 71st Infantry Division in Namyang, Gyeonggi province and performed in front of hundreds of trainee soldiers.
“I’ve never been around so many men. In the North, men and women don’t interact, so it was quite awkward and scary, but their positive energy was quite infectious,” said Kang Yoo-eun.
The group also has a political edge. They recently took part in a “Concert for Adolescents to Experience North Korean Culture” in Seoul on Nov. 16.
“In the end, as naive as it sounds, we want the two countries to be united. I think our role in this, as entertainers, is by introducing North Korean culture to the South in a believable, interesting way,” said Huh.
by Cho Jae-eun