North and South Korea agree to a joint peace concert
Story By: Ali Saleh
Photos By: Hyung-joon Won, Lindenbaum Music Company, Catherine Lee
Hyung-joon Won, a Julliard-educated violinist, took a bus of 14 musicians and a film crew to the 38th parallel on August 15, 2015—the 70th anniversary of Korean liberation from Japanese rule. The musicians, most of whom were South Korean, were to meet a group of 70 North Korean choir singers in Panmunjom for an inter-Korean peace concert. Won and his team were stopped, however, at a DMZ checkpoint just before Tongil Bridge. The border control soldiers kept Won and his musicians at the mercy of their walkie-talkies, unable to let them pass before receiving confirmation from their superiors.
“Earlier that month a mine exploded,” Won says. “It left two South Korean soldiers injured. The same week of the concert, the South Korean government accused North Korea of planting the mine, which obviously complicated things for our purpose. It couldn’t have been worse timing.”
Since 2009 Won and his organization, the Lindenbaum Music Company, have been trying to realize a joint North and South Korean concert. In that time, with the help of the world renowned Swiss conductor Charlie Dutoit, Won has launched a number of apolitical campaigns to push for the concert.
“In 2010 we tried to invite young North Korean musicians to play with us, but this was very quickly halted. It was the first obstacle in what would turn out to be the long and exhausting process that is inter-peninsula dialogue.”
Won explains that in order for a South Korean to communicate with anyone in North Korea, they need special authorization from the South Korean Ministry of Unification.
“That authorization,” Won says, “is very, very difficult to get. Almost impossible. Which is why I had to depend on foreign intermediaries to communicate with the North Korean government.”
And Won wasn’t shy of help. He received support from Dutoit—who made a visit to Pyongyang in 2011—German intermediaries, and individuals who read of his project and reached out to him.
“I was very lucky,” Won says. “To have met a Korean American who taught music and singing in Pyongyang. He had a contact in the North Korean Ministry of Culture, and they were able to invite our organization to begin discussions for a joint concert.”
The Lindenbaum project had attempted to hold concerts in Pyongyang, Switzerland, and Germany, all of which failed for various reasons leading up to the 2015 border concert.
Won says his original inspiration for the project came by observing the Argentine-born conductor Daniel Barenboim.
“I was very impressed with Barenboim’s work,” Won says. “His orchestra brought musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other areas in the Middle East for a joint-peace concert. Our duty [as musicians] is to perform for an audience. Beyond that—this guy Barenboim, he’s doing something very fantastic in the Middle East. He’s bringing the conflict between Israel and Palestine and making harmony between them. His work showed me the other possibilities that music can have beyond the concert hall.”
“So last year,” Won continues, “2015, same project. I was thinking it’s the 70th anniversary for liberation day… how about we meet in the middle? Pyongyang, Seoul, in the middle. We will get the orchestra and they can bring a choir. Seventy members from each country. We’ll go up, we’ll meet at the border, and play seven meters apart.”
It was around that time that Won met Catherine Lee, a Korean-American film maker with a background in international aid work.
“It was July 2015,” Lee says. “I was quitting my full-time job at the World Bank to pursue documentary film-making when I read an article about Hyung-joon. I was able to a get a small crew together and flew them out to Korea within two weeks. It was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”
Lee worked closely with Won for the two weeks leading up to the concert for her documentary, 9 at 38, which is still in post-production and is seeking completion funds. The title of the documentary refers to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, which was the song choice—along with the Korean folk song, Arirang— and the 38th parallel, the location of the concert.
“We filmed for two weeks,” Lee says. “Ten days of footage. It was just the right amount of time. Beginning and the end. Things were happening in real time, including events that affected the outcome of the concert.”
Lee was with the bus at the DMZ on August 15th and, despite their best efforts, she was with them to see the orchestra and crew be turned away due to escalating tensions between the two governments.
“After two hours of waiting,” Won says. “Regardless of the letter of support we received from the Ministry of Unification, the soldiers turned us away at the border. The North Korea singers were waiting for us, and we had to be turned away because of the incident that occurred earlier that week. It was crushing.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Won continues, “why am I doing this? I know it’s only one song. I know there’s a good chance it won’t change anything. But, just this one little thing. We have been separated seventy years and we can’t even do this one song. How will we ever achieve unification if we can’t do something as simple as this?”
“Why am I doing this? I know it’s only one song. I know there’s a good chance it won’t change anything. But, just this one little thing. We have been separated seventy years and we can’t even do this one song. How will we ever achieve unification if we can’t do something as simple as this?”
Won admits that he has received criticism for his efforts, criticism from those who find his vision futile and obsolete. Those who wonder what his motives are on a personal level.
“For me,” Won says, “music is harmony, and harmony is peace. In order for two musicians to achieve harmony, they must first listen to each other. Even if they can’t speak the same language, or they’re from different countries or whatever, when they start to play they have to listen. Only after listening to one-another can they begin to achieve harmony. I think the same is true between the North and South, and that’s the greater meaning of this project.”
For Lee, her idea of the real “story” behind her documentary has transformed throughout the filming process.
“Of course the story attracted me on a number of levels. But somewhere along the way I realized it was also about self-determination and drive. This one man trying to achieve something in this long, tiring process. In some ways the story is more about that than the outcome of this event.”
But somewhere along the way, I realized it was also about self-determination and drive. This one man trying to achieve something in this long, tiring process. In some ways the story is more about that than the outcome of this event.”
Lee observed Won in his efforts to communicate with the various government ministries, foreign intermediaries, United Nations Command, and other official representatives in achieving the concert.
She says: “We see in the film how the governments and bureaucrats – and this is such a small thing to do – how they seem so powerless to initiate. So risk averse. So I don’t feel bad in saying that I hope this film shames them into action because if they can’t do it, who can?”
Won is still working with the Lindenbaum Music Company with hopes to one day make his concert a reality. He is sharing his story as he travels the world, performs his music, and gives lectures across universities and international committees. Lee hopes to release 9 at 38 later in 2017 and continues to communicate with Won. Both artists are confident that the North and South will, with both the concert and the greater regional conflict, eventually come together, listen to one-another, and begin to harmonize towards a vision of peace along the peninsula.
For more information about Hyung-joon Won and the Lindenbaum project:
For information about 9 at 38: