One Orchestra: Music and Harmony on the Korean Peninsula
August 15, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of a single Korea from Japanese colonization. On that day last year, a 70-person North Korean choir stood at the 38th parallel in Panmunjom, awaiting the arrival of a South Korean orchestra with which it would perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and a Korean folk tune, “Arirang.” The South Korean orchestra and guest conductor Antoine Marguier, who also serves as music director of the UN Orchestra in Geneva, however, never made it to the border. Just 11 days prior, two South Korean soldiers were severely injured when they stepped on land mines secretly planted by North Korean soldiers. Tensions rose, forcing Seoul to cancel the concert at the last minute.
This joint event had been organized by Hyung-joon Won, a professionally trained violinist from The Julliard School and the CEO of Lindenbaum Music. Won had been relentlessly working for over eight years to create the “One Orchestra” composed of both North and South Korean musicians in hopes of defying political tension and re-creating harmony between the peoples of the two countries. In 2011, Won proposed that such a concert should happen in Switzerland because of the country’s neutrality; he received approval from the North Korean government, but not from the South Korean one. In 2014, he brought forth another idea for a concert that would take place in Germany; South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the South Korean government gave their approval, but the North Korean government denied it. “If one side agreed,” Won said in frustration during an interview with the HPR, “the other side denied.”
The August 2015 attempt was the closest he came to realizing his mission of using music to create harmony on the divided Korean peninsula.
Won visited Harvard on February 10 as a part of the Conversations with Kirkland series to discuss his efforts. He explained that he had two main inspirations for pursuing the project: his own family history and other examples of orchestral diplomacy within the past half century.
Won told the HPR,“During the Lunar New Year and Thanksgiving celebrations, it is a part of our tradition to visit our ancestors’ tombs; however, when I was young, I knew my great-grandmother’s tomb was not in South Korea, and it was my longing to bow at her tomb in North Korea.” Like Won, many Koreans were separated from family members following the armistice in 1953. This collective longing to be reunited was the driving force behind Won’s One Orchestra project.
But while the motivation came from his own experiences, Won’s inspiration was conductor Daniel Barenboim, who founded the East-Western Divan Orchestra in 1999, composed of Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab musicians. Individuals whose primary connections had once been based in war and violence reconnected as equals as they listened to each other, performed together, and overcame deep political and ideological barriers. Won saw a similar potential in the two Koreas and set out to create the One Orchestra in order to replicate Barenboim’s success.
The land mine explosions in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 2015 and North Korea’s firing of a long-range rocket last month are two of many instances in which tensions between the two countries have escalated, hurting Won’s mission. Won pointed out to the HPR that even though both governments are officially in favor of ultimate reunification, a lack of trust and communication leads to actions from either side being misperceived as signs of aggression.
Among the many human rights violations taking place in North Korea—including restrictions on freedom of movement, speech, religion, and information—the prohibition of any contact with South Koreans is one that specifically touches Won’s heart. On the other side of the border, South Koreans are also forbidden from being in contact with their northern counterparts.
When the Korean peninsula was divided almost 70 years ago, grandparents, parents, and siblings were separated; however, the current generation of Koreans are so far removed, that to them, division is simply an accepted fact of history, and one that has become increasingly remote. Dr. John Park, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and an expert on North Korean politics, explained that “the concern is that if you have that type of bifurcation, the gap grows wider and wider, and it makes reunification more remote.” The notion of the “other” has strengthened, supplanting the previous idea of brotherhood. It it precisely this sentiment that Won hopes to counteract.
The Role of Classical Music
Through the One Orchestra, Won seeks to bridge the existing communication gap with music, knowing that, in an orchestral setting, every musician must listen to one another in order to create a cohesive piece of music. From the very beginning of a rehearsal or performance, “when the oboist plays the A to tune, everyone listens.” According to Won, “each instrument has its own characteristics,” but by listening to and feeding off of each other, “they’re able to make harmony, and that’s really beautiful.”
Won noted that, compared to other Western influences such as Christianity, Hollywood movies, and K-Pop, classical music is not seen as a threat by the North Korean government. In fact, there are operating conservatories and music schools in North Korea, and North Korean musicians travel abroad to study music and compete in international competitions. The Pyongyang Philharmonic is widely accepted as a high-level, professional orchestra. Because North Korea accepts classical music, it constitutes a rare artistic vehicle through which the the barrier between the separated peoples can be overcome. Had Won proposed a joint performance of Western or Korean popular music, he almost certainly would have been denied by the North Korean government
Classical music offers both countries an opportunity to listen, interact, and forge meaningful human connections that are otherwise impossible between the two politically divided nations. The One Orchestra seeks obviously to create musical harmony, but it also serves as a role model for political and social cohesion, potentially reversing some of the long-standing cleavages that exist on the Korean Peninsula.
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