As the appointed hour of our interview approached, I felt a twinge of fear that I wasn’t in the right place to meet him. It is one thing to keep someone waiting who has flown across the country. But it’s quite another to keep waiting a man who performed violin at the World Economic Forum before entering high school; who built his own orchestra; and who has just flown in from Seoul, South Korea, in part to watch the premier of a documentary about himself. As I hurriedly refreshed the Mail app on my phone to triple-check that we had agreed to meet at Sprague and not Sudler Hall, I saw Kyung Joon Won, casually dressed, violin case slung over his shoulder, enter the lobby. As I walked over, Won greeted me with an enormous smile and vigorous handshake. In need of a place to sit, we traipsed through the heavy rain to Bass Library (Won holding his umbrella over both of us) where he proceeded to tell me about his life, and his audacious goal: To reunite North and South Korea through music.
Won was born in Seoul around 1978. This approximation of his birth year, based on facts I gleaned from the violinist, is not to suggest some mystery surrounding its exact date. Rather, it fits naturally with Won’s brevity regarding his early years and family history during our interview. (I did not learn, for example, that Won’s grandfather was from North Korea until I saw the documentary about him later that night, which was created by Catherine Lee, Yale ’07, and screened by THINK at Yale.) There were, however, childhood memories that Won was eager to share, such as his first encounter with the violin: “It was very accidental that I started. I was visiting my neighbor and a college student in that house was playing the violin.” Won was curious as to how “the wood and the stick” could make that sound; he asked his mother for his own violin. She agreed, and what began as mere curiosity transformed into one of Won’s two lifelong passions.
Fast forward to 1990. It is the year the Berlin Wall fell. Just twelve years old by his own account, Won is invited to play violin at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Pause. The World Economic Forum? Just twelve years old?Most of us were trading lunches in the middle school cafeteria at that age. Surely, Won acknowledged, it was a great honor, but he would not understand conference’s true significance for more than two decades. In the meantime, it was on to Juilliard, and many more concerts in front of many more people.
It was in 2009 that Won heard about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim, whose purpose is to bring together youth musicians from different, often conflicting countries, and have them play together. This was the inspiration he needed. After suffering a severe shoulder injury while doing mandatory service in the South Korean Army, Won was physically unable to play the violin for two years. But even then, he still sought music, and found it first at a music festival in Japan. Soon thereafter, he discovered the West-Eastern Orchestra. “I was thinking, okay, East-West combined by orchestra, why not North-South?” If musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other parts of the Middle East could get together and play music together, why couldn’t North and South Koreans? Won’s commitment to this, his second passion, was reinforced in 2013, when he Googled the Davos Forum that he had played at as a child: “The title was Reunification of Germany, East-West Germany. And I just realized the two leaders from East-West Germany, the Prime Ministers, they were listening to my music. And I was really shocked!… There’s gotta be some reason I was there… I was thinking, maybe this is my destiny, to do something for my countries with the skill I have.”
Despite the hope that realization renewed in him, the concert Won has dreamed of has been frustrated at every turn. In 2009, Won formed The Lindenbaum Orchestra, which is comprised of a group of experienced principals and talented younger musicians, as a step towards achieving his goal of a joint North-South Korean concert. The orchestra has performed together each summer since its founding, but never with musicians from the North. In 2013, plans to play together in Switzerland didn’t pan out. In 2014, an agreement to play in Germany fell through. Then in 2015, Won had another idea: he realized that his past venues — whether they were neutral countries, or countries with a similar history to the Korean Peninsula — never worked. His new plan is to “meet at the borderline,” on either side of a village called Panmunjon. The North and South Korean musicians would be “like eight meters” apart, and though they “are not technically touching… we can still communicate, through music.” Through Won’s tireless negotiations with both governments, the Lindenbaum Orchestra was set to play with counterparts from North Korea in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). But a week before the specified date, a landmine was detonated in the DMZ, and the Korean governments called the concert off. The concert was intended to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the National Liberation Day of Korea — when it was one nation — from Japan.
Given the extreme tensions between North and South Korea, as well as, in his view, the paucity of effective governmental leadership around the world today (he cited Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in particular), Won has tempered his earlier goal of reuniting North and South to simply getting the two nations to communicate. “But we are still talking about unification. I thought that’s really nonsense, you know. How can we talk about unification, or peace in the Korean Peninsula without doing the simplest thing?” That simplest thing, Won still believes, can be playing music together, because it’s something both sides can understand. “There is a piece called Arirang, it’s the Korean traditional song, that we used to play together. Both sides know what Arirang is. So, when I say ‘Let’s play Arirang,’ or I just play my violin with Arirang in front of North Korean officials or government people, I think they understand. They do understand what I feel like in my heart…I think this empathy through music can apply… anywhere.”
That is the power Hyung Joon Won sees in music. It’s about connecting people who have historically been divided, both physically and ideologically. This is something Won believes countries like the U.S., and in particular powerful, internationally renowned institutions like Yale, can help facilitate. According to Won, building trust between North and South Korea “has to be continuous. It has to be more like research,” so that a place like Yale could become a place for collaboration between musicians of both nations. Above all, though, Won stressed that to achieve greater harmony, there must be a willingness on both sides to listen, and the orchestra provides a perfect metaphor for why doing so is important: “How does it happen in an orchestra? It’s not because [of] conductors, I would say. It’s not because they’re looking at the music, you know. It is because…we musicians listen to each other.” Perhaps if musicians from North and South Korea can listen to each other, some day its leaders will follow suit. (Maybe one day, Won mused, Donald Trump will ask Kim Jong Un to play a duet.) But first there must be music, and that is what Won knows best.