Creating Harmony: In Conversation with Hyung-Joon Woon
"I insist the solution be music."
Hyung-Joon Won, South Korean violinist, spoke this line while giving a talk at Merton College. It speaks volumes about his mission to bridge the gap between the two Koreas by bringing together musicians from both sides, which he has made his life’s work.
Born in a divided country, Won seeks to find ways to heal its wounds: a dedicated musician and conductor, he advocates for promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula through providing a platform for exchange in which North and South Koreans can share the stage. He has performed in various countries, especially his concerts with a North Korean musician in China and Sweden last year. Speaking about the various obstacles he encountered in his efforts to make an inter-Korean performance possible, the sense of urgency that he attached to such initiatives was apparent as he painted a compelling picture of his musical journey.
Won’s personal connection to North Korea also underlies his musical efforts: countless families were divided by the Korean War, and Won’s is one of them. His great-grandmother was separated from her son during the war, and while his grandfather’s family eventually settled in South Korea, her tomb remains in the North. Remarking with frankness that he has never seen it, and can only see it if reunification were to happen, he mentioned that his family still honour her during annual Lunar New Year celebrations at his grandfather’s house. Inspired by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which brought together Arab and Israeli musicians, Won’s dream truly took flight when he founded the Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra in 2009: “If East and West can do it, why not North and South?”
From that point on, he underwent a decade’s worth of struggle and accomplishment before his dream was realised, but against difficult odds. Given the Korean Peninsula’s extremely volatile political landscape, embarking on such programs can be almost impossible when hostile events occur, which is often. A female South Korean tourist was shot and killed in the summer of 2008 for venturing into a military area near Kumgangsan, a North Korean mountain open to foreign tourism. This prompted South Korea to temporarily stop sending travellers to the resort, and North Korea then seized five properties owned by the South there.
Won’s steady journey of activism through music has been marked by such politically harsh situations. Contact between the two Koreas is incredibly restricted, and he struggled to deliver his message to the North. “I tried everything”, he said, from seeking out channels in Swiss and Belgian ambassadors to North Korea to interviews with television stations. North Korea was blamed for the sinking of Cheonan, a South Korean ship that resulted in 46 deaths, which made gaining approval from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification a challenge. Won echoed the critical reactions he received: “Are you crazy? Our soldiers died — what are you talking about?”
A surprising connection, however, changed his circumstances. Won claimed that he knew the daughter of the South Korean president at the time, who had attended the same school as him during his childhood. Making a phone call after years of not having spoken to her — “I did not even call when her father became president” — resulted in the eventual conveyance of his letter. After Won’s initial proposal was brought to a UN mission, he was then connected to a North Korean diplomat. Now it was just a matter of looking for the right situation.
The “right situation” was often hard to pin down. Won was often forced to give up his push for an inter-Korean orchestra at the last minute, due to the Koreas’ delicate relations. In 2015, he had the hope of holding a peace concert at the DMZ, which would feature collaboration between a North Korean choir and a South Korean orchestra. They were to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or ‘Ode to Freedom, together — also played at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A landmine explosion at the DMZ days before the concert, however, made things… less smooth. Although the North Korean choir were permitted to participate, the South Korean orchestra were barred from crossing the checkpoint, and their bus waited on the ‘Bridge of No Return’ for around two hours before soldiers told them to turn away. “It’s really difficult and sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing it,” said Won. However, he also emphasised the need for time and patience, and acknowledged its worth in the long run. “It was hard, but it was a great experience.”
In preparation for the 2019 Shanghai concert, Won gained approval from the South Korean Ministry of Unification to contact North Korean soprano singer Kim Song Mi. Preparations for the concert were also fraught with tensions: the day after their first rehearsal, they received news on May 9th that North Korea launched a second missile test. This was three days before the scheduled concert date. Won remembered Kim’s anxiety at the very real prospects of receiving a call from the Pyongyang regime at any moment to cancel the event. To their great relief, no such call came, and on May 12th, 2019, Won and Kim found themselves playing Antonín Dvorák's ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’ together with the Shanghai City Symphony Orchestra. Following this, Kim sang ‘Arirang’, a traditional folk tune known and loved by people on both sides of the border.
|Hyung-Joon Won and Kim Song Mi perform side by side at the Shanghai Concert|
When asked about the power of music to transcend conflict, what was particularly striking was Won’s conviction, through all the obstacles he had faced, that the creation of harmony in music can serve as a metaphor for politics. Amid the cycle of practice and performance that makes up the routine of every musician, he began to see music as a tool for reconciliation. We were asked to imagine an orchestra on the level of its instruments: though they all have their own distinct sounds and tone colours, the act of coming together still allows them to create harmony. Before the start of a concert, musicians tune their instruments, then adjust to align their sounds with each other. He suggested that in this, one can find a kind of ‘unification’ of its own.
Three days before this, Won said, he had teamed up with an orchestra for the first time, and their concert was successful after only a single rehearsal together. “Why?” Won asked us a question to which he then gave the answer: because they listened to each other. Listening, he went on to emphasise, should be the most important principle for congruence in any musical ensemble; without actively perceiving the others around us, it is impossible to create something together. He then stated that we can apply these principles to not only the division between North and South, but also to disagreement at large: conflict arises when we don’t listen to each other. Won’s years as a student at Juilliard in the United States allowed him to see the extent of polarisation in today’s world. However, rather than losing hope, this only strengthened his conviction to contribute his own skills towards resolution — and he encouraged us to do the same with the skills and passions of our own lives, too. The solution that he himself can offer is music.
In the face of a seemingly immovable state of affairs, deeply rooted in political and sociocultural division and disfigured by generations of pain, a musical performance may seem quite small. However, Won’s relentless determination to promote peace surpasses the boundaries he sees laid in front of him: he states that working together is what can shape the future. In the “unbiased ideological environment” of musical creation, he ceaselessly unites people with different backgrounds towards a common goal: simply to “make something together”.
Written by Claire Ion