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Last Updated: Friday, 27 June, 2003, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Singing for Korean unification
By Greg Constantine

In a basement office in Seoul, South Korea, Ms Kim stepped onto the stage and smiled to the audience.

She wore a light pink ballroom gown and lace gloves, and looked as glamorous as a 1950s Broadway star.

Ms Kim, a singer from the T'ongil Ye Sul Dan group of performance artists
Ms Kim says she wants to educate South Koreans through song

As the music began, a burst of feedback stormed out of the speakers.

But Ms Kim maintained her focus and never broke her smile.

She is a member of T'ongil Ye Sul Dan, a performing arts group made up of North Korean defectors.

The group consists of four singers, an accordionist, a playwright, a dancer, a classically trained pianist and an award-winning impersonator.

"Our goal is to help diminish the cultural gap between North and South Koreans," said group member Choi Hee-soon.

"We need to educate people on the realities and the culture of North Korea, and promote cultural unification," she said.

The group performs North and South Korean classics such as What is the Life?, Arirang, Touching Times and My Hometown.

We want to share North Korean culture
Choi Hee-Soon, group member

"In North Korea, there is no individual expression," said Ms Choi, who studied music in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang before defecting to China.

"There is no such thing as private words or emotion. In North Korea, songs are shouted not sung. In South Korea, music is moving and touching. In North Korea we did not sing by ourselves for the pleasure of singing. We sang only for others," she said.

"If I were to play in North Korea," said Kim E-ok, the accordionist in the group, "it would be only to sing and to celebrate the birthdays of (former and current leaders ) Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il or for collectively-held events."

"We would never be able to play at such a performance as this. But now we need to transcend the impression South Koreans have of us," he said.

Since the Korean War in 1950, North and South have shared a dislocated Korean peninsula, while travelling on opposing political and social paths.

While South Korea has opened up to the world's economies and diverse cultures, North Korea has closed itself off, leaving many South Koreans ignorant of contemporary North Korean culture.
Ms Kim, a singer from the T'ongil Ye Sul Dan group of performance artists
In North Korea, all music is state-sanctioned

This is largely due to the few opportunities citizens of North and South have for personal or cultural exchange.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, fewer than 1,300 North and South Koreans have taken part in inter-Korean exchanges related to culture and art since 1989.

But with an increasing number of defectors entering South Korea each year - 1,140 arrived in 2002 - and with the will of individuals such as the members of T'ongil Ye Sul Dan, North Korean culture has more exposure.

"You will be tired before you reach one mile/ Walking over the peak at Arirang", sang Ms Kim at T'ongil Ye Sul Dan's performance.

The Arirang folk song has become an anthem for people who dream of unifying and reviving, not just a culture, but an entire people.

Hanging next to the stage was a banner bearing the symbol of the T'ongil Ye Sul Dan group. It combined a globe with a picture of a united Korean peninsula.

Straddling the Chinese border in the north of the peninsula rests Paekdu Mountain and Cheonji Lake, The Lake of Heaven.

More than 500 miles away, in the south of Korea, rests a lake on Halla Mountain on the island of Jeju.

"The purpose of T'ongil Ye Sul Dan," said Ms Choi, "is to educate South Koreans so they are prepared for the time when the waters from the north and the waters from the south travel freely from one mountain to the other. We want to share North Korean culture."

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