K-Pop Star And North Korean Defectors to Perform on Korean-Japanese Disputed Territory

K-pop singer Lee Seung-chul 1 - H 2014
Courtesy of Lee Eun-seok

K-pop singer Lee Seung-chul 1 - H 2014

South Korean singer Lee Seung-chul has collaborated with Grammy-winning artist Steve Hodge to promote peace messages on the controversial Liancourt Rocks.

SEOUL — South Korean singer Lee Seung-chul and a group of North Korean defectors will perform on the Liancourt Rocks, a disputed territory between South Korea and Japan.

The veteran K-pop artist, who is also known as a judge on a local television talent show, will headline the concert on Aug. 14, ahead of Korea's Aug. 15 Independence Day from colonial Japan (1910-1945). Called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, the Liancourt Rocks are located between the two Asian countries. It stands as a symbol of Japanese imperialism for Koreans, and North Korea has fully backed South Korea's sovereignty claim over the islets.

Lee will premiere a new song featuring With-U, a choir comprised of 55 young men and women in their 20s-30s who have defected from North Korea. The concert is part of the ON (One Nation) Campaign, a local effort to promote reunification of the two Koreas. In addition to addressing Northeast Asian geopolitical issues, however, the initiative raises humanitarian concerns about the plight of North Korean defectors.

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Since the Korean War (1950-53), some 25,000 North Koreans are estimated to have escaped the reclusive hermit state, and according to Seoul's Ministry of Unification some 1,500 have annually arrived in South Korea in recent years. However, as chronicled in the internationally acclaimed film by Park Jung-bum, The Journals of Musan, North Korean defectors often face discrimination and poverty in South Korea.

Il Gun Yoon, a North Korean defector, initiated the ON Campaign with Lee to bring together other defectors and ultimately promote Koreas' unification. Esteemed Spanish painter Eva Airmisen also espouses the effort and has designed its logo. The campaign efforts are currently being broadcast in South Korea as a TV documentary.

"Dokdo is one issue where North Korea and South Korea stand on a united front. Both polarized nations believe that Dokdo is inherently Korea's. Performing at Dokdo would be the ultimate symbolic gesture of unification that defines the 'ON' campaign and what Il Gun Yoon first envisioned," said campaign organizers.

"I believe that hope can be conveyed through music, even in the most desperate times. Because music is universal and transcends cultural boundaries, it has a special way of bringing people together. That's what inspired me to start this unification campaign," said Lee.

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Lee composed "The Day" for the event next month. It is a collaborative effort with Japan-based Korean composer Yang Bang-ean, Grammy-winning mix engineer Steve Hodge and the Korea Symphony Orchestra. Three versions of "The Day" including an English rendition are due to be released in Korea in August.

"I hope the concert can serve as a stepping stone to help curb the plight of North Koreans," added the singer, who wishes to perform with the defectors at other symbolic venues such as the United Nations headquarters in New York or the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas.

Also included in the concert program is "Arirang," a classic Korean folk song that inspired Kim Ki-duk's Cannes-winning film of the same name. Yang's modern rendition, "Arirang Fantasy," was showcased alongside "Gangnam Style" during South Korean President Park Geun-hye's inauguration ceremony.