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Historic concert in North Korea brings violinist to tears

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  • Violinist performed at historic concert in North Korea
  • Michelle Kim's parents fled the north during the Korean War
  • Michelle's parents didn't let her go to North Korea the first time she was invited
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By Susan Chun
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- An American orchestra performed a historic concert Tuesday in the communist state of North Korea -- one of the most secretive societies in the world. A group of 105 musicians made the journey to Pyongyang, but for one of them this trip was not just about music. It was about family history.


Michelle Kim, shown here at an earlier performance, performed Tuesday in North Korea.

Michelle Kim, 35, is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, which performed a nearly two-hour concert in Pyongyang.

Kim's parents were born in the North and fled the country during the Korean War. For Kim the concert was an opportunity to see the land where her parents were born and where they suffered before leaving the country forever.Video Watch sights and sounds of concert »

Kim's father, Chung-Kil Kim, was only 5 years old when the war broke out in 1950, but what he experienced was so horrific that he said he would never forget it. Video Watch highlights of today's historic concert »

"I still clearly remember that so many people were dying around me, and I walked over dead bodies." Chung-Kil said.

Chung-Kil's family was under tight supervision because his uncle was a minister, he said.

There is no organized religion in North Korea, other than the worship of the country's founder and what they call their "Eternal President," Kim Il Sung.

Chung-Kil remembers one day after the war started, his uncle went to his church to pray. North Korean soldiers came to the church, locked everyone inside and set it on fire. Everyone, including Chung-Kil's uncle, died, he said.

After Chung-Kil's uncle was killed, his family decided it was too dangerous to remain in the North. So, they abandoned their home and fled to the South.

Kim's mother, Kyung-Ja Kim, also fled with her family from the North during the war. Kyung-Ja's mother carried the then-1-year-old on her back the entire way.

Kim's parents eventually met and married in Seoul, where Kim was born. They moved to the United States and settled in California when she was 16. She already was gaining attention as a talented musician and won an international music competition, which led to an unusual invitation to perform in Pyongyang for President Kim Il Sung's birthday.

At the time, Chung-Kil and Kyung-Ja were too scared to let her go. They were afraid their daughter would be abducted and forced to stay in the North, her father said.

Their attitude changed, he said, because this time she would be traveling not only with the Philharmonic, but also with an American press corps. Her father said in his heart, he felt it was time for her to go.

"I still have a grudge against the Korean War, however I understand the people in North Korea are not to blame," Chung-Kil said. "This is a really good opportunity for my Michelle to go to the North and give them an opportunity to open their door to our culture."

Kim said her first emotion when she arrived in Pyongyang was a sense of awe. Seeing the North Koreans makes her feel sad that the country has been divided, she said.

"North Koreans, South Koreans, we're just Koreans. They're the exact same people as I am. We have the exact same culture. We have the exact same songs."

Tuesday's concert ended with the Korean folk song "Arirang," which is a love song about reunion. The song brought back memories of Michelle's childhood in South Korea.


"A lot of us actually stood out on the stage and just waved to them. Many people had tears in their eyes. And, of course, all of us were crying, the Korean- Americans were crying."

The New York Philharmonic leaves North Korea Wednesday, and Kim is taking a lot of pictures to show her family when she gets home. She is the eyes and ears for her parents, she said, and hopes the pictures and her experiences will allow her parents to see North Korea in a new way -- a better way than they did when they fled more than 50 years ago. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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