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(Yonhap Interview) London duo highlights North Koreans' plight through music

2017/09/17 09:01

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By Chang Dong-woo

SEOUL, Sept. 17 (Yonhap) -- Amid North Korea's incessant and ever-growing military brinkmanship, it may be easy to lose sight of the dire conditions faced by the average people of the impoverished country.

Such concern is acutely shared by Ooberfuse, a London-based electronic pop duo, who is in Seoul for concerts in support of refugees from the North and the rest of the world.

"Our hope is that there will be peace and also, that in the midst of the nuclear standoff, the plight of North Korean refugees and the importance of human rights are not forgotten," guitarist Hal St. John said in a recent email interview with Yonhap News Agency.

The group has a new song coming out this month titled "Never Give Up," which was inspired by the plight of Shin Dong-hyuk, a high-profile North Korean defector. He was the subject of the bestselling book "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West," by former Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden.

Album art for Ooberfuse's 2017 album "The Odd Ones" (Yonhap) Album art for Ooberfuse's 2017 album "The Odd Ones" (Yonhap)

The band debuted in 2012 with its first album "Seventh Wave" and released its second full-length album "The Odd Ones" in June 2017. While not a household name per se, Ooberfuse has still maintained a prolific catalogue of mostly ambient electronic music and has toured extensively.

Sound-wise, "Never Give Up" is in the vein of Ooberfuse's past songs, arranged with soothing synth pads accompanying singer Cherrie Anderson's angelic voice.

"One day we'll be together heart and soul. Broken pieces will be healed and whole," the lyrics go, telling of defectors who left family members behind in North Korea.

"Leaving your home and motherland in flight from inconceivable state brutality is perhaps the hardest and most dangerous decision a person can make. … Shin Dong-hyuk made the decision to escape the relentless torture inside," St. John said.

They have known Shin for several years now. They were introduced by a mutual friend who is a human rights activist.

"He is now a dear friend and his life is a big inspiration to us," he added.

Shin, now a human rights activist, was a key witness at the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea. He was once embroiled in controversy after confessing that he lied in the book about some facts of his survival in North Korea.

A video for the song, currently available on YouTube, features Jihyun Park, a former North Korean science teacher who fled to Manchester, Britain, along with her young daughter. In the video, Park's daughter is seen showing flash cards with written messages asking viewers to support the North Korean people.

According to the band, Park was trafficked to China for 5,000 yuan (US$764) and spent six years as a slave. She later ended up in a prison camp back in North Korea, where she was subjugated to hard labor. She was released after her uncle promised authorities he would prevent her from escaping. But Park left the North again and made it to Britain.

A publicity poster for one of Ooberfuse's South Korean performances (Yonhap) A publicity poster for one of Ooberfuse's South Korean performances (Yonhap)

The band's all performances in South Korea are to support refugees.

On Saturday, they partnered with Teach North Korea Refugees, a non-profit organization that provides educational and self-improvement opportunities to North Korean refugees, for a concert in Seoul.

"All proceeds raised from the concert will go towards the work of Teach North Korea Refugees. Our friend Jihyun Park was actually one of their students," said Anderson.

On Wednesday, Ooberfuse will also perform a special show for music event company Sofar Sounds and Amnesty International Korea with YB, a South Korean rock band led by frontman Yoon Do-hyun.

The band said it hopes to channel through music the unheard voices of not just North Koreans but all people subjugated to poor human rights conditions.

In 2015, the duo traveled to Iraq and produced the track "We Are One" to underscore the plight of Iraqis under the threat of jihadist militant group Islamic State.

The duo also said they have come to like Korean indie music and hope to work together with some Korean artists.

"The Koxx! We are their fans," St. John said. Anderson picked Love X Stereo, JVNR and project:IMPAIR as South Korean artists she wants to work with.