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Stepping up to the Seoul stage

North Korean defector and former solo dancer Koh Young-hee talks about life under the "dear leader"

Slim, poised and soft-spoken, Koh Young-hee has the posture of a dancer. The North Korean defector, who fled her country in June 2012, effortlessly shows her distinctive arm movements - the movements she learned from her mother and her mother's teacher, the legendary dancer and choreographer Choi Seung-hee,

Koh, 55, is the daughter of North Korean choreographer Bae Geum-ee, who was one of the original members of North Korea's first dance troupe, founded by Choi in the 1940s in Pyongyang. One of Bae's many students was Ko Yong-hui, the late mother of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

"She was very kind and was the prettiest among the dancers of the Mansudae Art Troupe," Koh recalls.

"She was exceptional and really stood out. She was much prettier than how she looks in photographs. There's a reason why Kim Jong-il fell for her."

Born in 1958 in Pyongyang, Koh, who served as one of the six "solo" dancers at the prestigious State National Art Troupe in Pyongyang from 1975 to 1983, started dancing while attending kindergarten.

Her father was a high-ranking official who spoke five foreign languages, while her mother Bae went on to become a respected choreographer. Bae, born into a poor family in rural North Hamgyeong Province, never received any dance training until she met Choi as a teenager in the 1940s. Choi was touring the nation to audition dancers for her company and Bae - who had always loved to dance - tried out.

"Apparently the audition took more than three days," Koh says. "And my mother finally got to see Choi at the final round. She remembers Choi being surprised and laughing at her North Hamgyeong dialect, and telling her, 'You are quite something'."

Choi, lauded as one of the most accomplished dancers in Asia, performed in Japan, China, the US and South America in the 1930s - before moving to today's North Korea after the end of World War II. Her Paris performance in 1939 was attended by Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Romain Rolland. The young Koh grew up watching her mother and Choi dance and teach. Choi was purged in 1967 and disappeared from public view. It was only in 2003 that Pyongyang made an official announcement that the dancer had died in 1969.

"I heard that her husband, An Mak, was a South Korean spy and the two were planning to flee to the US, but I don't know if that was actually true," Koh says.

"What do I remember about Choi? She was always dressed in hanbok (the traditional Korean garment), always. She wore a lot of white and pale blue, and a white pair of rubber shoes. She never spoke too much, remaining calm, gracious and charismatic."

Just two years before Koh joined the troupe in Pyongyang, her father was arrested for listening to a South Korean radio programme at home in 1971. One of the first North Korean students to study in the former Soviet Union, he was sent to a political prison camp. Koh has not seen him since. Because her mother was a much respected and needed artist, the authorities allowed her a divorce and Koh and her sister were also exempt from punishment, mainly because they were his daughters, not sons.

"My father in fact wanted me to be a diplomat," Koh says, her eyes filling with tears. "I don't think I would've ended up becoming a dancer if my father hadn't been arrested. I don't even know when or where he was when he died."

Koh's life as a dancer was rigorous. The classes would start at 9am, and end at around 11pm or midnight. Every Thursday, there would be a mandatory test that every dancer has to take. Those who failed would be expelled from the troupe. Koh, who joined the troupe in 1973, was promoted to soloist in 1975. Of the more than 80 dancers in the company, only six were soloists.

"I was trained to be an athlete," she says. "You'd jump and dance non-stop except for your lunch break."

Koh faced many limitations in her career because of her father. For example, she was not allowed to be in souvenir photographs after her performances. She thinks she could have been accepted to the Mansudae Art Troupe, which was considered the best dance company in North Korea at the time, if she had a better "family background."

However, Koh never held a grudge against her father. "My father was the most charming and intelligent man I have ever met in my life," Koh said. "I never held a grudge against him for anything. Even when people criticised him, I always believed that my father must be right."

Koh and her mother were sent to North Korea's Ryanggang Province in 1984, as Kim Jong-il, who was in charge of the country's entertainment and culture policies, expressed dissatisfaction with their dance pieces. They were forced to many sessions of self-criticism and worked as miners. After spending two years there, her mother was reinstated in Pyongyang.

"My mother made a few changes to the piece that Kim Jong-il had disliked two years ago, and had it performed again," Koh says. "Kim Jong-il very much liked it, and did not remember this was the piece that he hated two years before."

Koh married at age 27 in Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong Province, and lived there as a dance teacher until she fled the country last year. Her husband, who was an injured military officer, died in 1997. Koh decided to defect because her daughter fled the country in 2006 without even telling her. Her daughter made it to Seoul through China in 2008.

"It really felt like there was no purpose for living when my daughter was gone," she says. "I wanted to live with her."

Koh made her first South Korean dance performance in November. Choreographed by South Korean artist Ji Woo-young, the dance, titled "Mother," featured a mother's unconditional love and sacrifice. Ji, who has been offering dance lessons to North Korean defector children, learned about Koh through one of the defector community members, and asked her to join her performance. Ji says North Korea's traditional dance is much more similar to ballet, compared to the one of South Korea.

"If I get a chance, I hope to introduce the dance I learned from my mother," Koh says. "My mother [Bae died in 2004] always stressed that the most important thing in a dance performance is the dancer's spirit."


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