October 6, 2008 / 7:47 PM / 10 years ago

Dissident North Korean plays "Amazing Grace" in U.S.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A dissident North Korean pianist played “Amazing Grace” at the U.S. State Department on Monday at a recital designed to dramatize North Korean human rights abuses without upsetting delicate nuclear negotiations.

Kim Cheol-woong, the pianist who defected from North Korea, speaks to Reuters before a rehearsal of his performance in Seoul March 13, 2006. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The musician, Cheol Woong Kim, fled to China twice and was forcibly repatriated before escaping in 2003 to South Korea, where he formed the “Pyongyang Artists Band” with other North Korean refugees, the State Department said.

“The regime’s human rights record is abysmal, not only on denying freedom of expression but with reports of torture, forced labor, forced abortions and executions,” Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky said as she introduced Kim.

Before he sat down to play in the State Department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin room, the pianist spoke of being oppressed in North Korea, of his yearning to express himself and of his sense of amazement at performing in Washington.

“Seeing as how I am performing at the State Department today, I think that my next performance could be in space,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.

He then performed a piece by Chopin, two Korean songs and Amazing Grace, a hymn that is an anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement.

While the United States harshly criticizes North Korea for its human rights record, it is also trying to persuade the poor, isolated state to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

A senior U.S. official who spoke on condition that he not be named said Kim’s performance aimed to draw attention to North Korean human rights violations but was not intended to embarrass the reclusive regime.

A multilateral aid-for-disarmament deal appears in peril after North Korea last month vowed to rebuild its Yongbyon nuclear plant, the source of its weapons-grade plutonium, out of anger at not being dropped from a U.S. terrorism blacklist.

The top U.S. negotiator with North Korea, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, visited Pyongyang last week in an effort to save the disarmament deal.

The State Department has declined to provide any details of the outcome of Hill’s visit to North Korea until after he fully briefs Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the talks. He was expected to do that later on Monday.

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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