Choi Sa Rang (45, defected in 2008 from South Hwanghae Province) is an active singer in the trot music community in South Korea. Choi’s first album was more representative of the North Korean vocal style, but she has since changed over to a trot sound more familiar to South Koreans, hoping to attract a larger audience.
But the transition has been more difficult than she originally expected. Choi had to approach the new style despite being unfamiliar with popular songs in the genre, and it was difficult for her to find a composer who she connected well with. To add to her troubles, she didn’t have her own room to practice in.
After searching for three years, Choi eventually met composer Nam Guk In (famous for the song, “The man in Sinsa-dong”) and arranger Jeong Gyeong Cheon. The two helped put together a 25-piece orchestra to match her sound and voice, resulting in her new song entitled, “You are my love.”
Since releasing her new music, Choi has been traveling the country and performing at various events, receiving further requests for performances. Although she sometimes finds it challenging to greet her audiences due to her North Korean background, it’s overcome by the joy she feels in creating and performing the music that she chooses – an impossible feat in the North where those with musical talent are only permitted to perform state-approved material.
A new life in South Korea and transitioning back to music
Choi was recognized for her musical talents from an early age in North Korea. After graduating from high school, she began her military service and sang for the army propaganda squad for 6 years, before moving on to sing for the South Hwanghae Provincial propaganda squad for an additional 12 years. Her extensive background in music gave her many potential options to pursue after arriving in South Korea.
However, Choi did not immediately jump into a career in music. Instead, wanting to enter a stable profession, she began by attending a vocational school to earn her license in tax accounting – a difficult area even for South Koreans. But the courses were difficult and Choi felt that tax accounting was not the right path for her. She decided to follow her passion and become a singer again.
Choi started working part time jobs in restaurants and department stores to make a living, dedicating her free time to performing in senior homes and disability centers, where she performed for free. But due to her hardworking attitude, she lived quite well on her department store earnings, selling 1,900,000 KRW worth of merchandise per day at a hat boutique.
Despite her North Korean background, her customers responded positively to her friendly attitude and sales ability. The owner of the shop was so impressed that she offered her the manager position. Choi was pleased by the offer, but instead decided to focus on her upcoming concerts. From that moment on, Choi put aside her part time work and focused solely on her music career.
Achieving the grand prize on the National Singing Contest program
Before launching into her new career, Choi had to adapt to the South Korean trot style of music that was very different from what she was used to performing. But she still took on the challenge of entering the ‘National Singing Contest’ on South Korean TV upon her friend’s suggestion. Choi went in nearly blind and began memorizing the lyrics for a song proposed by her friend.
Choi was one of just 11 of the 1500 teams to pass through the preliminary rounds. Although it wasn’t a formal musical debut, she received the attention of the show’s producers, who highlighted her story and background as a North Korean defector pursuing her dreams. She was confident on stage and thought to herself, ‘Even if I don’t win, it’s an honor to perform for such a large crowd,’ (of 4000 people).
At the end of the contest, Choi listened nervously as the announcers read the names of the winners. Choi could barely believe her ears when she heard ‘Choi Sa Rang’ announced as the first place winner. She says she was deeply moved by the event, especially when MC Song Hae, who was born in 1927 in the same province as Choi, exclaimed, “Our hometown is victorious!”
“I do not envy the millionaires. I do not envy any powerful person in the world when I’m singing, because the stage is my world,” Choi says. She believes that singing has provided her with great freedom and has allowed her to successfully adapt to her new life in South Korea.
While her new material is not widely known yet, Choi has vowed to persevere until she achieves her goal of performing on South Korea’s KBS radio station. She also described how she is working towards writing and composing music herself, and to write lyrics expressing her hopes for unification. Until the day that Choi appears in front of a joint North-South Korean audience, she has vowed to continue making music and inspiring her fans.
※This article was made possible in part by funding from the Korea Press Foundation