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A Butterfly Effect at the North Korean Border

Apr 29, 2018 | 657 videos
Video by Catherine Lee

“Is this ridiculous, what I’m trying to do?” says South Korean violinist Hyungjoon Won in the short documentary 9at38. Catherine Lee’s film, premiering on The Atlantic today, follows Won as he attempts to stage a peace concert at the 38th Parallel Demilitarized Zone to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Korea’s independence. “I’ve made an official pitch to the South and North Korean governments for a choir from the North and orchestra from the South to play Beethoven’s 9th,” explains Won in the film. “The lyrics mention a mysterious force that unites what’s divided, making us brothers.”


Won, a Juilliard-trained musician, makes many personal sacrifices in pursuit of the concert. So, too, did Lee. Frequently during the two-year process of filming, the humanitarian aid worker-turned-documentarian questioned the potential impact of the musical performance. “When I would run out of funds or when I would be pulling consecutive all-nighters, I would ask myself, why am I making this movie at such cost?” Lee told The Atlantic. “After all, people have been telling [Won] for years that one song isn’t going to change anything.”


Ultimately, Lee concluded that music could indeed become an instrument of peace. “If a single young North Korean musician and a South Korean counterpart can look into each other’s eyes as they adjust pitch or dynamic, then a domino effect begins,” she said. “Interactions need not be grand to start a butterfly effect to shake the prejudices taught by school and society. Music is an especially meaningful interaction because it requires listening to each other, adjusting, and achieving that moment of perfect harmony.”


On the morning of Friday, April 27th, the day before 9at38’s final screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Lee awoke to footage of Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In taking turns crossing the border at Panmunjom. The declaration that the two leaders signed agrees to eliminate military provocations, including the removal of all nuclear weapons from their peninsula. “But whether a permanent peace agreement will be signed, ending seven decades of temporary armistice and the final unresolved violent conflict of the Cold War, remains to be seen,” said Lee.


During her career as an aid worker across 18 countries, Lee came to see that positive human-to-human interaction could bridge chasms between groups of people in conflict. “Empathy—relatability, something only bred through familiarity—is the only effective counter to the ‘us versus them’ mentality,” she said. “It makes all the difference between war and peace. 9at38 is a symbol of possibilities, not just for Korea but all hostile parts of the globe.”


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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of short films curated by The Atlantic