SOUTH KOREA (NYT) - "We can't have another Korean War. Do you agree with me?" Jung Ki Youl, chairman of the local government here, asked an estimated 25,000 mostly young South Koreans at Nuri Peace Park, only 5 miles from the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. The crowd was eagerly awaiting a two-hour concert Saturday night featuring some of the biggest K-pop stars.
"That is why this peace concert is so meaningful," Jung said. "Let's shout 'no' to missiles and 'no' to nuclear weapons development and 'we want peace.' Maybe North Korea can hear us," he said.
A roar rose up from the crowd in response. But the volume of these shouts was nothing compared with the shrieks of young men and women that filled the park after the performances of their favorite K-pop stars, including Girls' Generation, BTOB, Cosmic Girls, Mamamoo and GFriend, who performed at the seventh annual summer DMZ Peace Concert.
Nam Hyung Jin, 18, a college freshman studying Chinese language, had travelled 70 miles north from Osan City. He felt apprehensive about attending, knowing how close the concert was to North Korea. He was unsettled by the bellicose remarks exchanged between the leaders of the United States and North Korea last week.
But after cheering the Cosmic Girls as that 13-piece group bounced up and down in unison singing their syrupy hit Happy, Nam said he hoped that North Korea could hear "the sound of freedom" from the south. "If enjoying K-pop right near the border with the aggressive North Korea is not freedom, what is?" he said. "I hope North Korea, too, understands how much happiness freedom can bring and chooses a path toward peace."
Another Cosmic Girls fan, Kim Ji Hyun, 12, a sixth-grader from Paju City, a few miles away, also felt some trepidation at first. "I live close to the border so I am used to seeing soldiers around, but there are soldiers here at a peaceful culture event. The security situation in our country must be serious," he said. "But Cosmic Girls' act totally distracted me away from feeling scared."
This is the seventh time that the local government and the Korean national television network MBC have hosted the annual DMZ Peace Concert. The event commemorates National Liberation Day, a holiday common to both Koreas, that remembers the end of the 35-year Japanese colonial occupation in 1945.
This year's concert, which had the slogan, Again, Peace!, was organized with the participation of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. The ministry is mandated to prepare for the reintegration of the two Koreas into a single nation.
"Young Koreans tend to not care about unification," said Kim Nan Young, deputy director of the ministry's cultural affairs division, adding that events like this one, intended to pique young people's interest in unification, are important. The effort has been effective, Kim Nan-young said. "Young people inevitably get to think about unification and security issues when they come to a place near the border with North Korea."
The government's efforts seemed to have worked on Kim Ha Min, 15, a high school student who came to the concert from Incheon, just west of Seoul. For Kim, North Korea had always been a scary, distant place. But on Saturday, when her to favorite K-pop boy band, BTOB, dedicated its ballad "Someday" to the hope for unification, Kim said that it made her think differently.
The song's lyrics made her realize "that there are people just like us living in North Korea," she said, "and not just its belligerent leader, Kim Jong Un."
"They are just over that border," Kim Ha Min said, pointing toward the north. In between acts, a huge screen behind the stage showed K-pop stars in scenarios envisaging a peaceful society after unification of the peninsula, in which South Koreans would be able vacation in the north and young people from both sides would be able to date and make friends.
The concert ended with all the participating K-pop entertainers onstage together for a song about how happy everyone would be on the day the two Koreas come together. The screen behind them showed enormous South Korean flags waving.
"At first, I felt scared about coming here so close to the border with North Korea," said Kim Na Young, 14, from Geojedo Island, "but I am glad I came. I can see now that we can enjoy ourselves anywhere even if North Korea threatens us." Kim added, "I hope people in North Korea got to hear the K-pop songs and our message of peace, too."