OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
The U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia, Pacific Trends, played for a large group of North Korean refugees at a South Korean Ministry of Unification facility for North Korean defectors, September 26.
Though the band played songs the refugees had undoubtedly never heard before, the women and children in attendance danced along, freely living in the moment.
In an effort to connect with such a unique audience, Pacific Trends learned a traditional Korean folk song, Arirang, and invited the refugees to take over the vocals, center stage, with the audience dancing in traditional fashion.
"The band was unsure about how the audience would react to our music,” said Master Sgt. Julie Bradley, Pacific Trends NCO in-charge. “We don't speak the same language, and we were certain the songs would be unfamiliar, but we danced, clapped and sang together as if we rehearsed it. Building bonds through the emotional impact of music can really support the friendships we are trying to create. We had an amazing evening and were honored to be part of such a unique event."
Since its existence, the facility has helped more than 20,000 North Korean refugees integrate into the population. During a three month long resettlement program, refugees learn vocational skills as well as fundamentals such as learning to driving a car, using an ATM and paying for bills.
“Between work schedules and just life in general, I think it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re here sometimes,” said U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Gwendalyn Smith, a photojournalist stationed at Osan Air Base and audience member. “Seeing the band play for these refugees was by far the most humbling experience I’ve had since being in Korea. Knowing very little of the struggles they faced, but seeing the joy that radiated through them, really grounded me and made me realize how small our problems are.”
Risking everything, the women and children at the center left families behind, traveling just 200 miles south to gain freedom as South Koreans.
“On behalf of all trainees here, please send my regards to the Pacific Trends members; we truly appreciate them for providing an amazing concert,” a Ministry of Unification official said.
Editor’s Note: To protect the refugees and their families, who may still be in North Korea, interviews with the refugees were not possible and the photos do not directly identify any in attendance.