NY1's week-long profiles of Korean entertainers trying a make difference in America through their music continues with the story of Young Ae Ma, who escaped the clutches of North Korea to spread her message of hope. NY1's Lewis Dodley filed the following report.
The yang geum is a traditional Korean string instrument that is played by very few and mastered by only a handful. But it seems a small challenge for Young Ae Ma, one of the nearly 300 North Korean defectors in the New York area, whose poise while performing can be deceiving.
Ma can often be seen protesting outside the mission of the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, trying to spread the word about atrocities she says are being committed by the government there. It's situation she doesn't foresee getting better with the death of Kim Jong-il.
She says she has seen famine and death, but through her musical ability can muster some good memories of North Korea.
"When I was young I was very happy because of music, but in the mid-1990s there was a drought and famine," says Ma through a translator.
Ma eventually fled North Korea to South Korea, where she formed a performance troupe made up of North Korean defectors. She came to the United States on an artist's visa, but going that route severely hurt Ma's chance of the getting asylum because her attorney claims South Korea is against it.
"The issue for the South Korean government is it does not want any of those defectors who previously resided in South Korea to be granted asylum by the U.S. because otherwise the world will think that South Korea persecutes North Korean defectors," says immigration attorney David Kim.
But Ma is banking on her exceptional musical abilities to get her green card, and will not doubt be helped by her invitation to perform before a Senate committee looking into immigration reform.
But having her talent recognized by a government is nothing new for Ma.
"I was asked to perform in front of [former North Korean leader] Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il when I was young, up until the time when I was member of a North Korean performing troupe," says Ma through a translator.
Now Ma's musical ability has taken her to the threshold of permanent residence in the United States, as she waits to see if that door will swing open.