Song Hae, beloved South Korean TV host, dies at 95

SEOUL — Song Hae, who fled North Korea as a youngster during the Korean War, has become a beloved television personality in South Korea and has been recognized by Guinness World Records as “the longest-serving music television host in the world,” died at his home on Wednesday in Seoul. He was 95 years old.

His death was confirmed by Lee Gi-nam, the producer of a 2020 documentary about Mr. Song’s life, which charted a tumultuous journey reflecting South Korea’s modern history through war, division , abject poverty and meteoric rise. No cause of death was given.

A jovial Everyman character known for his cheeky smile and folksy jokes, Mr. Song became a household name in South Korea when he took over in 1988 as host of the weekly “National Singing Competition,” a city-by-city competition that mixes local musical talent, wacky costumes, poignant life stories and comedic episodes.

His talent show, which he announced with his booming voice broadcast to South Korean homes every Sunday, has spanned more than three decades. Mr. Song has traveled to every corner of South Korea and the Korean Diaspora in places like Japan and China, and even to Paraguay, Los Angeles and Long Island, NY. He has continued as a host until the show went on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, and officially remained as its helm at the time of his death.

While the show was suspended, her health seemed to be deteriorating without her weekly release, according to Jero Yun, director of the documentary “Song Hae 1927.”

“It was, in some ways, the driving force of his life, meeting people from all walks of life through the program and exchanging life stories,” Yun said. “People still recognized him, crowded around him and wanted to talk to him.” Referring to the K-pop megagroup, Mr. Yun added, “It might as well have been BTS.”

Song was posthumously awarded a presidential medal for his contributions to South Korean culture, the president’s office said on Wednesday. It was listed on Guinness World Records in April.

Mr. Song was born Song Bok-hee on April 27, 1927 under Japanese occupation in what is now Hwanghae Province in North Korea. His father was an innkeeper. A few months after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he left his home at age 23 to avoid being drafted to fight for the North and headed south. He eventually boarded a UN tank landing ship, not knowing where he was heading. Looking at the water, he would later say, he renamed himself Hae, for the character meaning sea.

He left behind his mother and a younger sister in North Korea, and well into his 90s, any mention of them would bring him to tears.

After the ship took him to the South Korean city of Busan on the southern coast of the peninsula, he served as a signalman in the Southern Army. He had stated in interviews that he was one of the soldiers who typed in Morse code in July 1953 conveying the message that there was a ceasefire ending the war.

After his discharge from the army, he peddled tofu in impoverished post-war South Korea before joining a traveling musical theater troupe, in which he sang and performed in variety shows. He eventually became a radio host, anchoring a traffic call-in show that catered to taxi and bus drivers. He aired an occasional segment in which the pilots tuned in to sing.

In 1952, Mr. Song married Suk Ok-ee, the sister of a fellow soldier with whom he had served in the war, and they had three children. After 63 years of marriage, Mr. Song and his wife celebrated the wedding ceremony they never had, having initially married in the poverty and turmoil of their youth. She passed away in 2018.

He is survived by two daughters, two granddaughters and a grandson. In 1986, his 21-year-old son was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Mr. Song could not bear to continue working on his radio show. Around the same time, he was asked to host the singing competition for national broadcaster KBS.

With Mr. Song at its center, the show quickly became a national pastime, especially among older residents and those in rural communities – groups the program spotlighted and who were rarely seen on television.

Grandmothers danced and rapped; grandfathers were singing sexy K-pop numbers. Countless young children charmed the entertainer on stage, some of whom became stars. Once, a beekeeper covered in bees played the harmonica while a panicked Mr. Song shouted, “There’s one in my pants!”

Mr. Song never achieved his lifelong dream of revisiting his hometown in North Korea, but through his show, he came temptingly close.

In 2003, during a period of relaxation between the Koreas, the series shot an episode in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The songs were carefully vetted by northern censors to include only propaganda songs, and the atmosphere was so tense that Mr. Song never considered the possibility of visiting his hometown, Chaeryong, even though it was n It was only 80 km south of the capital, he said. in the interviews.

At one point during the trip, he recalls, he got drunk with his North Korean caretaker, who told him he wouldn’t recognize his hometown anyway because everything had changed in the five decades since. followed and that most people had moved away.

In a 2015 biography of Mr. Song, Oh Min-seok, a poet and professor of English literature, wrote: “As a refugee who fled south during the Korean War, there is a loneliness that is stuck in his heart like a knot. He has no problem connecting with anyone, from a 3-year-old to a 115-year-old, from a country woman to a college professor, from a business owner to a CEO. . It’s because inside he still wants people.

In South Korea, the show’s contestants and adoring fans have become her family. The women – including the show’s oldest contestant, 115 – started calling him “oppa”, or older brother, Mr Song later recalled.

“Who else in the world can claim to have so many sisters younger than me?” he said. “I am happy thanks to the people who stimulate me, applaud me, comfort me.”

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