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

SEOUL — Song Hae, who fled North Korea as a young man during the Korean War, became a beloved television personality in South Korea and was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s “oldest presenter of TV musical talent”, died in his home Wednesday in Seoul. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by Lee Gi-nam, the producer of a 2020 documentary about the life of Mr. Song, who charted a tumultuous course that reflected South Korea’s modern history through war, division, abject poverty and meteoric rise. A cause of death was not given.

A jovial everyman figure known for his cheeky grin and folkloric jokes, Mr. Song became a household name in South Korea when he took charge in 1988 as host of the weekly “National Singing Contest,” a city-to-city competition that showcases a mix of down-home musical talent, farcical costumes, gripping life stories and comedic episodes. .

His talent show, which he announced with his booming voice that echoed in South Korean households every Sunday, lasted more than three decades. Mr. Song traveled to all corners of South Korea and to the Korean diaspora in places like Japan and China, and even to Paraguay, Los Angeles and Long Island, New York. officially remained at the helm at the time of his death.

While the show was on hold, his health seemed to deteriorate without his weekly outlet, according to Jero Yun, director of the documentary “Song Hae 1927.”

“It was in a way the driving force of his life, meeting people from all walks of life through the program and sharing life stories,” said Mr. Yun. “People would always recognize him, crowd around him and want to talk to him.” Referring to the K-pop mega-group, Mr Yun added, “He might as well have been BTS.”

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

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

He left his mother and a younger sister in North Korea, and well into his 90s he would burst into tears at every mention of it.

After the ship took him to the South Korean city of Busan, on the south coast of the peninsula, he served as a signalman in the Army of the South. He had said in interviews that he was one of the soldiers who, in July 1953, tapped the Morse code and passed the message that there was a ceasefire that ended the war.

After his discharge from the military, he peddled tofu in impoverished post-war South Korea before joining a traveling music theater company, singing and performing in variety shows. He eventually became a radio host and anchored a traffic call program targeting taxi and bus drivers. It occasionally aired a segment where the drivers called in for a sing-off.

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 held the wedding ceremony they never had, having originally married in the poverty and turmoil of their childhood. She died in 2018.

He leaves behind two daughters, two granddaughters and a grandson. In 1986, his 21-year-old son was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Mr. Song couldn’t bear to continue working on his radio traffic show. Around the same time, he was tapped to host the singing competition for the national broadcaster KBS.

with mr. Song as its centerpiece, the show quickly became a national pastime, especially among older residents and those in rural communities — groups the program spotlighted and rarely seen on television.

Grandmothers break danced and rapped; grandfathers sang sexy K-pop songs. Numerous young children enchanted the presenter on stage, some of whom became stars. Once a beekeeper covered in bees played harmonica while a panicked Mr. Song exclaimed, “There’s one in my pants!”

mr. Song never fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting his hometown in North Korea, but his show brought him tantalizingly close.

In 2003, during a period of relaxation between the Koreas, the show filmed an episode in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The songs were carefully screened by the censors of the north to contain only propaganda, and the atmosphere was so tense that Mr. Song never brought up the possibility of visiting his hometown of Chaeryong, even though it was only 80 miles south of the capital, he said. at job interviews.

At some point during the trip, he recalls, he got drunk with his North Korean nanny, who told him he wouldn’t recognize his hometown after all because everything had changed in the intervening five decades and most people had left.

In a biography of Mr. Song from 2015, Oh Min-seok, a poet and English literature professor, wrote: “As a refugee who fled to the south during the Korean War, there is a loneliness that is tied like a knot in his heart. 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 shopkeeper to a CEO. That’s because inside he always longs for people.”

In South Korea, the show’s contestants and adoring fans became his family. Women — including the show’s oldest contestant, a 115-year-old — called him “oppa” or older brother, Mr. Song himself later.

“Who else in the world can claim to have as many younger sisters as I do?” he said. “I’m happy because of the people who give me a boost, applaud me, comfort me.”

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