The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Song Hae, a South Korean TV host with staying power, dies at 95

In April, he was named the oldest television music talent show host by Guinness World Records

Song Hae in 2020 at his office in Seoul. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

Song Hae, a veteran South Korean entertainer and North Korean refugee who over 34 years hosted an immensely popular weekly musical TV talent show that earned him a fan base across generations and a Guinness World Records entry, died June 8 in his home in Seoul. He was 95.

Mr. Song was hospitalized twice this year with unspecified illnesses, most recently in May, and he died in his home in Seoul’s Gangnam district, said a spokeswoman for KBS, the station where he hosted “National Singing Contest.” In April, at 94 years and 350 days old, Mr. Song was named the oldest TV music talent show host by Guinness World Records.

Nicknamed the “Nation’s Emcee,” Mr. Song was a widely recognized and beloved figure in South Korea. His past as a North Korean escapee separated from his family during the chaos of war underscored the division on the Korean Peninsula. He pushed subtly for greater inclusion in South Korea’s homogeneous society by featuring ordinary people from diverse backgrounds who are not always reflected in mainstream media.

From the early years of his show, Mr. Song advocated the inclusion of contestants with disabilities — a rare display in a country that still trails behind many advanced economies in its protections for people with disabilities. In recent years, he expressed support for the LGBT community, which was noteworthy, given the persistent stigmatization of homosexuality in South Korea.

Since 1988, Mr. Song had been a staple in South Korean homes every Sunday afternoon, with a broadcast that always began with the signature five-note xylophone jingle and featured performances that were sometimes remarkable, other times cringeworthy, and always humorous and endearing.

Mr. Song, a singer and comedian, had a down-to-earth and empathetic approach to hosting, putting at ease contestants as young as 3 and as old as 115 and warmly consoling the musically challenged.

No matter what contestants threw at him in their performances, he went along like an improv performer. A woman in her eighth month of pregnancy practiced bottle feeding on Mr. Song, and a grandmother who brought a portable gas stove cooked him a meal onstage. Mr. Song was stung more than 20 times after one male contestant walked onstage covered in bees.

As the show’s host, Mr. Song took viewers on an exploration of the personalities, stories and cultures in often-overlooked and rural parts of the country, featuring their prized agricultural products and listening to their stories of heartache and struggle.

Despite the rise of K-pop around the world and the many other musical talent shows on air, Mr. Song’s “National Singing Contest” remained the highest-rated musical show in South Korea.

In a January interview on a KBS show, Mr. Song said of his career: “Everyone I have met on ‘National Singing Contest’ is my life’s cherished fortune. I don’t have much, but they say the richest people in life are those who have been blessed to meet many different people from all walks of life.”

Mr. Song became the show’s emcee in the nascent years of South Korea’s democracy, which followed years of violent protests against the autocratic regime and made way for rapid economic and societal transformation. Through it all, Mr. Song remained a constant and grounding figure who reminded the country of its humble, agricultural beginnings even as it catapulted into a global economic powerhouse.

His neighborly persona earned him widespread popularity in rural and metropolitan areas of the country, from the elderly who viewed him as a friend to younger generations who watched him on television alongside their grandparents. Local communities welcomed his show and treated it like a festival. He has inspired books, movies and a musical. A museum in the city of Daegu is dedicated to his life, and a street in Seoul’s Jongno district is named after him and features a bust of him.

Mr. Song’s life arc reflects the history of the Korean Peninsula over the past century.

Born under Japanese occupation in the Hwanghae province in what is now North Korea as Song Bok-hee on April 27, 1927, he used a Japanese name in school and was beaten by teachers if he spoke Korean. He attended music school in the North Korean city of Haeju and toured the country as part of a propaganda band during his school years.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Mr. Song became one of millions of family members divided by the war. He fled home to avoid conscription with a hasty and casual goodbye to his mother, assuming he would be back home in a few days.

Instead, he evacuated south on a U.N. ship, which took him to the southern port city of Busan. On the ship, he gave himself a new name: Hae, meaning “sea,” in a nod to the new life that awaited him.

Mr. Song later said that he dreamed of hosting an episode of “National Singing Contest” in his hometown. He visited North Korea in 2003 as the presenter of “Pyongyang Song Contest,” which gathered singers from both sides of the border. But he never saw his mother or sister again.

Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who is now a lawmaker in Seoul, said in a statement that Mr. Song “devoted his entire life to share joy and hopes with the public, while keeping yearnings for his own family and hometown to himself.”

Mr. Song joined the South Korean army in Busan and served as a signalman before starting his entertainment career. He told Agence France-Presse that he spent years as a radio host, including for traffic accident updates, until his own son, Chang-jin, was killed in a 1987 crash. “I just couldn’t say ‘be careful of car accidents’ on air after losing my son that way,” he said.

His wife, Suk Ok-ee, died in 2018. Survivors include two daughters.

“National Singing Contest” went on hiatus when the pandemic hit in 2020, and Mr. Song had considered stepping down as emcee because of his age (he also tested positive for the coronavirus in March). But he was still in talks with producers about returning to the show, which he saw had helped transform social values of many Koreans.

In a 2018 interview, Mr. Song recalled a performance that took place more than 20 years earlier, featuring a woman singing while her mother-in-law danced behind her — which drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

But a swift backlash followed when the town’s residents sent “baskets full of postcards” complaining of what they perceived as flagrant disrespect for societal expectations of a subservient daughter-in-law. The Korea Communications Commission launched a review, and Mr. Song issued an apology. “I thought I’d be fired,” he said.

A few years later, Mr. Song returned to the town. To his surprise, several residents expressed their appreciation: “Many elderly people came to me and said, ‘Look, it was a misunderstanding. I wrote a lot of postcards complaining to your show. But you were right, and you did the right thing.’ … I’m not sure if we were particularly slow or ahead of the curve, but I knew that deep down, we were pushing for progress in society.”

Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.