Song Hae, Who Survived War and Poverty to Become a Beloved TV Host, Dies at 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 TV music talent show host,” died at his home in Seoul on Wednesday. He was 95.

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

A jovial Everyman figure known for his cheeky grin and folksy wisecracks, Mr. Song became a household name in South Korea when he took over in 1988 as the host of the weekly “National Singing Contest,” a town-by-town competition that mixes down-home musical talent, farcical costumes, poignant life stories and comedic episodes.

Mr. Song was recognized by Guinness World Records in April as the “oldest TV music talent show host.”Credit…Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

His talent show, which he announced with his booming voice piped into households in South Korea every Sunday, ran for more than three decades. Mr. Song traveled to every corner of South Korea and to the Korean diaspora in places like Japan and China, and even to Paraguay, Los Angeles and Long Island, N.Y. He continued as host until the show went on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, and officially remained at its 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 some ways, the driving force of his life, meeting people from all walks of life through the program and exchanging life stories,” Mr. Yun said. “People would always recognize him, crowd around him and want to talk to him.” Referring to the K-pop megagroup, Mr. Yun added, “He might as well have been BTS.”

Mr. Song was posthumously awarded a presidential medal for his contributions to South Korea’s culture, the president’s office announced on Wednesday. He was entered into 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 Korean War broke out in 1950, he left his home at 23 to avoid being drafted to fight for the North, and made his way south. He eventually boarded a U.N. tank landing ship, not knowing where it was headed. Staring out 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 reduce him to tears.

After the ship took him to the South Korean city of Busan, on the peninsula’s southern coast, he served as a signalman in the South’s army. He had said in interviews that he was one of the soldiers who tapped out the Morse code in July 1953 transmitting the message that there was a cease-fire halting the war.

After his discharge from the army, he peddled tofu in impoverished postwar 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 cab and bus drivers. It aired an occasional segment in which the drivers would dial in for a sing-off.

In 1952, Mr. Song married Suk Ok-ee, the sister of a fellow soldier he had served with 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 youth. She died 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 traffic show. Around the same time, he was tapped to host the singing contest for the national broadcaster, KBS.

With Mr. Song at its center, the show quickly became a national pastime, particularly among older residents and those in rural communities — groups that the program spotlighted and that were seldom seen on television.

Grandmothers break-danced and rapped; grandfathers crooned sexy K-pop numbers. Countless young children charmed the host onstage, some of whom went on to become stars. Once, a beekeeper covered in bees played the harmonica while a panicked Mr. Song cried out, “There’s one in my pants!”

Mr. Song never fulfilled his lifelong dream of revisiting his hometown in North Korea, but because of his show, he came tantalizingly close.

A memorial to Mr. Song at a hospital in Seoul on Wednesday.Credit…Korea Pool/Yonhap via AP

In 2003, during a period of détente between the Koreas, the show filmed an episode in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The songs were carefully screened by the North’s censors to include only propagandist ones, and the atmosphere was so tense that Mr. Song never broached the possibility of visiting his hometown, Chaeryong, even though it was just 50 miles south of the capital, he said in interviews.

At one point during the trip, he recalled, he got drunk with his North Korean minder, who told him that he wouldn’t recognize his hometown anyway because everything had changed in the intervening five decades and most of the 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 wedged 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 shopkeeper to a C.E.O. That’s because inside, he’s always pining 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 — took to calling him “oppa,” or older brother, Mr. Song later recalled.

“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 boost me, applaud me, comfort me.”

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