Infiltrating North Korea Part 15: More song and dance, and a conundrum about chocolate


Since posting last week about the North Korean talent show I attended at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, I’ve received a number of requests asking for more video of these outstanding child performers.

And so today, we present a short compilation of some of the best performances from the show.

The above video was shot in the palace’s main theater after we toured classroom after classroom of students learning guitar, violin, piano, table tennis, tae kwon do, and a slew of other cultural pursuits; the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace in Pyongyang was a regular factory of the fine arts.

The culmination of the tour was the palace’s 2,000-seat theater where star pupils put on an amazing show for myself and a small cluster of fellow tourists. The rest of the theater was filled with a much larger group of young students dressed up in their Sunday best and giddy with excitement over the foreign guests within their midst. Of course, none of the students sat next to us, but they were just a few rows away, separated by an aisle and a watchful group of minders and teachers.It was shortly after the show ended that I experienced a rather odd moment.

I had brought with me a Toblerone chocolate bar from home that I wanted to pass on to one of the students. Naturally, we weren’t allowed to do such a thing and so I looked for an opportunity to slip one of them the candy bar when the eagle-eyed minders weren’t looking my way. And that’s when I started to worry.

If any of the adults saw the exchange, the kid I gave it to would get in trouble for accepting something from a foreigner. If any of the other kids saw the exchange, they would get in trouble for not reporting it. That’s the way the system worked. During Stalinist times in the Soviet Union, for example, anyone who witnessed or overheard something even slightly prohibited and failed to report it, were just as guilty. People were actually sent to the Gulag for not reporting on their friends, neighbors and family even though they had done nothing wrong themselves.

I imagine that North Korea isn’t all that different. Sure, no one was going to a labor camp for my Toblerone bar, but there most certainly would have been some type of ramification if anything had occurred other than the student immediately running to the nearest teacher to hand over the contraband. But let’s face it, most any kid on this planet is going to take the risk of keeping the candy bar despite the near certainty of getting caught. And then everybody gets in trouble.

So what’s the harm in a single bar of chocolate, you ask?

Plenty.

A political system whose whole existence is dependent upon keeping the populace ignorant by believing that the outside world is a far worse place, would have problems explaining how a simple bar of chocolate could be so incomprehensibly better than anything domestically produced. And believe me, it was. I had one piece of North Korean chocolate and nearly gagged.

A single, tiny triangle of Toblerone could be all the catalyst needed to make one start questioning the whole system; “If they lied about the quality of foreign products, what else have they lied to us about?”

Revolutions often begin with dissatisfied stomachs and although I had the power to possible start one within the easily won-over taste buds of a music student at the Children’s Palace, I chickened out and eventually ended up leaving the chocolate on the pillow in my hotel room where some adult housekeeper better equipped at possibly outsmarting the system might have figured out a way to enjoy the chocolate without getting caught.

But, I digress. Be sure to click on the video above to watch the wonderful musical talents of North Korean students who have never tasted the joy of a Toblerone bar.

Yesterday: Pyongyang Sock Hop
Tomorrow: A Sunday Drive through Pyongyang