Infiltrating North Korea Part 6: Art and Culture, Pyongyang Style

Infiltrating North Korea is a two-week series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

Like all communist regimes, the North Korean government considers art, culture, sports and education as integral parts of the socialist upbringing. From pre-1989 East Germany to present day North Korea, socialist leaderships have consistently provided free, high-quality education for the arts, as well as inexpensive access to performances and events. I remember spending the equivalent of a nickel to see a superb ballet in St. Petersburg in 1991. Today, North Korea has kept up this tradition despite limited resources and a waning economy.

Sports Facilities

The country’s commitment to sports, for example, can clearly be seen on Chongchun Street where, in the span of less than a mile, one can enjoy almost a dozen separate stadiums for soccer, handball, table tennis, tae kwon-do, weight-lifting, volleyball, basketball and swimming. In addition, the government has also built for its people the enormous Kim Il Sung stadium (100,000 seats), a permanent circus arena of over 70,000 square meters, a futuristic cone-shaped ice rink hall, and the May Day Stadium–one of the largest in the world with seating for 150,000 people.


Grand People’s Study House

Perhaps the most pleasant building in Pyongyang is the Grand People’s Study House, a 30-million volume library and study hall built in 1982 and designed in classic Korean style. We spent more than an hour touring the facilities and learning about the “high-tech” system which delivers books to the librarian along an automated track. The stacks aren’t accessible and all books must be requested in such a manner–including the few Western ones available such as Huckleberry Finn and select works by Hemingway and Steinbeck.

Despite not being able to personally access the books–something actually quite common in Western Europe as well–the Study House was still rather impressive. Its 600 rooms serve as reading areas and lecture halls and naturally, every single one is decorated with portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The lectures are free and open to anyone. Frankly, it’s a great concept in my opinion, like a free university where just anyone can drop in.

We poked our heads into a handful of lecture halls but there was only one where I could understand the language spoken: the music appreciation room. In this room students could request CDs and headphones from the librarian and then sit back and listen at one of 30 desks topped with a boombox. What was truly entertaining, however, was the example of western music the instructor proudly played for us: Chim Chim Cheree from Mary Poppins–certainly a classic of western music!


Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

The Children’s Palace is a younger person’s version of the Study House. But instead of lectures and book reading, the palace serves as a type of after-school activity center where students can take classes in tae kwon-do, ping-pong, calligraphy, needlepoint, painting, computers, and a variety of musical instruments. The building is massive. It has almost 700 rooms, 103,000 square meters of space, and, according to my copy of Pyongyang Review, was built in a semicircular shape “to emphasize the warm embrace of the motherly Party which takes loving care of all students and children.”

I had low expectations when told we would tour the facilities, but was pleasantly surprised to discover it was one of the highlights of the trip. Our guide led us from room to room where students either performed for us (see the video at the top of this post) or allowed us to look over their shoulders as they strung beads, embroidered, or performed some other type of hobby.

Although I was a bit disappointed to learn that only boys could take computer classes, I was nonetheless blown away by the extraordinary talent we witnessed throughout our tour.

I still had to keep in mind, however, that the packed classrooms and perfectly choreographed performances had been carefully arranged for our visit and was just more of the propaganda continually fed to us during our trip. I therefore wondered just how busy this place was on a regular basis-although something tells me it’s probably not too different than what we witnessed.

The grand finale of our tour was a show in the palace’s 2,000-seat theater where the most talented students sang, danced, and played music for us. I’m usually not impressed by such displays–in fact, I’m always disappointed by how woefully terrible young students normally sound at talent shows. But this one was different. Every single student seemed to be a child prodigy who performed way above his or her age, breezing through each performance without a single mistake. The only slightly disturbing thing about the performance was the tightly regulated structure of play. Every guitar player, for example, sat in the same erect position with the same stoic face and played in the same robotic fashion as though rigidly choreographed by the army. There was no spontaneity, individuality, or squeezing more play out of the notes. On the other hand, some of the dancers and soloists certainly exhibited their share of personality and spunk, especially the spry girl featured in the video above.

Overall, the afternoon spent in the Children’s Palace was a real, unexpected treat. I’m sure it was all just another part of the smoke and mirrors intended to portray North Korea in a positive light–although I could be wrong–but it was entertaining nonetheless and I highly recommend visiting if you get the chance.

Yesterday: The Sexy Traffic Girls of Pyongyang
Tomorrow: The Mass Games