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?


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

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