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A letter from Simon Park in Korea

March 2012 - North Korea Report #6

Mankyungdae and Keumsan Academy

One day four of us went out, with a driver and two minders, to see sites around Pyongyang.  We went to see the Juche (self-reliance) Tower and other standards sites.  We also rode the subway for one stop, paying the tourist fare, and had a wonderful lunch at our favorite restaurant, Haebangsan.[i]  

Then we went to Mankyungdae, in the outskirts of Pyongyang, to the birthplace of Kim Il Sung. It is now a large park of reverence with only the house originally built by Kim Il Sung's grandfather.[ii]  A large group of North Koreans were being briefed with the aid of a bullhorn, but we were ushered directly into the house.  An attractive guide came from the nearby guide waiting room and led us through the tour.  She emphasized the humble beginnings of the family and how the grandfather refused to personally benefit when his grandson became the head of the country.  The message is that the grandfather instilled the love for ordinary people of North Korea in Kim Il Sung and that that love continued through the generations of the Kims.  Curiously, not much was said about his parents.

Our guide must have been a very experienced one as she easily engaged us in conversations and asked us for the English word for the gazebo-like structure built above ground by five feet or so.[iii] When I asked whether she guides in English as well, she said no, but in order to keep the honored position of guiding at this revered place she needs to show that she is continually working to improve herself.  She continued with us on foot onto the Mansubong, a low hill where a panoramic view of Pyongyang can be seen.

Then we rushed off to the nearby Keumsan Academy with another small contingent of three.  Our guide told us earlier in the day that he had planned all along to show us a regular children's performance in the Children's Palace, but unfortunately the season had ended.  He called the academy for a sampling of performances the day before.  The academy was hesitant because of lack of time for preparation, but they agreed to present a few students "in practice."

Keumsan Academy is one of the two main training grounds for performing artists in Pyongyang.  It includes primary school, high school and college level programs for the performing arts as well as a science stream through high school.  There are about 3,000 students in the academy, and 30 percent of these live on campus as they come from other parts of the country.  When we arrived in the afternoon, we were met by the principal of the school and a lady guide who took us to a hall showing the history and accomplishments of the school.  The fact that the school received the Kim Il Sung Medal for Excellence left no doubt as to the status of the academy.  Although the regular academic classes had finished, the students were engaged in extracurricular programs and some of the performing arts students were taking private lessons.  We visited two computer technology classes briefly and continued to the performing arts wing.

As we walked down the hall, a staff person walked ahead of us, opening doors to the private-lesson rooms, and the vocal sounds and instruments rushed out into the hallway.  We peeked into the rooms where students in stage costumes were practicing under the guidance of teachers in colorful Korean dresses.  Their talents were remarkable as was their ability to concentrate with the strangers looking in and their fellow students' sounds. It almost seemed that the sounds were in perfect harmony.  After the brief tour of the private lessons we turned around and were led through a narrow door into sudden sounds and sights from the main stage of a large auditorium.  We had entered through a side door and were led to a row of chairs set in the middle where the rows to the front were empty and the rows behind were filled with an audience of a couple of hundred students.

The orchestra of Western and traditional Korean instruments was accompanying six young ladies singing a welcoming song (ban-gap-seup-ni-da).  The next 45 minutes went like a military honor drill.  They sang traditional Korean folk songs and patriotic songs honoring and pledging allegiance to Kim Jong Il.  They danced a drum dance and a musical interpretation of acrobatics. They also presented the beautiful harmony of an accordion quintet. (You can see their performance here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBgMeunuviE.)  All this happened without a word of explanation or a second of gap or hesitation.  After an ode to Kim Jong Il, the entire group of performers sang the song of a great county to come.  It really was a remarkable presentation by high school students.  It would have been a remarkable one by professionals as well.

Later at the PUST campus I thanked our North Korean colleagues and shared what an inspiring and beautiful performance that was.  He said the performance wanted to highlight the culture of the country and the artistic level of the people as well as the physical beauty and grace of their youth.  As I suspected, this was not a performance put together overnight.

Two weeks later another visit to the Academy was announced, and I joined in again since I was not prepared to take photos and videos the first time and I really wanted to record them to share with friends later.  So we visited the Academy one very cold afternoon and went through the routine.  The program was almost identical to the pervious one, but added a piano on stage and one or two new performances.  The quality of performance, organization, and the patriotic spirit were all very high as before.  The director of the Academy showed modesty in response to the congratulatory remarks by everyone, saying that the students are far short of professional standards, but he hoped that some of the students would make it into the next level.

I remain impressed with the presentation, but I couldn't shake the feeling that not only the stage performances but also the private lessons and the computer classes were scripted performances for us.[iv]  Why else the same students would take lessons in the same rooms with the same teachers on different days of the week and at different times?  They did not expect the same guy to come back in such a short period, I suspect.  Then, I do not fault them for trying to show the best products of their system to outsiders though they went further than I would have.  Think about the poor students in the audience who have to attend whenever an outside group comes and applaud at the proper times.  They tried and accomplished for the most part the three objectives our guide explained earlier.  I hope the pressure and the system's demands do not rob the youngsters of their youth and innocence.

Simon

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196

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 [i] Haebansan Restaurant is in downtown Pyongyang and specializes in kori-gomtang (oxtail soup) and galbitang (rib soup).  Seven of us went for lunch, but ordered many side dishes, enough for the management to waive our private dining room charge.  By the way, in NK they do not provide complimentary side dishes as is the standard in South Korea.  Final charge for the feast was $100.  It was the highest per person charge I paid, but certainly better than any $15 per person meal I've had elsewhere.

 [ii] The house was located in a small village originally.  When Kim Il Sung became the President, others were relocated and the entire area became the park, and the only this house stands in its original site.

 [iii] Called won-du-mak, it is generally open on all four sides, providing a breeze and views.  During summer days farmers would live on this structure for comfort and to watch out for thieves running away with fruits and vegetables from their fields.  Does anyone know the proper English word for this structure?  If so, please help.

 [iv] I am attaching only a few of the photos.  Those of you who wish to see more can view them here. https://picasaweb.google.com/109203186601842878880/Keumsung?authkey=Gv1sRgCK_vgf7HwdSKaw

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