The Arts and Sciences of Modern North Korea

Days 8 – 9 (21 – 22 April 2016)

I had spent the night at a hotel in Kumgangsan. I have to say that the hotel room was interesting. Although the hotel was mid 20th century modern, the room had an ondol floor. It was nice to have a warm floor to walk on when it was cold outside.

I took a last look outside my balcony before I left the room. The sky had not cleared up  from yesterday and in the cold morning the mountain was shrouded in mist. Some girls were however already hard at work. They were rehearsing some moves with flags. I am guessing they were part of a welcome party for some dignitary visiting the hotel.

Kumgangsan in the morning

Peeping from my room

We departed Kumgangsan and made our way back to Masikryong Ski Resort for lunch.  The resort was where I had stayed at the night before Kumgangsan. As it was still too early to eat, I decided to get a massage. After all that climbing to Kuryong Rock the day before my legs were starting to ache!

The massage room was in the fitness centre which was in the basement. The place was much too quiet for my liking and indeed it felt a little too much like the setting for a horror movie. I was brought into a little room to change and wait for my masseuse.

The masseuse was a young quiet lady who did not seem to speak any English. I hardly said anything to her but I reckoned she would not have been allowed to communicate with me anyway. What if I should try to poison her mind?

The masseuse was skilful and I wanted to reward her for her skills and effort. She was initially reluctant to accept my tip but took it after I had insisted. But how was she going to change my money to North Korean won? I later got a little worried about whether my tip would cause her any problem, although I did also consider that if she had accepted it she must have thought about what she would do with it. I hope she did not surrender the money to her superiors though since she did the work.

Masikryong was the nicest hotel I had stayed at in North Korea. However it was simply too quiet. When I had stayed there I had encountered a couple of elderly Europeans in the relatively large resort. Today however, I was totally alone in the restaurant not counting the staff working there. Then again, there was no snow in the mountains to ski on. As for the food there, it was really quite good.

Masikryong Ski Resort

If there are superstars in North Korea, and I am not including the Kims since they are practically gods here, I suspect that the Moranbong Band will be it. This is a girl group set up in 2012 consisting of eight or nine singers specially selected by Kim Jong Il. Their style is very church choir-like to me but less formal though still nothing like the pop girl groups that Seoul churns out. Singing wise I thought that they were very good.

The band was set up not merely because the country needed good quality musical entertainment. Some people believe that the band was North Korea’s answer to the Korean Wave that was sweeping Asia and sometimes the rest of the world. In fact there was at least one person who believed that the release of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” might have been the real trigger to the band’s creation. In any case, while the south’s girl bands mostly scream sex, the north’s Moranbong Band is all about good clean fun.

I had been hearing the band’s singing since the second day I was in the country. The driver of the tour bus would play their concert video during all our bus journeys. And here at the restaurant of Masikryong, another of their concert video was played on loop. I had heard so much of their singing that even after I had left North Korea I could still hear it in my head for a long time.

I was driven back to Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang. It was amazing how they would give me the same room throughout the trip even though I did not stay in the city every night.

The room in this hotel was clean and comfortable, but having stayed at Hyangsan and then Masikryong, I think that they really ought to update the hotels in Pyongyang. I also really did not like the full length mirror at the end of the corridor. And to make things worse it was always kind of dark and very eerie all the way from the lift to my room. My reflection in the mirror always gave me a shock whenever I turned the corner into the corridor to get to my room.

Room of Masikryong Ski Resort

Room of Koryo Hotel

The one feature of the hotel that I was starting to get used to though was the lift operator on the ground floor. He was responsible for pressing the lift button whenever someone wanted to use the lift. He seemed to do nothing else and indeed his service was only provided for that one lift and on that floor. I wonder how much he was paid to do the job and whether this was part of a stalinist method to ensure that everyone was employed.

The man was not always at the lift though, and when he was away or after his working hours I had to press the button myself. But I had always pressed my own lift buttons before. I wonder how necessary he really was.

I was given a nice surprise that afternoon. The guides took me to the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. One thing I became aware of from day 1 here, the guides followed their own itinerary and we were not given a copy of it. I am not sure whether they would have given us one if we had asked, and no one seemed to have asked. But our tour definitely did not go according to what the tour agency had indicated to us. In fact one of the guides was a little surprised when shown the itinerary that we had. Nevertheless, we still got a good tour and sometimes a nice surprise would come along.

Children in North Korea do not merely study their books. They are also expected to take part in extracurricular activities (ECAs). Unlike in most other countries however, participating in these activities seems to be state policy and takes place outside of the schools. The government has built a series of children’s palaces in the country where kids can go to for their ECAs after regular school. Like for education, expenses for the ECAs are apparently fully subsidised by the government. The kids need only turn up.

From the looks of the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, kids in North Korea seem to lead such fulfilling lives. They get to learn for free just about anything that kids may want to learn, be it sport, music or art. Talented kids can come here to cultivate their talents. These children’s palaces are probably also where the country finds people that possess specific talents. I understand that in North Korea employment is given to people with certain abilities or talents. For example I remember B, the male guide in part one of my tour, mentioning that he had a brother who played Go for a living.

At the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

I was taken around some of the classes, by a 13 year old girl who was in the singing class at the children’s palace, as if I were some VIP. It was a little odd when each performance art class I was brought to would spontaneously break into some short excerpt the moment I stepped into the room. They were obviously very well prepared for visitors. Although I wished that I could interact with the kids, I felt that I was imposing on them the whole time and so could not bring myself to spend too much time in each class.

The kids in the classes I visited were startlingly well behaved and disciplined. The standard of their performances were also top notch, especially when one considered their youth. The teachers seemed to be quite strict. As I was leaving the accordion class after its performance, which by the way I could not criticise, I thought the teacher was critiquing the performance of the lead accordionist.

To be honest, while I did envy the kids slightly that so much resources had been put into cultivating their interests, I thought that they looked a little too well behaved. I just think that it was more natural for kids to be at least slightly fidgety. It just seemed a little strange to me, at least in this modern age, that kids would behave like they were soldiers on a parade square.

The real treat however happened at the end of my visit. There was a concert in the huge hall at the children’s palace put up by the kids and they really showed off their abilities in singing, dancing and the playing of various instruments. The concert looked professionally choreographed and I wonder how much time the kids had spent on rehearsals.

Concert at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

Concert at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

Concert at Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

Having enjoyed the children’s concert so much, I decided that I wanted to watch another performance. I had a large part of the afternoon free on my last full day and I was given a few options to spend my time. The Pyongyang Circus sounded like a really good idea and I paid 20 euros to watch one of its shows.

Going to the circus

The performance was again brilliant. It was not flashy or particularly artistic like the Cirque du Soleil, but as with so many things about the North Korean people (as always I reserve my compliments for the ordinary people of the country only), the Pyongyang Circus was more about the technique and doing everything to the best of the performers’ abilities. It was therefore a very traditional circus performance but also very enjoyable.

One thing about the Pyongyang Circus that some may not approve of though. They still use animals in their acts. There was one number that involved some bears and I could not help but feel a little uneasy about it.

Besides the performing arts, North Korea also seems to be keen on visual art. I got to see a small selection of the art works produced at the Mansudae Art Studio. This happens to be the most prestigious fine arts studio and gallery in the country. Although I am no artist I did think that the works looked skilfully executed even if not every one of them was to my taste. And of course the folks at the studio were hoping that I would buy something, but I had to disappoint them.

Another way for visual artists to use their talent in North Korea is in monument building. Despite the countless number of monuments already all over the country now, I am sure that the country will never stop building them.

One monument of note that I was specially brought to see on my last full day in the country was the Monument to Party Founding. This is a monument erected to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. It was designed by the Mansudae Art Studio.

As with other monuments in the country, this one is replete with symbolism. The hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush symbolise the workers, farmers and intellectuals. The monument is 50 metres high, for obvious reasons. The belt surrounding the monument has an outer diameter of 50 metres, again for obvious reasons, and an inner diameter of 42 meters because Kim Jong Il was born in 1942 (according to official North Korean sources).

The monument needs to be viewed together with the two red buildings behind it. The buildings are supposed to look like two red flags fluttering on either side of the monument.

Monument to Party Founding

The inner side of the belt features three very nicely done bronze reliefs. They depict the revolutionary roots of the party, the people united under the party, and the nation’s struggle for global independence.

The revolutionary roots of the party

The people united under the party

The nation’s struggle for global independence

I have to make special mention of my local guide at the monument. She was another blue jeoguri-clad ajuma except that this one was friendly. In fact she was even smiley! So it was not a crime for blue jeoguri-clad ajumas in North Korea to look happy after all!

Smiley ajuma appeared to be another big fan of Kim Jong Il. When she mentioned him during her little talk on the monument, she said that the sadness of his passing was felt throughout the world. I tried to recall what I was doing on the day he died but it was too long ago. I do remember watching the outpouring of grief by North Koreans on TV. And I was most impressed with the outstanding emotional performance of the North Korean newscaster. But I cannot remember the grief ever reaching me. Besides it was December when he died and every December we Singaporeans would all be in a rather merry holiday mood.

I had to make a conscious effort to control my facial expression in front of smiley ajuma at this point. And since she was such a sweet person I really did not want to distress her.

Another monument in Pyongyang that I was proudly shown was the Sci-Tech Complex. I call it a monument because the authorities seem to use it to show off but it is really a centre where locals can go to learn about science and technology. Besides exhibits to teach various scientific topics, the centre also has a little physical library and a virtual library from which scientific papers and articles can be accessed.

Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex

The complex is a huge building shaped like an atom. The one item in the building that just cannot be missed is a replica of the rocket that successfully launched a satellite into space in 2012. It was North Korea’s first successful launch. The replica is placed right in the middle of the building and anyway by virtue of its sheer size one just cannot help but see it.

Replica of rocket that launched a satellite, and annoyed a lot of countries

I was however more interested in the kids’ section which was a whole lot more interactive. And a whole lot more fun too! But I think the local guide was not too pleased when I got onto one of those bicycles that could light up a bulb when cycled.

A foucault pendulum

Chart depicting the manufacture of vinalon, the national fibre of North Korea used for the majority of textiles in the country (note that it is called “Juche Fiber”)

Inside a leaf

English Chemistry section of library

Replica of mountain ginseng

After the visit, I was asked to write my thoughts about the complex in a guestbook. I was not the only visitor to have been asked to do that and so I could get some ideas on what to write. So I wrote about how the complex would be instrumental in shaping Korea’s scientific future or something politically correct like that. When I was done, E my male guide looked through (or maybe checked) what I had written and then added a Korean translation (I assume so) next to it.

But what do I really think about the complex? What I think about it has a lot to do with a little exchange I had with the local guide. She asked me if we had something like it in Singapore. I just mentioned that we had a science centre but it was mainly for kids. How do we learn about science? We learn it in school and we can find books on the sciences from libraries. I forgot to mention that we have free access to the wonderful world wide web too. The local guide seemed rather pleased though that Pyongyang had something that Singapore did not because the Sci-Tech Complex was “for everybody”.

However, I do not think that the complex can be said to be “for everybody” unless people living outside of Pyongyang are allowed into the city freely to use the complex. Besides if the country really wants “everybody” to have access to science education, then it needs to build more of such complexes or educational facilities across the country. Maybe they should just free up the internet! I just could not help but feel that the complex was more of a vanity project. But the building looked pretty cool though.

Nevertheless, I have to give credit where it is due. The North Korean people have been able to build a pretty neat and clean city in Pyongyang (never mind aesthetic which is subjective) and this could not have been accomplished without science. In fact, it was science that enabled the country to annoy everyone in the world in recent years with its missile launches and nuclear programme. As I strolled along the Taedong that last afternoon in Pyongyang I could not help but think about what North Korea could have achieved if they had applied their talents and determined spirit in the right places.


Juche Tower

Taedong Bridge

Pleasure boat on Taedong River