Little girl in red skirt playing piano
Culture & tradition,  DPRK,  Just One Person

Spending time with the children of Chongjin

Visit most countries and you will be shown their grand monuments, historic sites, beautiful landscapes. Visit North Korea and you will see those sights too. But they are also keen that you meet some of their people and see how they live.

Carefully selected people, that is.

In the city of Chongjin, where major sights are relatively few, we had the chance to visit two very different schools: a foreign languages school for senior pupils and a kindergarten for little ones gifted in the performance arts.

So let me introduce you to some of the children of Chongjin. We will meet the young pianist above in due course, but I want to start with some older children.

The Chongjin Institute of Foreign Languages

This school caters to older teenage students who show a flair for languages, almost certainly selected from among the higher-ranking families. Higher-ranking, in egalitarian North Korea? Surely not? Well, yes, actually. Songbun is a system of ascribed status based on the political, social and economic background of your direct ancestors and the actions of family members. Using this, the authorities determine whether you are given opportunities in areas such as education, employment and housing. The pupils here almost certainly come from higher Songbun families.

We were met at the door by one of the teachers who proudly showed off the painting in the hallway depicting a visit to the school by Kim Jong Il in 1990; photos of pupils who had won honours and medals; and a series of paintings and posters exhorting the students to study hard as their duty to their country, etc. etc.

An English class

The highlight of our visit was ‘dropping in’ (I use the inverted commas because it was clearly all staged) on an English class in progress. We heard the pupils discussing the issue of traffic pollution; all of them concluded that the much lighter traffic in a photo of Pyongyang, compared to other cities, was a sign that their country was the healthiest in which to live.

We were then encouraged to go and talk to the students. I approached two girls who immediately offered me a seat. They then proceeded to ask a succession of probably carefully rehearsed questions; or at least one did, the other being a little shy it seemed. How old was I? What was my favourite colour and favourite sport? Where had we visited in the country? What is the highest mountain in England? What countries had I visited and what languages did I speak? I gave as good as I got, quizzing them about their studies; ambitions for the future (one wanted to be a doctor and one a teacher); their favourite sports (ping-pong and football) and more.

Two teenage girls in white shirts
The girls I chatted with

Their teacher joined us and asked about the English education system. She seemed dubious when I assured her it was free until age 18, not 16 as she had thought. They were also interested in the differences between U.K. and US English; and the teacher showed me their text-book, which looked both old and old-fashioned. When the session finished, I took their photo and went to meet up with Chris who had been chatting with a young male student.

Later Chris told me about a slightly awkward moment with ‘his’ student. In the to and fro of questioning he had asked the lad what his father did for a living. ‘It’s a secret’ was the response. Thinking he might have misunderstood, Chris repeated the question, only to get the same reply. Clearly this was a no-go topic of conversation. Discussing it afterwards we weren’t sure whether this was a generally taboo subject or whether this boy’s father was in a particularly secretive job, possibly the military.

Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten

The following morning we met some of Chongjin’s five and six year olds at a local kindergarten, the Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten. This was, we were told, the best in the city; again, only children from high Songbun families would be admitted, I am sure. Visiting it was an amazing experience.

Building with relief of children playing
Above the entrance to the kindergarten

We were welcomed by a teacher who would serve as our local guide, and asked to remove our shoes and put on a pair of what seemed to be a North Korean take on Crocs. I am not sure why this is thought necessary but was happy to comply; although I didn’t feel exactly safe climbing the stairs in such ill-fitting shoes!

Our guide led us up those stairs which were decorated with plastic flowers, Disney-like animal paintings and incongruously alongside these, other paintings depicting ballistic missiles.

A history lesson

Firstly we went into one of the classrooms where a group of small children, all immaculately dressed and equally immaculately behaved, were learning about the traditional Korean turtle ships. These are generally recognised as the first armoured ships in the world; they are therefore an historical achievement of which the North Koreans remain proud, even though their focus is mainly on more recent history. They were developed in the 15th century and used for several centuries in battles against the Japanese in particular. The name comes from the protective shell-like covering. The children repeated the teacher’s statements about the ships in chorus, learning by rote. It seemed a far cry indeed from the organised chaos of a UK infants class!

Putting on a show

I had been a little puzzled by the fact that some of the children in the class appeared to be wearing make-up, but the reason for this soon became clear. The main event of our visit was to be a performance by some of the children. Most of those attending the kindergarten do so because they have been identified as having a particular talent and they are taught intensively to maximise these talents. The results are both impressive and slightly unnerving.

The opening number was Pangapsumnida, a very popular (and annoyingly infectious) North Korean ditty. We then watched a succession of perfectly drilled dancers, singers, and musicians in a series of ‘turns’.

I hope my video below gives some idea at least of the skill levels of all the performers. It’s long, but I hope you’ll take the time to watch at least some of it. I couldn’t help recalling the various primary school nativity plays I have seen at home in England which didn’t have even a fraction of the slickness we saw here.

Excerpts from the performance

I didn’t know whether to be impressed or slightly horrified, that children so young were trained so intensely. Did they enjoy it, I wondered? Some, such as the drummers, certainly appeared to do so, and I hoped all did, although some of the smiles seemed forced at times. But so cute!

Future prospects

For many of these young children, and those we had met yesterday at the Foreign Languages School, these elite education opportunities could pave the way for a route out of the relative poverty of Chongjin to a career in Pyongyang. The language students might become tour guides, like the young lad who was shadowing our main guide during our tour. They might get a job in government, translating foreign newspapers or broadcasts. Or they may become teachers; if they are lucky, in a school like their own which is so much better equipped than the average.

As to our little performers, I was to think of them again on the last evening of our tour. We had dinner on one of the restaurant boats in Pyongyang and were entertained with live music, both traditional and North Korean ‘pop’. And there was that song again, Pangapsumnida (warning, you’ll get an earworm!), being sung with gusto by a small group of young ladies, looking just like a grown-up version of our kindergarten troupe. Would they too, one day, sing for another group of tourists in a fancy restaurant in the capital?

Women in bright dresses with microphones
Singers on the Taedonggang Restaurant Boat

And as for my young pianist, she may be Just One Person from Around the World, but it seemed to me that she has an exceptional talent. If she lived anywhere else in the world she could be destined for international fame. As it is, her ambitions will, I suspect, stretch no further than the State Symphony Orchestra of the DPRK.

I visited North Korea in 2019

39 Comments

  • margaret21

    Hi Sarah

    I was surprised when you didn’t reply to my reply to this post. But I now see it didn’t post for some reason! Aaagh. We were lucky enough to spend a whole day in the Elementary School (5-13) where my daughter taught (American) English. It was in a working class, for lack of a better term, part of town, which didn’t stop it having a vibrant fresh food daily market. The school was fantastically well equipped with science labs, a decent library, an imaginative large garden, playing fields and so on. Excellent school dinners, and the lunch break was a pleasant social occasion, not simply a pit-stop! Mindful of English norms, I took no photos with children in, so my images are rather dead.. And of course it wouldn’t have mattered at all. Like you, we had to remove our shoes on entry, in favour of flip-flops. The children were polite and engaging, and Emily had no problems with discipline, ever. Her co-teacher was a young woman little older than her, but they remained on formal terms with each other – she was always ‘Miss L..’ From what we could see, and from what Emily told us, education was formal, but not rigid. But rather like here, children were divided by the fact that some parents could pay for extra-curricular tuition (very important, if possible – we saw out of hours classes in town functioning till 10 o’clock at night) and those who could not. We were treated like honoured guests, I think as a sort of ‘thank you’ to Emily, who fitted in well to the school culture and had a wonderful year there (she was allocated a small council flat in the same community).

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh that’s so maddening when comments don’t post as they should! I wonder how many times it happens without us even realising?

      You must have a had a fantastic visit to that school 🙂 I can just imagine how they regarded you as special guests! It all sounds very interesting. A shame you didn’t take any photos however. I’m sure that, unlike in England, they would have found it perfectly OK. Certainly in our case the N Korean authorities positively encourage the taking and sharing of photos like these because they are proud of their education system (or at least, of the schools they take tourists to see!) But generally culturally in most of Asia I think it’s more acceptable – we had no problems taking photos of kids in Japan, while the ones in India positively clamoured to be included in our shots!

  • amoralegria

    Fascinating look into North Korea! While reading and watching, I thought of the people there who are not privileged and eke out a living in any way they can. Many are malnourished and resort to eating grass when there is nothing else…
    Still, the children were very cute and I thought it was funny how the performers bobbed their heads while playing! That was an interesting instrument they were playing too!
    I don’t know if I could visit North Korea or not. I have a streak of rebellion in me and could see myself not bowing low enough to the statues. Since I have never visited South Korea either, if I go to Korea at all, I will probably choose South Korea. I wish I had enough time in my remaining life to visit every nation on Earth! I love learning about different cultures and have never disliked anywhere I have visited so far!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for taking the time to read this, watch the video and comment so thoughtfully 🙂 I don’t think these days that anyone there is as malnourished as you say. The days of eating grass to survive were in the famine of the 1990s when industrial cities like Chongjin in particular really suffered (you might be interested in my other post about Chongjin, https://www.toonsarah-travels.blog/chongjin-a-very-different-north-korean-city/). These days the regime/government provides basic food rations of rice etc. which may not provide a wonderfully nutritious and varied diet but do ensure even the poorest people aren’t at risk of starvation.

      As to visiting, I hear what you’re saying about a rebellious streak! But it’s funny how once you’re there it becomes more natural. You bond with your guides (our lead guide was especially lovely) and you find you can do it for them even if you wouldn’t for the Leaders themselves. I saw it as paying my respects to the people of the country by joining in with them 🙂

      And oh, I do know what you mean about having time to visit every country!! I have such a long list and diminishing time – and this pandemic hasn’t helped (although I know other people have more to complain of than a few missed holidays). I can’t wait to get out into the world again and carry on discovering new places!!

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    Wow, another very interesting post! I can’t help, but think, somehow I was looking at puppets! Like someone behind the curtain was pulling a string and perform they did………I was reminded of the people we met in Albania and how they lived under Communist rule….only the elites, as determined by the government, got anything and the people detested them….also the athletes were taking vitamins (steroids) provided by their couches to enhance their performance. Later at early ages many athletes were suffering severe health problems…The men said the couches and trainers came to the cities to recruit good athletes and from that time on the athlete was taken for training in a strict closed environment and tested to their limits. They were treated like royalty and had the best housing and food. Their parents were acknowledged in the village and received perks also. All in all, they were so thankful when the Communists left (they had decimated their country, environmentally and every other way) and they are still trying to recover, years later! We have been to the DMZ and seen the other side of the story as told by the South Koreans and defectors from North Korea. Very interesting! One village in Albania, we visited, had taken the huge white rocks on the mountain side for all to see, that one time spelled out the Communist leader of their country and moved them around to spell, “NEVER AGAIN.” I’ll have to find my post on that! Cady

  • starship VT

    What a great post, Sarah! I did love seeing these children! I also wonder about what the intense/rigid training at such young ages does to children. I also wonder what happens to children who are not as gifted but normal. No doubt, like you said, these children shown in your videos are chosen because they are gifted in some way, and the little pianist was exceptionally so. It reminds me of the stories of children from Communist countries (and former Communist countries) who were chosen for training in sports, ballet, etc., because they exhibited flexibility, talent, had the right body type or were considered trainable. And, the family of those children who were the most successful as judged by winning competitions benefited greatly because of their child. I wonder if that is the same in N. Korea — families receiving better accommodations, food, or employment because their child is so talented?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Sylvia, I’m glad you enjoyed this! That’s a good point about the families. I don’t think I’ve heard that it’s the case but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Certainly it works the other way – how someone behaves and contributes to society influences the standing of their children and grandchildren. But I do know that it’s much easier to move downwards in the Songbum rankings than up. Serving in the military and/or being active in the Workers’ Party are said to be the best way of improving your standing, but certainly these children will have better job chances than their parents had, including perhaps the opportunity to move to Pyongyang where life is much easier. I’m less sure how much that will help their parents directly but it certainly can’t do any harm and they’ll perhaps be seen in a more positive light by neighbours and the authorities?

  • Anna

    When my daughter won’t practice her violin and she makes squeaky sounds when she finally does I’m going to show her this video and go all North Korean on her! 🤣🤣🤣

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No I didn’t unfortunately, as that would have helped us determine if the topic was generally off-limits or if it was something about that particular father’s job!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I suspect that in Pyongyang there is a degree of equality – certainly women can get good jobs there. But I doubt they’re well-represented at the highest levels in government, the army etc. Outside the capital I think they have a hard life, working hard in quite menial occupations but still expected to do the bulk of the household chores and keep the family together AND do their bit for the community work outside the home (street sweeping etc.) Our guide in Pyongyang said that childcare there was good, and women could make their own decision whether to work or stay home with their children, but she was in a privileged role by the nature of her job so may have seen things differently. I do know that during the 1990s famine years when factories were closed and men laid off, the women were the only earners in many families as the authorities turned a blind eye to a small amount of private enterprise and many sold vegetables grown in their little patches or set up enterprises selling roadside cups of tea, pancakes or similar. But culturally they would still have been expected to do the household chores while the unemployed man of the house sat around!

  • Oh, the Places We See

    What an engaging post from start to finish! I love that the students asked you questions. And then some of them performed for you. A great day. And so much to consider. The students seemed so eager to please you, and you were probably thinking a number of things all at once. Thanks for sharing. And thanks for being a positive ambassador from afar!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh thank you so much Corna 🙂 I’m trying to paint an even picture of North Korea as we experienced it and visits like this are an integral part of every tour there. Relatively few tour groups travel to Chongjin however, and it has only opened to tourism in recent years, so it will still be a novelty for the schools there perhaps, which may explain their keenness to engage. Also, academic success is really valued, especially in these top schools, so any chance to improve their English will have been welcomed by those older students 🙂

  • restlessjo

    Where does the feeling for music come from in that little pianist? She threw herself body and soul into that performance, Sarah. Amazing to behold 🙂 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I know, amazing is the word! Some of these youngsters may have been drilled but she is genuinely talented and committed to her music, even at such a young age!

  • maristravels

    A really enjoyable Post, an informative one, too. I’ve never had the chance to visit N. Korea and like most people, my knowledge of life there comes from news reports, biased and otherwise, and of course the lovely Michael Palin’s visit there which was televised – was it last year? Adorable pictures of the children and I share your misgivings as to their young lives being lacking in normal child play but that is par for the course in lots of places in China, Japan and even S. Korea I think. The hothouse method of education has always been used, even here, by pushy parents to advance their children’s prospects. The video is fabulous and we are lucky to see this.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari 🙂 It’s certainly true you get a much more rounded picture of the country by going there even though it is still carefully ‘curated’ by the authorities there. It was quite surprising that Michael Palin was able to do and see as much as he did. I think it shows they are keen to open up just a fraction more to outside visitors. The programme went out in 2018 I think – certainly before our 2019 visit. We were told in one restaurant where we had lunch that it was where he had celebrated his birthday while there 🙂

      I think you’re spot on with your observation that this hothousing of talented kids is common across that region, and happens everywhere to a small extent. And I’m glad you enjoyed the video! It’s edited down from a seven minute version I compiled from all my clips which I decided was too much to expect anyone to sit through! This will have given you a good flavour of the performance 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, discipline is a massive thing and not just for the children. There is little freedom of choice – you live in the house you are given, you do the job you are allocated to, you carry out your social responsibilities. And most people don’t question that because they have never known anything different and most don’t realise that things are different elsewhere. They are told N Korea is superior to other countries and have no evidence to suggest otherwise. But the discipline learned as a child must stand them in good stead.

      As to staging things for visitors, I think they aren’t so much staged as carefully selected. We saw the best schools, the highest production farms, the newest housing blocks and so on. If we saw signs of poverty (and we did) we weren’t allowed to photograph them. This isn’t because they want to pretend poverty doesn’t exist but because they are concerned such images could be misused. And they want visitors to see everything that is best about their country 🙂

      • rkrontheroad

        Thanks for that added comment. That’s more like what I’ve heard, although I haven’t been, of North Korea and some other totalitarian states. You had quite an opportunity to get an inside look!

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    How privileged you are to have witnessed this, what an amazing experience. And as you say – so utterly different from home in the UK, those children must be so indoctrinated into regimented learning.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I’m very grateful to have been able to travel so extensively, and in particular this trip to N Korea 😀 The learning is certainly regimented and very old-fashioned compared to in the West – all that learning by rote and repetition! And discipline is absolute, I imagine 🙂

  • Nemorino

    I remember this from Travellerspoint. Nice to see it again here. The school for performers reminds me of the elite children’s choirs in places like Calw, Nürnberg and Vienna. I know some successful opera singers who got their start at a very young age in such choirs.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Don 🙂 Interesting to hear about those children’s choirs – there are more parallels between N Korea and the rest of the world than we sometimes consider, because we’re usually so focussed on the differences.

  • wetanddustyroads

    I am stunned at these visits you’ve managed to the schools in North Korea 👀 … I get the idea they are trained (from a very young age) to be the very best they can be – which is not necessarily a bad thing – but somehow I think they are missing out on ‘being just a normal child’.
    I found your post very interesting (and of course, really appreciate your excellent pictures of the children) 😊.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for the kind words about my photos Corna 😊 Visiting at least one school is pretty standard on all tourist itineraries in North Korea. As I said, they’re really keen to show you the best aspects of life there and are proud of their education system.

      I agree that these children miss out on what we would consider normal childhood activities, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a North Korean thing specifically. Many cultures in this part of the world put a lot of emphasis on pushing kids to be the best, as evidenced in their success in many sports and high rankings on the academic achievements global comparison tables that are published from time to time.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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