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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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