The thing that first struck me about the Children’s Palace was the sheer size of the place. It is massive and given that up to 10,000 children pass through here each day it would have to be. The purpose of the Palace, and others though smaller around the country, is to provide extracurricular activities for children so that their mothers can engage in “work, political and cultural activities”. While all children are apparently eligible to attend classes and other activities this Palace is very clearly a place for the most gifted and/or the privileged elite.
The Palace, opened 2 May 1989, is in a crescent shape, symbolic of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung embracing the children he so loved. Like pretty much every other public building in the country, large pictures of Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il adorn the front of the building. On either side of the building there is a massive mural of a youthful Kim Il-sung, in military attire, joining other children in a celebration of learning and youth.
Approaching the Palace I noticed two telescope domes on top of the building, one on each wing. Presumably astronomy is one of the activities offered here – whether to the children or others, I don’t know. While astronomy in large cities is generally hampered by city lights this is not a problem in Pyongyang which has a serve shortage of lights, not to mention electricity to power them. I have not been able ascertain what the UFO shaped object on the roof at the centre of the building is. You can see the edge of it in my main picture, just above the picture of Kim Jong-il. I would guess it is a helipad but I can’t imagine many, other than the Leader himself, arriving by helicopter.
When we arrived at the front of the building we were met by a welcoming party of happy smiling school girls, immaculately dressed in their blue uniforms with white shirts and a red Young Pioneer neck scarf. One of these young girls (early teens), who spoke excellent English, was our guide for the duration of our visit.
Having been reminded (lest we had forgotten since our previous stop) of the greatness, love and generosity of the Great Leader and his successors, the first thing we were told about was the large monument on the forecourt – the Chariot of Joy.
The chariot, drawn by two winged horses, carries eleven children symbolising the number years children were required to go to school in the DPRK. While mandatory school years were increased to twelve in 2012 I don’t think an extra child has been added to the chariot (yet).
On entering the Children’s Palace I was immediately struck by opulence on a grand scale. The main and massive lobby area is finished in granite and marble with splendid light arrangements including numerous chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Some of the chandeliers have a 20 metres, or more, drop. In terms of facilities, the Palace has hundreds of rooms, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 2,000 seat theatre.
Wonderful as the building was we didn’t come here just to admire it. Our primary purpose of visiting was to watch a variety show put on by the children. But before this we had sufficient time to visit quite a few classrooms to see children engaging in a sample of the extracurricular activities on offer.
The Children’s Palace – An Xbox Alternative
A very wide range of activities are on offer and include music, singing, dancing, foreign language tuition, computing, calligraphy, painting, board games, swimming, gymnastics, martial arts, and various other forms of sport, to name but a few. Actually, the sorts of things children used to do in other countries when they did not have access to televisions, PlayStations, Xboxes and the Internet!
Prior to going into the auditorium to take our seats for a show put on by the children we got to visit, perhaps, ten classrooms to witness children going about their extracurricular activities. The children we saw ranged from kindergarten age to middle high school.
One thing all the children had in common is that they were all absolutely fantastic proponents of their chosen activity. These children are extremely talented and perform at a level that most children elsewhere could only hope to aspire too, at a much higher age.
While the children would have to have some form of natural talent for what they do, there is no doubt the standards achieved here could only be achieved with countless hours of practice and perhaps some level of enticement/coercion, depending on your point of view. Many people leave here with the view that the children are forced to perform and are being indoctrinated against their wills and that this is evidenced by the clearly fake smiles on the children’s faces. I ask, is this any different than children’s pageant shows and the like in many countries outside North Korea?
It is difficult to say how much of the classroom activity we saw was staged for us and how much was typical of what goes on when visitors are not around. All I can say is that, based on the performances we were about to see in the auditorium, practice such as what we witnessed in the classrooms would certainly have been necessary, and long hours of it.
The Show Begins – School-kids on Steroids
Having spent countless hours practising song, dance, aerobics, gymnastics, etc the reward for those reaching the requisite level is to get to show it of with military like precision, forced smiles and an over abundance of make-up in the 2,000 seat auditorium, to groups of tourists, other schoolchildren and local visitors.
The show lasted about an hour with no breaks and one act seamlessly flowing into the next. The talent displayed was simply amazing (if a bit overacted in part). Indeed I would describe it as seemingly impossible for people of the age performing, yet it was real. These kids are so talented and born performers. While watching these children I recollected my own single (never to be repeated) public performance as the Innkeeper in a Nativity play whilst at primary school and of how utterly abysmal and pathetic it was in comparison to what I saw here in the Children’s Palace.
As you would expect, most of the songs and music were North Korean with the majority being of the patriotic and revolutionary genre in praise and adulation of the Leaders whose faces were projected on the back of the stage at regular intervals throughout the show.
A full orchestra, composed solely of young children, backed those performing on the stage.
Hopefully the pictures in the slide-show below give you a flavour of what we saw.
Not all of Pyongyang’s children make it to the stage. More about that in my next entry – A City to be Proud of.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on my trip to Pyongyang. I suggest you continue with my next entry – A City to be Proud of – or to start the loop at the beginning go to – Pyongyang – A Capital City Unlike any Other