Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Let the children play

North Korea has some of the world's best behaved kids. Whilst the rest of the world indulges the every whim and fantasy of their children, and as a result is populated by loud, obnoxious, precocious, adventurous, inquisitive children, things are rather different north of the 38th parallel. Children are amazingly docile and compliant, obediently following the instructions of their elders as if they know no other way. It is not uncommon in Pyongyang to see parents walking hand in hand with their young children, with the child walking in near perfect step right behind.

Pyongyang apartment.


Whilst on one hand these kids are well behaved, it seems on the other that they have had the creativity and spontaneity of childhood taken away from them. The unquestioning following of the instructions and behaviour of adults suggest that the children are aware of the consequences of misbehaviour in adulthood, and don't wish to dabble in it. There is a sense of defeat about children's behaviour - that they are subconsciously aware of the intransigence of the status quo, and have decided to meekly accept it. Watching children and adults queue for the Kimjongilia Flower Show was a demonstration of this - kids stood obediently in the long line waiting to enter, and were far more still and passive than their counterparts almost anywhere else in the world would be in the same situation.

Propaganda on the streets of Pyongyang.


As well as their passive nature, the children are also suffering from some forms of malnutrition. Whilst not as stark as rumours suggest it is in the countryside, children in Pyongyang do look quite thin and underfed. There were no obvious examples of poor medication, but there was a withered, gaunt look to many children that suggested they had done it tough. One health clinic we passed had a long queue of parents and children snaking outside it.

Health clinic in Pyongyang.


During our five days in the country, our group had little chance for close contact with children, and so most of the observations have been made at a distance. One chance we did have, though, says plenty about the DPRK mentality. We were taken on a special visit to the Number 1 Pyongyang School (or something like that), which is the premier high school in the capital. Along with a dozen or so other foreigners, who included a few other tourists, journalists and possibly aid workers, we were given some freedom to wander through an open day at the school put on for our amusement.

In one room a group of children were sitting at PCs designing simple web pages, which is a rather odd choice of activity given that modems are illegal in the country. The computers the students were using was of exceptionally high standard, with fast processors and Windows NT in use. The children seemed confident in using the PCs, although they were clearly just engaging in a meaningless repetitive activity for our amusement. One student was given the task of designing a web page which featured the beautiful if vacuous slogan "KOREA IS ONE" repeated ad nauseum. Another room featured a team of a dozen girls who were hard at work doing some intricate weaving. Under the watchful eye of their teacher, the students used coloured wool to follow the patten stenciled on a piece of fabric. In the case of both rooms, we spoke to the children in simple English and found them quite responsive, if a little apprehensive, about speaking in the language of the imperialists. A wander down a corridor to an unattended classroom found us in a science lab, with the most incredible - and occassionaly scarey - stuffed animals on display in a quantity that would make schools the world over jealous.

The climax to our visit to the school was in a surprisingly elaborate school theatre. For half an hour, two dozen children sung, danced and played music to demonstrate some traditional Korean art forms. The performances were truly stunning for a team of school children, and the equipment and costumes far beyond what was expected, including a Yamaha keyboard and a decent drum set. With painfully fixed smiles, the children kept the curious foreigners entertained for a while, and then at the end invited us to dance a traditional folk dance with them. As good as the performances were, one shudders to think of the heartache and pain that went into producing it. One of the more alert foreigners in the audiences quietly explained that he suspected that the children had been physically and emotionally beaten as part of the preparation, and that the old Soviet Union techniques for training top gymnasts had been used on this poor team of prepubescent children. Though it was impossible to verify the claim, the fine perfection of the performance suggested that the children were motivated by an extreme fear of the consequences of failure.

It seemed pretty clear that the school we had visited was not typical of high schools in North Korea, or even in Pyongyang. The facilities were excellent, the children looked healthy, and apart from shiveringly-cold corridors, there was little to set it apart from high schools all over the world. Like most things in Pyongyang, this was the place for the elites (or, in this case, the children of elites) and was no doubt the training ground for future Korean People's Army and Workers Party of Korea apparatchiks.

No children on the road to Kaesong


In perpetuating a totalitarian state for future generations, it is necessary to establish a character of complete and utter subservience. Only once the sparks of rebellion and individuality have been extinguished can the state be confident that people will accept the status quo and not seek to overturn it. For this reason amongst others, the North Korean regime looks set to continue its existance for some time to come. It seems like a long term strategy is in place to achieve this outcome, and from the inhibited, docile nature of the children in Pyongyang, it is looking remarkably successful.

2 comments:

Kent said...

Indeed, the children of North Korea seem a lot more well-behaved than those of our land. Maybe we could learn something from those North Koreans... this point will be no more apparent than over the next few weeks when the lovely children of Victoria have their school holidays and fill up the shopping centres during my lunch break!

Will said...

Kent - what an offensive statement! Think about what you're saying. We should 'learn' from the North Koreans to place our children in rigidly enforced disciplinarian personality cults to improve their behaviour?!
And all this to stop some annoyance to you on your lunch break! Get a grip.