N. Korean kids play part in leader's personality cult

Associated Press in Chicago Sun-Times/October 12, 2005
By Bo-Mi Lim

Pyongyang, North Korea -- Thousands of North Korean child performers move their arms and legs in perfect unison, leaving the impression they aren't human but smiling robots trained to dance and sing.

North Koreans boast it takes only a few months to teach the 100,000 students to perform in the massive propaganda spectacle known as a ''mass game.'' But most of the children learn their skills from a young age as part of their indoctrination into the regime's cult of personality focusing on late ruler Kim Il Sung.

This year's show, which has been staged six times a week since Aug. 15, is the largest in three years -- raising speculation it could signal a major policy announcement, such as the naming of a successor to current leader Kim Jong Il, son of Kim Il Sung.

The North Korean leader attended a special performance Sunday, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the North's ruling Workers' Party. The massive celebrations in Pyongyang also included a military parade on Monday with thousands of soldiers.

The ''mass game'' is drawing the attention of foreign tourists, who have been offered a rare opportunity to attend, apparently as a moneymaking venture. Tickets for the event run from $60 to $360, in addition to travel and hotel fees.

Hundreds of South Koreans have traveled this month on one-night trips on charter flights to Pyongyang, and even American tourists have been allowed into the country to view the shows.

''There is no word to describe the performance. You have to see it to feel the grandness,'' said Hyun Yung Ae, an official at the mass games organization committee.

''It is amazing to see our students learn to perform so well in such a short period of time,'' she said, adding that students had practiced ''just a few hours in the afternoon'' since April.

Across Pyongyang, ''art centers'' teach youths between the ages of 5 and 17 the techniques that are part of the show. At Mankyongdae Children's Palace, the biggest such center in the North Korean capital, dance teacher Kim Sung Hee said more than 5,000 students attend after-school classes daily in art, sports, science and computers.

As South Korean tourists entered each classroom, groups of 20 students dutifully performed their specialties -- playing the 12-stringed Korean traditional harp or accordions -- without a single note out of sync.

''These children are great, great art performers,'' said Shin Young-kyo, a retired conductor for a children's choir in South Korea. ''But they are too good, I feel like I have just watched a group of machines. . . . Their performance doesn't have a touch of humanity.''

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