Best Defense

North Korea: Land of totalitarian magic

By Joseph Natividad Best Defense Pyongyang deputy bureau chief An English literature professor from Southern California by day and a world-class magician by night, Dale Salwak holds the distinction of being the only American invited to perform his act in North Korea. At SAIS recently, Salwak chronicled his experiences in Pyongyang in 2009 and this ...

SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images
SHAUN TANDON/AFP/Getty Images

By Joseph Natividad
Best Defense Pyongyang deputy bureau chief

An English literature professor from Southern California by day and a world-class magician by night, Dale Salwak holds the distinction of being the only American invited to perform his act in North Korea. At SAIS recently, Salwak chronicled his experiences in Pyongyang in 2009 and this past April for the Grand Magic Show, the largest ever in the country’s history. His perspective on North Korea offered a look beyond stereotypes of a totalitarian system, mass famine, and nuclear proliferation, and focused instead on magic as a great leveler which emphasized entertainment value before political differences between two countries.

–Magic, as a trade, is taken very seriously in North Korea. Similar in structure to the Chinese system, admission into its exclusive society is followed by a father-son bond of lifelong apprenticeship. Isolated from the West and having limited or no access to DVDs, books and the Internet, North Korean magicians have devised their own methods to magic that have long been known to performers like Salwak. A typical range of acts includes balancing telephones on handkerchiefs and life-sized dolls performing choreographed dance routines to traditional music. The local performers Salwak encountered on his trips cherished every new trick acquired and pleaded with him to share current “world trends” on magic.

–The culmination of Kim Jong Il’s investment in the arts took place this past April at the Grand Magic Show, a tribute to the late Kim Il Sung. Like his father, Kim Jong Il appears to hold a great interest in magic and the circus, dating back to the country’s early history of Soviet influence. In a place where high-tech entertainment is hard to come by, the Grand Magic Show dazzled a crowd of 150,000 at May Day Stadium, which is the site of the Arirang Games, an annual two-month-long gymnastics festival also in honor of Kim Il Sung. As a spectator at the Grand Magic Show, Salwak watched as the country’s most famous magician, Kim Chol, appeared in a cloud of smoke and fireworks, forcing a bus full of giddy local residents to levitate several feet above the ground, and later, make a horse, an elephant and a helicopter materialize out of thin air. What would have otherwise invoked a roaring response from a typical American audience, the crowd respectfully cheered with subdued, tepid applause.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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