Children’s Palace

Children’s Palace

Growing up we are all waiting to be discovered.  We were special, this we know…our parents and teachers told us so.  We would be professional snow-boarders, ballerinas, the youngest billionaires, or be found out to be a lost prince.  If only the world would have paid attention to us…  You know what the problem was?  We weren’t born in North Korea; in North Korea our talents would have been discovered, we wouldn’t be desk jockeys…no we could have been something.  If you had special in North Korea, you know where you would have gone?   The Children’s Palace.  Yup, that’s right, they built a palace for talented children like you and I were.

Fulfilling the broken dreams of would-be musicians, sports stars, artists and princesses of the capitalist world, the North Korean Children’s Palace exists to groom talented children into superstars.  Name a talent, they probably have a program to develop it.  As the East Germans and USSR before, North Korea wants to be the best, they want to demonstrate their superior artistic skills, athletes and musicians.  While the West doesn’t even realize it is losing a competition it didn’t enter, North Korea, is prepared to dominate many fields.

Children of all ages are mastering the accordion in North Korea as you read this.  In all my life I have never seen so many young people playing an accordion so well.  Even worse, I have never seen a child playing the accordion at all.  Here’s some shocking trivia that puts our failure in the competitive accordion circuit in perspective: did you know that accordion is spelled with an “o” instead of an “a”?  Yeah, neither did I.  We should probably start a program to immediately identify the most talented young accordion maestros and train them, we have a lot of catching up to do.

As though our failure to groom our future accordion champions is not enough, there is an artistic endeavor that I didn’t know existed, but I am certain we are behind in: hula hooping.

Can your child do this?

Luckily we have a start, almost everyone I know has attempted to hula hoop, versus knowing only one person that has ever played an accordion.  I am pretty bad at hula hooping, I never know if I should push or pull your hips around.  My hula hooping motion creates a shriek followed by shouting, “hold down his tongue, he’s having a seizure,” from people that see me try.  That said, I am sure we have a few talented hula hoopers, but how many do we have that can do five or ten hoops at a time?  How many people have we trained to catch hula hoops with their necks and spin them on their ear?  That’s how far behind the North Koreans we are…

You may see now that this “Children’s Palace” is not a palace at all, there are no places that young kings have fiefdoms.  The Children’s Palace is actually a very intense place with children robotically perfecting their talents.  Every day after school the selected children come to the Palace and practice, beginning at a very young age.  The skills exhibited by very young children, especially as musicians is mind blowing.  The serious dedication to perfection was very un-childlike.  This may be called a palace, but it is an intense training center.

As if his percussion talents weren’t enough, he did it while spinning a ribbon round his head.  This type of over-the-top performance was the norm in North Korea.

We saw a child that appeared to have spent less time of his life walking than not, rock out on multiple percussion instruments in a way that would make Ringo Starr seek out another profession.  There were young violinists that could play with the world’s great orchestras.  There were waist-high singers with booming voices like Aretha Franklin.

After watching the talent show several things were clear.  It was because of places like this that North Korea is able to produce the Arirang Games, a 100,000 performer musical, which seems to occur without a misstep.  Second, there are some seriously talented North Koreans.  Third, the amount of work that these children put in, probably not all willing, would be tantamount to child abuse in the USA.  While it is impressive what they can do, from their raw talents to the systematic development of these talents is amazing, is it right to do this to children?  Shouldn’t they be out playing in the woods?  Shouldn’t they be having their cast signed after breaking their arm falling off a slide?  Shouldn’t they have the chance to be kids?


The last feeling I had when leaving the Children’s Palace was worry about what will happen to these children when North Korea’s government falls?  While most of the world will see this as a positive thing, how it affects individuals like these is scary.  This is their lives, they are world-class, but when the government falls, will they fall into obscurity?  How will the arts be funded when the inevitable post-regime humanitarian crisis hits?  I have heard stories of female Eastern Europe PhDs forced into prostitution after the fall of communism in their countries as they could never find a job in their field.  It would be sad if a similar fate befell any of the talented children of the Children’s Palace.   A plan for what will be done when the government changes, complete with funding sources, should be prepared for North Korea’s moment of need.

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» Sharon In :
Sep 19, 2011

great perspective … I’ve seen/read a lot of analysis regarding Korean reunification but this subject never entered my mind

» Bka :
Sep 21, 2011

Here, I was thinking the 2 of you were raised in a palace……..amazing where ones mind can go when you spend 17 hours on a hard sleeper……am so curious where all of this new insight/perspective will take you when you come back to reality………peace……..bka

thinkCHUA Reply:

Haha, I grew up on the bad side of my city, remember? They say the most formative experience is not absolute wealth, but relative to your neighbors…

» Christine :
Feb 16, 2012

With all due respect, the young children you speak off are only the children of the elite. I would be more concerned about all the other children in North Korea (the majority) who are now orphans due to their family members having died from famine or the many who are in labour camps. Food is not being distributed to the masses so the few can master the art of the guitar or any other instrument the majority of the time this is against their will.

thinkCHUA Reply:

I fear that it may be worse than the elites being the only people here. It is quite possible that these children are systematically selected from the general population and taken from their homes for the training we witnessed. I really don’t know how they are chosen, but judging by what we saw, I think it is more likely to be forced/coerced participation than a school for the wealthy. Is worse than what we have in the USA though, where talented individuals born to poor parents rarely get the opportunity to develop their talents or even be upwardly mobile? While I am far from supporting the systems of the DPRK, unless I had verification of how the selection process occured I have a hard time judging.

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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