Though the festival has a long history, we began doing these performances to show the rest of the world in 2001. I participated in the year 2002. Participants range from age 6 to university students and are allowed to perform one to five times in their lives. The festival is an expression of our unity and an example of how the state can bring millions of people to all move as one. You cannot understand this unity unless you are born there, but to North Koreans, even the love and devotion that one has toward one's own father and mother is not as powerful as the devotion to our leader.
In North Korea, we are told that since Russian socialism collapsed, we are the only ones left and that we have to preserve ourselves from foreign influence to stay true to our values. The content of the performances are historical in nature, and the games are performed to please our leader and to show the world a display of our might.
Q. What was practice like?
We practice all year round, even in winter, no matter what the weather. Gymnasts performed acrobatics without practice mats, and no one was even given meals to eat—we had to pack our own from home. The performances are practiced with a perfectionism that allows no mistakes. If someone makes a mistake during practice, nobody goes home until they are able to do it right.
Q: Why is it that under a system of state-controlled distribution North Korea has plummeted to such a state of poverty? Why is it that everyone is equal in suffering, and not instead in wealth and prosperity?
There are many reasons, and this issue is complicated. One reason, though, is that there is not truly equal distribution. In the past, equal distribution existed, but now it is different. There are many markets, and only people with money are able to set up businesses to make more money. The gap between the rich and poor is enormous.
Above this, though, is the fact that North Korea simply lacks the resources to survive completely on its own. Lack of human resources, natural resources, mental resources—in all types of resources we are lacking. Even if people have ideas for how to better develop the country, there is no freedom for them to share their ideas.
Q: Why did you leave?
My coming to South Korea was actually unintentional. I had visited China to meet friends, but I soon put myself in a very complicated situation where I had no choice but to leave North Korea. Although my first experiences of South Korea were of isolation and fear, I do not regret leaving.
I did not suffer a lot or have a difficult time like other people in my country. I arrived in Seoul safely and conveniently with the help of the South Korean government. This is one of the reasons why I feel that other people who fled North Korea have a stronger voice than my own. They suffered more than me.
Q. What do you think can be done to build a better future for the people of North Korea? Do you think there should be unification?
When many people talk about unification, they only talk about the South taking over the North economically. If this is the route that is taken, there will be many side-effects.
We need to gradually build more exchange, and in order to do this, North Korea needs to be lifted out of poverty and oppression. North Korea needs to bring itself up economically. We also need to build more factories like those found in the KaeSong Industrial Region where people from both the North and South can work side by side. We need more exchange.
The common people of North Korea need to be allowed to learn about the outside world. They know absolutely nothing. It is important to expose the common people to the world so that they know what is going on. Right now they are in the dark and this is not the way to build a positive country.
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Q: What were you doing in North Korea before you left?
I was a university student at Cheong Jin University and had completed three years of study toward my degree. I was a major in Korean Studies.
My mother was a high school teacher, and as a child I loved reading books. I would go to the high school library often as a child and further developed my love for reading. When I got older I wanted to read more, but there isn't a good selection of books available in North Korea, and it is almost impossible to find books that are written in other countries.
One day my father went to China and came back with a book on philosophy. This book motivated me to study more.
Q: What is university life like in North Korea?
Education is competitive, and most of what is taught is information that is to be memorized rather than debated and defended. This is actually pretty characteristic of university life in South Korea, as well.
In Seoul, after classes most students have free time that they can spend either studying on their own or in taking up a part-time job. In North Korea, however, students have to help their professor harvest crops at a farm owned and run by the university. This takes up a lot of time.
In the university libraries, it is very difficult to find good books. Students aren't actually allowed to enter the area where the bookshelves are and select books on their own; everything has to be done through the librarian. You say "I want X type of book," and then they bring something to the desk for you. The selection is very limited.
Q: How do the philosophy books in North Korea differ from what one would find in South Korea?
In North Korea we have philosophy books, but they only focus on the biographies of the philosophers, and not actually what sorts of things they thought. They don't contain anything that makes one question life or the societal system that they are living under. They do not make one think or doubt. Anything bordering on the realm of real philosophy only deals with the ideals of the party and the Kim leaders.
Q: After leaving the country and being exposed to an academic environment where you are able to think about life and the society that you live in, how have your views of North Korea changed?
In the North, truth is absolute. But in philosophy and in life, truth is endless, everywhere, and we have to study it again and again throughout our lives because it is always changing. In North Korea, one view is right, and all opposing views are wrong. You are not able to respect what other people think about subjects. Since moving to South Korea, I've learned to respect differing views, even if I don't agree with them, because truths are arrived at through experience, and no two peoples' experiences are the same.
As an example of this, I had one friend who suffered a lot in North Korea and was sent to prison and tortured on several occasions. This friend was under the belief that Korean unification was the answer to our problems, but that the only way that this could ever be attained would be for South Korea to invade North Korea militarily and crush the dictatorship of the Kims through force.
I myself did not suffer so much in North Korea and had a very different experience. I also believe that unification is the answer, but that this sort of peace should be a process that evolves gradually through dialogue and exchange. Our approaches are different, but I understand that this is because of our histories. If I had suffered a life of oppression similar to my friend, I too would have probably adopted a more hardline set of beliefs and solutions to our problems.
Q: Do North Koreans actually believe the propaganda that they hear?
In public and on television, people are loyal. But in their private lives, most people do not care or have time for these things. We don't bow to pictures of Kim Il Sung in our homes or put flowers in front of his picture. The common people are more concerned with working and trying to survive.
Loyalty to the government is not the most important thing when you are trying to survive. The loyalty that one observes on the news is just a survival technique.
Q: What sort of changes need to take place in the minds of North Koreans to bring about unification?
Rather than focusing on changing the lower class, the elites need to be changed. The lower class does not have time to think about revolution; they are just trying to survive. The people who need to be targeted are elite leaders, university students, and professors. Slowly, we need to change the way that they think about North Korea.
Q: If Korea is unified, what sort of challenges will have to be faced?
People in South Korea are very materialistic, and people here are judged based on their appearance and the things that they have purchased. This vanity will cause those in the North to be judged by those in the South and will make people in the North feel embarrassed that they do not live under the same standards. Socially, this will be one of the biggest difficulties.
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