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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


Dancing for the Eternal President

Keith Howard

Chapter Excerpt

April 15, 2000. To celebrate the birthday of the “Eternal President,” Kim Il Sung, fifty thousand young men and women danced in a Pyongyang square in the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Each dancer wore a suit and tie or a Korean-style dress. The square was once known as Stalin Square. Now, as Kim Il Sung Square, it is flanked by government ministries, the National History Museum, the National Art Museum and the People’s Grand Study House.1 A portrait of the Eternal President hangs from one ministry; opposite, portraits of Marx and Lenin share a further ministry. Sûngni Street (Victory Street)2 bisects the square and because, according to North Korean dogma, the revolution must always continue, it was left open—trolley buses and trucks occasionally trundling across, dividing the crowds of people in two. Across the Taedong River, beyond the square, the Juche Tower was lit up as a backdrop. The tower had been constructed in 1982 to celebrate the seventieth birthday of the Eternal President with 25,550 stone bricks weighing 22,000 tons arranged in 18 layers on two sides and 17 layers on the other two sides.3

In the same month, the Mansudae Art Troupe, a large uniformed orchestra and choir raised on a temporary stage, led the proceedings, surrounded on three sides by the massed dancers. “Famous” vocalists offered solo renditions of “favorite” songs.4 In front of the stage, acrobats and professional dancers performed complex routines. The show was broadcast live on national TV and the recording was destined to become a fill for future broadcasts. The massed dancers performed perfectly synchronized accompaniments to a sequence of songs for almost an hour. A live audi- ence watched the spectacle: approximately two hundred foreign guests— diplomats, dignitaries, aid workers, and musicians and artists in town to participate in the annual Spring Friendship Arts Festival5—stood on the steps of the People’s Grand Study House. Each guest had been invited individually by the ch’ôngsonyôn, the young men and women.6 This was the evening of the day I arrived in Pyongyang. I was met at the airport, given flowers, and driven to a twenty-meter bronze statue of Kim Il Sung in front of the Revolution Museum on Mansu Hill, where a TV camera recorded the moment. I followed instructions to lay the flowers at the base of the statue. If this was a surreal welcome, being one of just a couple of hundred guests watching fifty thousand dancers seemed an illusion. When, at the end of the performance, all the guests were ushered forward to join in the dance, I was completely unnerved.

In this chapter, I explore the context for this event. To do so is problematic: To what extent should we try to appreciate cultural products without evaluating the ideological frame that molds them? My solution is to give only a partial perspective, and to ask you, as readers, to add your own interpretation to the statements I cite from North Korean sources.

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]

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