Sand Art



We are always interested in glimpses of North Korean cultural life, whether from inside the country or from defectors outside of it, some who have proven wonderfully edgy. The North Korea Economy Watch, an incredibly useful site run by Curtis Melvin, recently posted a few You Tube videos of sand art from the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang (Part 1,Part 2). Jiheyon Jeong at UCSD was nice enough to offer a viewer’s guide. As would be expected, the pieces mix traditional cultural themes with an overlay of nationalism and Kim family idolatry.  (B.R. Myers The Cleanest Race provides an interpretation of North Korean propaganda that considers the role of such imagery in detail; the NYT offers up an excerpt).

The first You Tube segment is entitled “In memory of our great leader” and depicts well-known scenes in North Korean propaganda used to describe the Dear Leader Kim Il Sung's accomplishments and devotion to his country. The journey starts with the Pyongyang train station (letters on the building are “Pyongyang”), as Kim Il Sung embarks on another round of cross-country travel to oversee the nation. There is an obligatory segment of the Chollima factory around 3:20, and around 4:45 the Pyongyang Ryugyoung Hotel appears with fireworks bursting in the background. We end with a picture at 5:45 of the train at night, carrying the Dear Leader as he tirelessly continues on his task even to his final resting place. (Full thanks to Curtis Melvin of NKeconwatch for corrections)

The segment from 7:00 to about 15:25 shows the story of "Heungbu and Nolbu", a traditional Korean folk tale which pits a wicked, rich elder brother against a poor but kind younger brother. It's been used by the regime to extol the virtues of poor laboring classes—of which there is an ample supply--in comparison to evil capitalists. The picture at 9:18 is particularly symbolic. The younger brother nurses a swallow with a broken leg, and in return receives a magicseed which grows into a great gourd filled with riches and presents. The elder brother tries to replicate the miracle by breaking a swallow's leg on purpose, but his magic gourd ends up producing goblins and hooligans who beat  his family and take away his possessions.

The segment from the 2nd video (1:00 onwards) is entitled "I'll tell you the story of a soldier's love." Commentators in a separate TV feature, also on You Tube, laud this as representative of the Seongun (military first) era. The story shows a soldier crossing a river with his children (2:33), guarding Pyongyang and fighting for his country (4:00 onwards). The final star & insignia of the military is accompanied by a phrase "The Fatherland and a Soldier."

From 7:10 onwards, the second clip depicts the continuing story of a couple through courtship, marriage entitled "My Wife". The first scene shows a discharged NK soldier receiving a bouquet from a young lady. The section from 23:23  to 24:27 depicts a pair of mandarin ducks, which symbolize happiness in marriage; directly following afterwards is a picture of a male baby on his first birthday. The title at 27:51 says "We will go on forever together," with little doubt that the "we" is not just the nuclear family but the nation of which the Kims remain the paters familias.

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