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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Magicians in Pyongyang

by | September 28th, 2013 | 07:00 am

The Rodman visit and the prospect of basketball diplomacy, as well as the quite extraordinary visit of a South Korean weightlifting team to the North that we noted last week, have once again raised the debate about the value of people-to-people exchanges.  The International Crisis Group’s Dan Pinkston—who appeared on the dais with Dennis Rodman and Paddy Power in New York last week—offers a spirited defense on the IGC website.

We were completely unaware of a much more low-key exchange of some professional magicians, until alerted to Dale Salwak’s story; his write up in Genii can be found on his website here.

Back in 2007, Kim Jong Il had the idea to get an American magician to perform as part of a larger effort to promote “friendship, solidarity, exchange and cooperation” among “cultural workers and artistes.” Salwak was ultimately chosen and visited in 2009, 2011 and 2012; he is scheduled to return in 2014. He performed both in a large (2500) venue as well as a smaller theatre devoted to the magic society and on his second trip saw a grand magic spectacle performed at the massive stadium built in 1989 for the World Festival of Youth and Students.

Salwak details the profession’s interesting history in the country, apparently built around a few masters who had favor within the regime. But for our purposes, the most interesting theme—common among so many professionals who visit North Korea—is the combination of talent and incredible work ethic with a thirst for knowledge about trends in the outside world. “What can we do better?”  “How can we learn about global trends?”

In addition to the sheer pleasure Salwak no doubt brought with him, he also carried the reminder that Americans are not demons. Salwak closes his piece with reference to a discussion with two senior magicians about how to make these visits more routine; I am certain the desire on the part of the North Korean magicians was genuine. Sometimes, ground-up and people-to-people is all we have. As we always say, “get people in, get people out.”