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POSTCARD FROM NORTH KOREA

The Pixel People

Ever wondered how North Korea organizes its stadium mass displays? The answer, in a word, is discipline.

By Bertil Lintner

NORTH KOREA has many secrets: Does it have nuclear weapons? What's the state of its economy? How does Kim Jong Il keep his pompadour in shape? But now we can reveal the answer to one of its most enduring mysteries: Just how do they organize those huge stadium displays of images--everything from portraits of the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung, complete with shimmering rays around his head, to North Korean flags proudly fluttering in a nonexistent wind?

The answer comes from Jon Byong Ho and Kye Sang Hwa, chief choreographers of North Korea's mass displays, and it turns out that it's a mixture of artistry, advanced mathematics, computer graphics--and the stern discipline of North Korean children. "We have done this in foreign countries too, but that's more difficult," says Kye. "Their children are not as disciplined as ours."

The biggest displays are held each year at Pyongyang's May Day Stadium, and can involve up to 20,000 children. Here's how it's done: In the stadium's grandstand, a block of seats--say 72 rows of 242 seats each--is set aside. That makes 17,424 seats, each of which must be filled with a child. To allow for sickness, as many as 20,000 are trained. Each child is given a large book of coloured cards. When the figure "1" comes up on a digital display board, the children consult a colour code on the back of their books and put up the corresponding page. When "2" comes up, everyone checks the code again, and changes page if necessary. And so on. In effect, each child is a human pixel.

The displays aren't unique to North Korea, but no one else does them on such a scale and with such an eye for detail. And whatever you think of the regime's politics, the displays are impressive. Even Madeleine Albright, then-U.S. secretary of state, was taken aback when she witnessed one during her visit to Pyongyang in October 2000.

"She was only a bit bewildered when the children created a picture of something that looked like a missile," says Jon. "But it was only the rocket that launched our Kwangmyongsong satellite in 1998." (Actually, that rocket, the Taepodong, can also be a missile: In 1998, North Korea fired one over Japan, causing alarm and outrage in Tokyo.)

Designing the books--which measure 60 by 50 centimetres--is a huge job. The pages must be in the right order, and the right book must be in the right seat in the stadium. These days, computers make the work easier. First, an image is scanned in. Then, using their own software, the designers convert the image into the book-sized pixels.

To save money, the North Koreans use as few pages as possible. So, if you're mostly a red pixel, your book will have only a few pages. But if you're a multicoloured pixel, you'll have many more pages. Managing all this requires a lot of training and discipline. "It's not a problem here," Kye says. "But when we train children in other countries, we have to have the same number of pages in all books, otherwise they'll get confused."

Jon and Kye and their team have travelled more than most North Koreans. Last year, they designed a display at the African Games in Nigeria. In 2001, they travelled to a youth festival in Algeria. Other venues have included China, India and Cuba.

Ill-disciplined children aren't the only problem on overseas trips. The team has to inspect and measure each stadium's seats and spacing, and adjust the size of the pixel books. Their software is based on the seats in the Pyongyang stadium, and it's not always applicable elsewhere.

However, the problems in exporting the art form aren't solely technical. The mass displays are in many ways a reflection of North Korea's society: Well-drilled and mass-mobilized, and with everyone knowing his or her place. If anyone steps out of line, it distorts the entire picture. Chilling, perhaps, but the outcome is one of the most spectacular shows on earth.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 15, 2004

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