Five teenagers in school uniforms hold accordions. On the wall is a giant painting of the secret mountain hideout of their nation’s founder, Kim Il-sung. Small red stickers on their instruments mark them as gifts from Kim Jong-il.
Yes, this is North Korea. But as they grind their accordions into song, what comes out is no somber ode to either of the late leaders. Instead, as more than 1.5 million YouTube viewers already know, it’s one of the poppiest of 1980s pop songs, A-ha’s “Take on Me.”
The three young men and two women perform with gusto, swaying to the music, tapping their accordions and clapping their hands overhead. Their catchy cover, recorded in December, became a sensation as it challenged the world’s preconceptions about North Koreans.
After taking their arrangement to Norway to perform at an Arctic arts festival, lead player Choe Hyang-hwa and fellow band members gave The Associated Press a peek into their lives at the Kumsong school in Pyongyang.
Outside, a gaggle of students marched across the school yard in twos, arms thrown around one another and lunch pails swinging from their hands. They walked past a huge mosaic depicting North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, with students working at computer terminals.
Inside, one young woman received a private lesson on the kayagum, a traditional Korean stringed instrument, while her teacher played a traditional drum called a janggo.
Elsewhere, students in a classroom with portraits of the two late leaders above the blackboard sat hunched over scores, tapping fingers and pencils as they practiced singing classical European songs.
And then there was the “Take on Me” quintet, who happily took up their seats on white stools to re-enact their famous performance. Most North Koreans don’t have access to YouTube because of tight government restrictions.
Lead accordionist Choe, a 17-year-old army officer’s daughter from the border city of Kaesong, said the students studied in the morning and then practiced the accordion in the afternoon. In one classroom, they gathered around a laptop computer with scores and notebooks. Later, one student chatted on a cell phone as the rest passed around plates of food: Tofu, sausages, boiled eggs and oranges.
Norwegian artist Morten Traavik, who recorded the video during a trip to the school, said the performance hinted at how much outsiders did not know about North Koreans.
“For many, it is a revelation that North Koreans open up and play Western pop music with such great joy,” he said last month. “My idea is to challenge our perceptions of North Koreans, which are extremely negative and stigmatized. Like other people, they are proud of their country and nature.”
Traavik invited the ensemble to an arts festival last month in Kirkenes, on Norway’s Arctic border with Russia.
As the group performed, 250 Norwegian border guards holding colored flipboards created a small-scale version of the giant human mosaics performed at the Arirang “mass games” in Pyongyang — but with polar bears and reindeer herders.
The audience was “greatly impressed and marveled at us, saying that young schoolchildren play the accordions very well,” 15-year-old accordionist Kim Chon-ryong said.
“At that time, I once again felt proud, and confident in myself, as a student of ‘army-first’ [North] Korea,” he said, repeating a phrase used to describe late leader Kim Jong-il’s military-focused rule. The trip to Norway, “far from our fatherland,” was the students’ first abroad, Kim said.
Kumsong School, not far from the cottage where Kim Il-sung was born, is one of North Korea’s most famous institutes for the arts and sciences.
Students are selected from cities and villages across the nation to study, accordion instructor Im Yu-sun said. Four of the students who traveled to Norway hail from small provincial towns outside Pyongyang, she said.