Accordion School

The video above (click here to view it) was uploaded to YouTube on February 1, 2010, and in under a year, has amassed over two million views. It features five North Korean students, each with his or her own accordion, playing a version of A-ha’s “Take on Me” as a quintet. If you’ve seen the original video for that song — it’s here, and it’s brilliant — you immediately know that there’s no obvious explanation as to why there’d be a quintet of accordion players ever playing the song. But then again, this is North Korea. It has its own calendar and has a lackluster electrical grid. Its former leader expelled short citizens and, officially, never poopedTraffic lights are people and would-be leaders are exiled if they dare visit Mickey Mouse. In general, it’s fair to say that North Korea’s cultural quirks (to put them gently) defy explanation — or, at least, are incomprehensible to our Western brains.

But like many other things North Korean, there is more to the story than revealed by the video above. Just ask Barbara Demick.

Demick, a journalist, is the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, and was formerly serving that same role but in Korea. As such, she has had unique access to over a hundred North Korean defectors, and in 2009, she collected interviews with these refugees into a book titled “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” The book focuses on the lives of a handful of these defectors, one of which was a young woman who Dernick referred to by the pseudonym Mi-Ran.

Mi-Ran’s opportunities in North Korea were limited; she was the daughter of a South Korean prisoner of war and, therefore, was ineligible for many of the country’s more prestigious professions — as well as generally being treated as second-class when it came to virtually everything else. (North Korea has a caste-like system, called “songbun,” where one’s dedication to communism — going back generations — is the key factor; those whose lineages lack a commitment to communism are often repressed both politically and economically.) Mi-Ran ended up becoming a school teacher in her local mining community.

Per Dernick’s book, excerpted by the Telegraph, Mi-Ran’s experience as a teacher were troubling. She recounted the abject poverty in which her students — five and six-year-olds — lived, wondering if they were attending the school as much for the free meal (“a thin soup made of salt and dry leaves”) as they were the education, if not more so. And the “education” was closer to indoctrination than anything else. Per the book:

The school day started at 8am. Mi-ran put on her perkiest smile to greet the children as they filed into the classroom. As soon as she got them into their assigned seats, she brought out her accordion. All teachers were required to play the accordion – it was often called the ‘people’s instrument’ since it was portable enough to carry along on a day of voluntary hard labour in the fields. In the classroom teachers sang, ‘We Have Nothing to Envy in the World,’ which had a singsongy tune as familiar to North Korean children as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’

The North Korean affinity for the accordion is not limited to teachers, either. When Kim Jong-il died in late 2011, his son, Kim Jong-un, took his place. But the younger Kim was (and is) considered young and inexperienced for the position, and his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, is widely regarded to be his top advisor. (Some believe he is the de facto ruler of the nation, with Kim Jong-un a puppet.) When Jang rose to power, Reuters noted his qualifications in an article headlined “Handsome accordion player is North Korea’s kingmaker.”

Weird Al Yankovic, call your agent.

Bonus fact: A-ha’s version of Take On Me was the #1 single in the U.S. and nine other countries in 1985, and their pencil-art video linked above won six MTV Video Music Awards and was nominated for two others, including Video of the Year. But that all almost never happened. The song that topped the charts was a re-release of an earlier version that the band released in 1984, and that version failed to make it into the top 100 singles on the U.S. Billboard chart. The pencil-art video is widely credited with giving the song the necessary boost. The original video? Seen here, it was hardly innovative, but rather generic and very 80s.

From the Archives: In case you missed the few sentences above: North Korea has its own calendar and has a lackluster electrical grid. Its former leader expelled short citizens and, officially, never poopedTraffic lights are people and would-be leaders are exiled if they dare visit Mickey Mouse.

Related: “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Dernick, as noted above. 4.8 stars on over 350 reviews and a finalist for multiple book awards; there are rumors that it will be made into a movie, too. Available on Kindle. For something a little lighter, here’s a book and CD set to teach yourself how to play accordion. Today, a polka band; tomorrow, a prestigious leadership position under Kim Jong-un. (On second thought, just stick with the polka band.)

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