One of the weirder images to emerge from April’s historic, inter-Korean summit was a shot of leaders, Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un, reacting to a magic trick. Early reports on the summit seemed to indicate the magician was South Korean, but he’s since been identified as Gwang Cheol Kim, a North Korean and one of the current leaders of the Magicians Association of Korea. He’s also the son of the country’s most popular magician and one of the few entertainers to be noted as a “Hero of Socialist Labour,” Kim Thaek Song.
News that North Korea had a magic scene large enough to warrant its own national association – or perhaps it’s the other way around, as these things often tend to be in police states – has prompted an interesting look into the community courtesy of The Diplomat’s Tae-jun Kang.
In North Korea, a magic show is considered to be part of the circus, locally known as “Kyoye,” which is conducted by professional circus groups. According to North Korean culture critic Lim Chae-wook, North Korea provides government-level support to bolster its circus group. It is considered to be a performance art in the North, and circus players, including magicians, are given the title of “Kyoye actor,” he said. On average, one circus group can have up to 100 Kyoye actors.
Becoming a magician in North Korea appears to be somewhat more gruelling than it is elsewhere in the world, though if there’s one thing true about North Korea it’s that it’s often gruelling and lacking in gruel. Hopeful youths looking to make it in the North Korean big tops begin training as young as ten at one of the country’s specially designed training institutions. The schools offer four disciplines, one of which is magic. The training takes about nine years.
North Korea established the Magician’s Association of Korea in 2001, presumably as an attempt to promote magicians separately, rather than as part of the circuses. South Korea has invited association members to attend international events on multiple occasions, including an open invitation to this year’s FISM in Busan, but thus far nothing has come of it.
The article includes more details, and a more in depth look at Kim Thaek Song and his career. I strongly recommend it.