Amid a burst of fireworks and a haze of smoke, a burly showman in a white sequined suit and gold lame cape appears with a flourish. Over the next 45 minutes, he appears to make a Pyongyang bus levitate and wriggles free from a box sent crashing to the stage through a ring of fire. This is magic North Korean-style performed in a show touted as the country’s biggest ever and mounted in a city where good, old-fashioned illusion, a dancing bear and a dose of slapstick comedy can still command the biggest crowds of the year.
The country’s love for magic is a legacy of the circus traditions they inherited decades ago, during an era of Soviet influence. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung ordered the creation of the Pyongyang Circus in 1952 in the middle of the Korean War. The tradition of highly technical stagecraft — including the Arirang mass games, where 100,000 performers move in sync in a feat that has come to embody North Korean discipline and regimentation — still dazzles in a country where high-tech entertainment is scarce.
“They love magic shows, together with the circus,” said Tony Namkung, a scholar who often serves as a liaison between North Korea and the U.S. and other governments. “Like so many other things, it harkens back to a pre-electronic past when things were much simpler.” In fact, North Koreans so love magic that two diplomats dispatched to the United Nations had a special request in 1995 of their American hosts: They wanted to go to Las Vegas to see David Copperfield.
Wowed by the world-famous illusionist, the diplomats were determined to bring Copperfield to Pyongyang. But politics and finances trumped entertainment, and plans to bring the American magician to a nation still technically at war with the United States vanished in the haze of diplomatic tensions. Undeterred, North Korea has kept putting on shows of its own, and it unveiled a massive one Monday at the capital’s May Day Stadium. It was designed by Kim Chol, dubbed the “David Copperfield of North Korea,” and will include seven performances in all.