The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention in 2008. Since then, the country has nominated three elements to the Convention’s Representative List, a mechanism of the Convention designed to draw attention to the importance of living heritage in general, on an international level. The first two elements listed by the DPRK were Arirang Folk Singing in 2014 and Traditional Kimchi-making in 2015, both of which were also listed separately by the Republic of Korea (ROK). Last year, when both countries listed an element jointly for the first time—traditional Korean wrestling, ssirum (also spelled ssireum) —it marked an historic moment in the cultural relations between the DPRK and the ROK and allowed culture to play a bridging role currently inaccessible through most other channels of cooperation.
Just prior to the Korean wrestling’s inscription, UNESCO supported a training workshop held in Pyongyang from 26 September to 3 October 2018, which focused on building the capabilities of national heritage professionals in community-based inventorying and preparing nomination files. While it is difficult to say whether this workshop played a role in the DPRK’s willingness to submit a joint nomination with the ROK shortly afterwards, it was certainly a significant step towards deepening knowledge among DPRK heritage professionals about the Convention’s emphasis on international cooperation.
This paper provides an overview of the workshop to which I was invited by UNESCO to co-facilitate with Professor Zhu Gang, Deputy-Director General of the Chinese Folklore Society. It focuses largely on the program and offers a few observations of the experience. It offers a facilitator’s perspective, and seeks to shed some light on the experience for readers while avoiding conclusive viewpoints given the short duration of the training. Being the first trip to the DPRK for both Professor Zhu Gang and me, we relied on colleagues from the UNESCO Beijing Office, Ms. Himalchi Gurung, the Programme Specialist for Culture, and Ms. Federica Iellici, the Project Officer, both of whom worked with the DPRK’s National Authority for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (NAPCH) to co-organize the training. Their attendance, together with the warm and professional relations extended to us by our local hosts, was critical to the workshop’s success.
The twenty-six participants who joined the workshop varied in age from around 30 to 60 and came from NAPCH and the Korean National Preservation Agency in Pyongyang, including the provincial branches and city offices in South Pyongan, North Hwanghae, North Hamgyong, Ryanggang, Kangwon, and Kaesong, Nampo, and Ranson City. Among the group, only six were women; this low number was attributed to the difficulties for women with families in provincial areas to attend.
Professor Zhu Gang and I developed the program, working from a distance with the UNESCO Beijing Office and NAPCH to prepare materials. The workshop built on two others held in March 2013 and August 2016, which focused, respectively, on implementing the Convention and community-based inventorying. As some two-thirds of the participants present at the 2019 workshop were new to the Convention, we integrated introductory sessions while focusing mainly on the following topics requested by the DPRK:
- A refresher on community-based inventorying—one of the main safeguarding measures encouraged by the Convention and involving the grassroots participation of communities in identifying and documenting their living heritage for safeguarding purposes.
- The preparation of nominations to the Convention’s Representative and Urgent Safeguarding Lists as well as to the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices; three of the Convention’s main mechanisms for raising awareness of the Convention on local, national, and international levels.
- Sustainable development in relation to ICH, an increasingly important focus of the Convention’s work, propelled over the past few years more particularly by the impacts of the climate crisis, forced migration, and poverty.
The first day was dedicated to introducing the workshop and the Convention as well as to providing an overview of key concerns and developments related to community-based inventorying in the DPRK. On the second day, participants undertook a field practicum with inventorying questionnaires—translations of samples provided by UNESCO’s capacity-building materials—and interviewed practitioners. The first visit took place at Mansudae Art Studio, a large complex in Pyongyang hosting various studios and a fine arts gallery. The participants split into rotating visits to a workshop for traditional Koryo ceramics using a celadon glaze and to the office of a master painter, Kim Chol, working with so-called traditional Korean painting, which is highly figurative, using charcoal, pencil, and watercolors.
The afternoon practicum was then spent at the expansive Children’s Palace dedicated to extracurricular activities. We were ushered through several classes for various arts—kayakum, a traditional instrument; violin; accordion; contemporary dance; calligraphy; and embroidery. The displays and performances were prepared for visitors, including tourist groups.
While institutional visits were not ideal for a field practicum, given the emphasis that the 2003 Convention gives to documenting heritage within communities rather than more formal institutional contexts, the outing usefully served various purposes. Aside from giving an opportunity to work with the sample questionnaires, however briefly, the day created an opportunity for the participants and facilitators to spend time at the outset of the training in a less restrained environment. Given the surveillance of interactions between foreigners and locals; this was important, as it allowed for some social interactions at the outset of the training, and consequently, a more open and engaging workshop in the following days.
The following days were dedicated to a combination of lessons, group work, and presentations on inventorying developing safeguarding plans to encourage the ongoing practice and transmission of living heritage, and elaborating nomination files for the Representative and Urgent Safeguarding Lists and Good Practices Register. Dr. Zhu Gang and I presented various case studies of community-based inventorying and other safeguarding projects as well as examples of nominations with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
Participants worked on practical exercises whereby they selected cultural practices and expressions from the DPRK and prepared and presented hypothetical safeguarding plans and nomination outlines. Among the elements they chose were youth games, which are played by people of all ages across the country; traditional kite flying for children; a masked dance from Hwanghea Province; making Korean paper, chamji (a traditional folk game); shuttlecock or jegi; and the techniques of producing traditional liqueur, li gang go.
The participants’ engagement, if not intensive in concentration during the training, was impressive, and the overall atmosphere was collegial and warm. Initially, most of the group was reticent to speak up and interact, except for two younger participants, aged it seemed in their twenties or early thirties. By the second day, the workshop became increasingly lively as almost all of the participants readily raised questions and shared experiences, encouraged by their superiors. Their questions and concerns reflected a good theoretical knowledge of the Convention, which deepened quickly into a grasp of its application more practically within the course of the training.
It was interesting to note that the participants had some difficulty defining the communities, something that is required in both safeguarding plans and nomination forms. This difficulty seemed greatest in relation to cultural expressions that were practiced over wider areas and seemed linked to the closely merged and dominant notions of nation and community as taught by the state. The extent to which participants understood the Convention’s emphasis on the self-determination of communities in defining and safeguarding their own living heritage was difficult for the facilitators to ascertain during the workshop. That said, it may well have been grasped. But either way, working with the Convention is an ongoing endeavor for the DPRK as it is for other countries, and it is not unusual for heritage professionals used to top-down approaches elsewhere to take some time for the central place given to community ownership and self-determination under the Convention to sink in, regardless of their political system.
Most of the group was initially reticent to acknowledge any threats to living heritage in the DPRK. As their understanding of the Convention’s objectives progressed with Dr. Zhu Gang and I emphasizing that threats to living heritage were not a reflection of failure on the part of the state, but more of the impacts felt worldwide of multiple, complex, and accelerating social and lifestyle changes, the participants did open up about the issues causing a decline in the transmission of various cultural practices. And much as the DPRK differs significantly from other countries, the threats to which they referred had much in common with those expressed elsewhere, be the disinterest in intangible heritage among youth, the growing preference for watching films and other forms of audiovisual entertainment rather than listening to and spending time with elders, or a growing focus on extra-curricular academic activities for youth and long work hours for parents replacing time spent transmitting living traditions within family and community contexts.
Among the challenges of the training for the facilitators was the need to combine so many topics in one workshop while covering each in sufficient depth and allowing for consecutive interpretations. The decision to include more topics in this workshop than may generally fit into a program reflected the desire on the part of all parties to make the most of the rare opportunity to build local understanding and practical capacities to work with the Convention in the DPRK.
Finally, communication related to the the situation of intangible heritage in the DPRK was somewhat hindered by the expectations about keeping distance between foreigners and locals, including a limitation of questions and answers. Despite these limitations, the experience was a rich one in terms of the human interactions, and not all means of communicating need to be vocalized. The generosity and commitment from the participants and organizers who welcomed and shared their knowledge, concerns and hopes around safeguarding their living heritage, was clear.
Hopefully the decades of relations between the DPRK and UNESCO in the cultural sphere will continue to grow, with further international cooperation based on shared respect and actions for safeguarding living heritage and the communities to whom it belongs.