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World & Nation

At a North Korean nursery school, tots get an early education in weaponry

North Korea nursery school
Wall art at the Changchon farm nursery school includes the heavily armed duo of “Squirrel and Hedgehog.”
(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

We foreign journalists were supposed to be marveling at the model farm on the outskirts of the North Korean capital – a 1,200-worker-strong vegetable commune with lots of amenities for the fieldhands, including homes equipped with solar power panels and solar water heaters. And I did manage an odd appreciation for the huge mosaic in the parking lot, depicting North Korean founding father Kil Il Sung gazing beatifically across a field of cabbages.

An eye chart at the nursery school includes rifles and pistols.
An eye chart at the nursery school includes rifles and pistols. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

But when our government minders brought us reporters into the Changchon farm community’s nursery school, my brain got a little fixated on the wall art: Just past a painting of children skipping hand-in-hand beneath large letters saying “We Are Happy!” were some fratricidal forest friends.

First to catch my eye was a duck firing a machine gun at a wolf. Then I noticed the squirrel with hand grenades taking out a cowering weasel, with backup provided by a hedgehog with a RPG launcher.

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I suppose in a country that has long followed a policy of songun, or “military first,” the powers-that-be figure it’s never too early to let the youngsters know what’s what.

Current leader Kim Jong Un has modified his late father’s songun approach into his own mantra of byongjin, which translates as “simultaneous push.” That means trying to develop the economy and nuclear weapons at the same time.

But that still means another generation of North Korean kids will probably grow up with “Squirrel and Hedgehog,” or something just like it.

“Squirrel and Hedgehog,” my guides informed me, is as familiar to and beloved by North Korean kids as any Disney toon is to Yankee tots. Produced by state-run SEK Studios, the long-running animated TV show centers on the inhabitants of a make-believe place called Flower Hill, which is populated by squirrels, hedgehogs, and ducks.

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A mural in the entry hall to the Changchon nursery school says "we are happy."
A mural in the entry hall to the Changchon nursery school says “we are happy.” (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
A duck character from the animated series "Squirrel and Hedgehog" is featured on the wall of the Changchon nursery school.
A duck character from the animated series “Squirrel and Hedgehog” is featured on the wall of the Changchon nursery school. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
Toddlers at the Changchon farm nursery school.
Toddlers at the Changchon farm nursery school. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
The nursery school at the Changchon communal farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea.
The nursery school at the Changchon communal farm on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

The squirrels are the leaders, while the hedgehogs are the soldiers. Ducks are, duh, the navy. As you might guess, this squadron represents North Korea. The Flower Hill gang must contend with evil weasels (Japan) and wolves (the United States), while occasionally dealing with friendly but drunk bears (Russia). 

“It’s a classic,” my guide, Ms. Hwang, informed me. “Everyone knows Squirrel and Hedgehog.”

Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang on the wall at the Changchon nursery school.
Portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang on the wall at the Changchon nursery school. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

Even without Squirrel and Hedgehog, the angelic-looking toddlers of Changchon farm are getting their indoctrination in other ways – from the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hanging in the classroom, for instance, or the nationalistic anthems the kids are learning to sing. In North Korea, the propaganda starts early.

During the visit, one teacher even helped show a young charge how to handle a toy machine gun. 

Even an eye chart in the nurse’s health room featured military symbolism. Instead of “E” letters pointing various directions, the chart contained progressively smaller lines of everyday basic objects – stars, airplanes, apples, umbrellas. And, oh yes, automatic rifles and handguns.

If you’re interested in checking out “Squirrel and Hedgehog,” follow this link to some episodes on YouTube.

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from Asia

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