Dale Salwak recalls how in April he sat just 30 feet away from new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an event celebrating the centennial of the birth of Un’s grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
The event was followed by speeches and what Salwak called the one of the most elaborate firework shows synchronized to national music he had ever seen.
Salwak captivated audiences during his weeklong trip in the North Korean capital, but it wasn’t passionate speeches on political ideology that had audiences spellbound.
It was magic.
While tensions continue to mount against the communist country for its nuclear testing, Salwak said diplomacy and cultural exchange is what brought him and a small American delegation to secluded North Korea.
In April, Salwak, a 39-year literature and Bible professor at Citrus College, completed his third trip to North Korea as a magician performing at the Pyongyang Circus Theater, a 2,500-seat circus.
Salwak called the experience “life-changing.” It was a trip that promoted diplomacy, but also debunked stereotypes of one of the most isolated countries in the world.
“Magic is one of the great levelers that connects us regardless of what part of the world we live in,” said Salwak. “Magic, like all performing arts. crosses all political barriers. It knows no cultural restraints. It communicates with people as people.”
Beauty of Pyongyang
Salwak said he was immediately struck by the beauty of Pyongyang. Before coming to North Korea, Salwak had perceived North Korea as a dreary, stark communist country.
But the country's capitol was full of stunning architecture, including the North Koreans’ own Arch of Triumph and the Tower of Juche.
“My impressions were, first of all, how kind and gracious everyone I met were and how curious and interested they were about me,” said Salwak. “They could sense right away that I had come to learn.”
Salwak said he began practicing magic as a child and perfected his craft by performing at parties and for community groups.
In 2007, a friend invited Salwak to perform magic in North Korea and two years later Salwak performed for the first time in Pyongyang. Salwack said he immediately fell in love with country and longed to return.
In the spring of 2011, Salwak got his wish and again performed in North Korea.
From Salwak’s first two travels to North Korea came the idea of a cultural exchange program, where a group of magicians would perform in North Korea, while a North Korean delegation would travel to the United States.
In April, Salwak made his third trip to Pyongyang, this time joined by his son Ryan; fellow magician Rick Block from Washington; and California magician Danny Cole and his wife, Stacey. Plans are currently in place to send a North Korean group to the U.S.
Salwak’s commitment to cultural exchange and diplomacy is not only extended to North Korea, but also to the Citrus College and local community.
“Dr. Salwak, in addition to being a great instructor is also very wise,” said Mrs. Joanne Montgomery, president of the Citrus College Board of Trustees, in a press statement. “He knows that people respond to art and his particular brand of artistic expression is magic, something for which he has an innate talent. He is utilizing this to build bridges.”
Salwak also continues to speak publicly about his experiences in North Korea.
“I’ve discovered how little people know about the country apart from what they read or what they’ve seen in the media,” said Salwack. “And there is still so much more I have to learn myself.”