By Ariel Carmona Jr.
How do you bridge the cultural divide between two countries? With a little magic and a whole lot of good will and diplomacy.
Dr. Dale Salwak, has taught literature classes for 39 years at Citrus College, including Shakespeare, Literature of the Bible and Critical Thinking. He is also a prolific writer and a professional magician who recently returned from his third trip to North Korea.
He was there for seven nights and eight days and performed on three of those nights at the renowned Pyongyang Circus Theater, a 2,500 seat circus where he shared the stage with two other magicians. The two-hour show featured some of the best gymnasts and aerialists in the world.
Salwak said he got a chance to stand approximately 20 to 30 feet away from new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a brief speech given by one of Un’s advisers. Salwak had arrived four days before Un’s speech celebrating the centennial of the birth of the country’s father, the late Kim Il Sung, grandfather of Un.
At the event, Un was sitting in a viewing platform in front and to the left of Salwak, who stood with other members of an American delegation, Salwak’s interpreter, their North Korean host and other guests.
The speech was followed by an hour-long fireworks show, “the most elaborate one I've ever seen synchronized with national music, and then followed by another speech,” said Salwak. He added that it was magic that brought him to North Korea for the first time in 2009 after a friend asked if he would be interested in performing there. Salwak responded he was very interested in doing so.
Salwak made a lot of friends and developed close relationships abroad on what he called a “life-changing trip,” and he had such a splendid time, he longed to return. His wish came true in the spring of 2011, when he was asked to perform along with some of North Korea’s premiere magicians.
The purpose of Salwak’s April trip was to take a delegation of five Americans, including two magicians, as the first step toward what he hopes will be a long lasting and meaningful cultural exchange. North Korea, in turn, will send some delegates to the United States.
He travelled with his son Ryan, fellow magician Rick Block from Washington D.C., and California magician Danny Cole and his wife Stacey. Salwak said the American delegation has made a lot of progress in their non-official diplomatic relations with the North Koreans, despite a lot of stereotypes about the country.
Salwak’s perspective on North Korea and its people is civic, not political. He said he tries to steer clear of politics and instead focuses on the fine and performing arts. “When I go there, I don’t go with any agenda; I go there to make a connection on a human level. I am always seeking growth and understanding, so I hope there will be more of such exchanges.”
Dr. Geraldine M. Perri, superintendent/president of Citrus College, believes fostering cultural relationships beyond the United States’ borders reflects the college’s mission. “Citrus College as an institution is a microcosm of our global community. We are a very diverse campus, and I am happy that Dr. Salwak represents the college in such a unique and fascinating way on his travels abroad.”
“A lot of what people think comes from what they read and hear and not from having actually been there,” Salwak said. His involvement in the magic community affords him a unique chance to grow and learn about other cultures. “We have a lot in common, and we can learn a lot from each other.”
“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. “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 is the first to admit he is surprised by his involvement abroad. “North Korea wasn’t even on my radar a few years ago, but it’s funny how life sometimes leads us in paths we never predicted. I hope to go back, next year, at the latest, and maybe this autumn. Each time I leave the host says, ‘You’re always welcome in our country,’ and I hope to be the one saying that soon.”
He said he is hopeful the country’s new leadership will bring forth change, and he takes Un’s speaking to the North Korean people as a good sign, because previous political leaders have rarely addressed the people publicly in the past. “I got to experience the moment of his speaking and how people reacted. I was very touched by hearing him speak.“
It might be too early to tell whether significant social change will follow a new regime, but one thing has already been proven: the North Koreans, like a lot of their western counterparts, love magic. Politics and finances derailed a plan to bring American magician David Copperfield to North Korea in the 90s, but popularity in the performances continues to grow, Salwak seems to hint at why this is so.
“Magic, like music, is universal; it’s what we call a great leveler. All of us respond to wonder and fantasy. Magic at its best connects with the inner child in all of us,” he said.
Dr. Dale Salwak (second from right) and North Korea’s lead magician, Kim Taek Song (center) after discussing a future cultural exchange with (from left) Yuji Yasuda, Jae Hwe Ku and Ryan Salwak.