In the rare silences during North Korea’s April 15 military parade, after innumerable divisions, tanks and rocket launchers had passed by, another sound rang out across the vast square in central Pyongyang: the hacking coughs of North Korea’s top military officers. I’d heard the same tortured coughs the day before at Kim Il-sung stadium, when tens of thousands of military had crowded into the stadium’s amphitheater seats to listen to speeches in honor of the North Korean founder who would have turned 100 years old on April 15.
I asked one of the government appointed guides what was wrong. He smiled and put two fingers to his mouth. “Harsh cigarettes,” he told me, adding that he only smoked Chinese.
It was just one of the few, unscripted moments during a carefully manicured week of celebrations in North Korea. In an unprecedented experiment, the North Korean government invited more than 5,000 foreigners into the country, including dozens of journalists from across the world to cover the celebrations as well as the launch of an Unha-3 rocket.
Pyongyang carries traces of the Soviet Union. Soviet tower housing blocks rise into the sky, and government buildings in the Stalinist style dominate much of the cityscape. The buses that North Koreans ride are dead ringers for Moscow’s aging trolleybuses. North Korean subway stations constructed during the 1970s are built on the massive scale pioneered by Soviet planners decades earlier.
The cult of leadership adopted by Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and now his son, Kim Jong-un, makes the country the last “Stalinist” regime. “Respected comrade Kim Jong-un is similar to the great Kim Il-song and Kim Jong-il. We think that they are one,” said Chong Song Sun, a young native of the capital, after the military parade.
It would be simple to assume that the personality cult is a result of brainwashing or a product of fear inspired by the regime, but many seemed genuine in their belief. After watching a battalion of female medics clutching machine guns goosestep by in perfect synchrony, a young cameraman for the Defense Ministry’s Zvezda television channel said: “You can’t force people to march like that. It has to come from the heart.”
Meeting the People.
For young Kim Jong-un’s sake, hopefully the support is real. This week he endured his largest crisis of his four-month rule: the failed launch of the Unha-3 rocket. North Korea could have done what it usually does when a rocket fails to take off – simply claim the rocket launch was successful.
But this time, news of the failed launch was aired on state television for local North Koreans to see.
Was this whole week a sign that Pyongyang was opening up? Not quite.
Politically, it was a week fraught with contradictions. Dozens of international journalists were invited in to watch North Korea flout a UN treaty with the rocket launch. In a considerable departure from his father, Kim Jong-un gave a public speech, but used it to tell North Koreans he would continue his father’s policies.
On the day of the satellite launch, the press corps was livid. In a surreal twist of fate, we ended up informing our handlers that the North Korean rocket launch had failed, and not the other way around. But in reality, it could have been expected. Security checks routinely took three hours in the mornings, and once we were on buses, our handlers still claimed not to know where we were going.
Expecting a press conference on the rocket, journalists ended up at the unveiling of a more than 25-meter-tall statue of Kim Jong-il in front of the Museum of the Revolution in the city center. On its way to the parade, the entire press corps broke into a dead run up a steep hill as the flustered handlers tried to keep up.
The scale of the celebrations was immense. One evening along the banks of the Paedong river, Pyongyang suddenly went dark – all the lights from the adjacent buildings were turned off for a spectacular fireworks display covering more than a kilometer of the river and a pair of bridges across it.
Young North Koreans smiled as they caught the eyes of passing journalists and the elderly waved enthusiastically for the cameras. There were even moments of levity as journalists clambered up a steep bank and precariously tried to keep their balance as they interviewed North Koreans about the celebrations.
The tolerance of the foreigners in the city was in stark contrast to official North Korean politics. “If the American imperialists attack, we will wipe them out” read one sign by the Puhung subway station. I asked our handler, Ri, how he could work as a guide for foreigners, including an American, if he agreed with the sign. “We can distinguish between people and politics,” he said. “Everyone knows that the United States runs the South Korean government, but that doesn’t mean that regular Americans are not welcome here. We hope you’ll come again.”
It was almost a given that the capital had been spruced up for the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth. The center was cleaned for several days before the April 15 military parade, and our tours through the city followed carefully planned routes. One morning we travelled by subway in what was supposedly an impromptu trip only to run into two other journalist delegations at the station and later find others who had made the same trip.
Beneath the officialdom of celebratory concerts, parades, and dance exhibitions, it was unclear how poor life really was in the capital, much less in the rest of the country. A small convenience store in the center of the city had bare shelves, but an adjacent household goods store seemed to have a large inventory and more than a dozen customers.
For the North Korean authorities, the day-to-day life of regular citizens simply was not part of the script. On our last evening in Pyongyang, we listened to a concert in honor of Kim Il-sung at the Kim Il-sung Theater, which included several songs supposedly penned by the North Korean founder himself. Across from the theater, there was a small square with a fountain with teenagers weaving circles on rollerblades in the late afternoon sun.
A young journalist pointed out the windows and spoke to his handler. “You should tell your superiors that it would be better for you to show us that.” The guide looked out the window and then turned back to the rest of the bus. “Forbidden,” he said and we drove off to an evening of cultural dances dedicated to Kim Il-sung.
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