PYONGYANG — Is change really in the air north of the Korean Peninsula’s 38th parallel?
In the week that saw Red Cross officials from Japan and North Korea striking an accord on the search for Japanese nationals that Tokyo maintains were abducted, and the United States announcing that an envoy would travel to Pyongyang in a bid to break the stalemate on contacts since President George W. Bush entered the White House, subtle changes were also visible within the Hermit Kingdom’s borders.
Children are eating ice cream on the street and multicolored trams are rattling through Pyongyang, beneath red flags and banners stretched between the peeling walls of apartment buildings. A regular visitor to this Stalinist state points out that neither were present on his last visit.
And there are simply more people on the streets, he adds. That, however, may be misleading.
“April is always a very important month for us,” says Li Myung Hui, my government-appointed translator. “And this April is even more special than usual; April 15 is the 90th anniversary of the Dear Leader’s birthday and the 25th is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.”
These red-letter days on the North Korean calendar have been celebrated in a style not generally seen elsewhere since the collapse of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe more than a decade ago.
Kim Il Sung Square, which covers nearly a square kilometer of central Pyongyang between the Grand People’s Study House and the Taedong River, is overlooked by the vast Tower of Juche Idea. Juche is North Korea’s unique brand of self-reliant communism.
On April 25, the square was awash in bayonets and brass as some 10,000 men and women of the armed forces — including boys and girls as young as 16 — marched past clutching AK47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades.
A similar number of ordinary citizens appeared like a tide washing across the square, brandishing red and pink flowers and paying homage for two hours to Kim Il Jong on the balcony above me.
In his usual baggy gray suit, Kim waved benevolently to his people, and they cheered him wildly. Around me, women in the colorful chogori national dress wept uncontrollably at the sight of the “Dear Leader.”
Conspicuous by their absence, however, were the tanks, artillery pieces and aircraft that usually accompany these sort of displays. A Russian in the crowd beside me suggests that this is because there isn’t sufficient fuel. There is no way to verify his opinion.
The morning’s festivities were followed in the evening by a second march-past. In scenes reminiscent of Nazi Germany’s rallies of the 1930s, more than 50,000 soldiers, students and workers goose-stepped through the square brandishing flaming torches.
Even though Kim Il Sung died in 1994, he is still deified in a country cut off from the rest of the world. Not for nothing is it known as the Hermit Kingdom.
The marchers at this second two-hour parade were urged on by a military band and proclamations over a loudspeaker, including “Long live the army priority policy.”
“The army priority policy is the Dear Leader’s philosophy of a strong military to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula,” a Pyongyang resident told me. “The people come second. A strong army allows us to have industry, to live our lives. Having no army means we will be invaded.”
This North Korean — who asked that I not identify him for fear of retribution — did not say “might be” or “could be” invaded; he has been told that his homeland will be overrun by the “imperialist aggressors” of the United States, Japan and South Korea.
These massive displays of devotion to the army and the country’s leadership, were merely the entree to the main event, however.
With just five weeks to go until the soccer World Cup kicks off south of the world’s most heavily fortified border, Pyongyang is sinking millions of its hard currency reserves into a two-month charm offensive of parades, mass displays of gymnastics, cultural festivals and fireworks displays.
In what could be construed as an attempt to divert some of the limelight away from South Korea, its bitter ideological rival since the 1950-53 Korean War, the North Korean government began the Arirang Festival on Monday.
The festival will run until the end of June — also, coincidentally, the end of the World Cup — and the government claims that it will attract the highest caliber of artists, musicians and dancers from around the world. And Pyongyang is footing their bills.
Most of those who will be attending or taking part are from China and the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Pyongyang has publicly stated that it expects more than 200,000 tourists to travel to see the festival; it risks being severely embarrassed if far fewer turn up.
And the stakes were raised considerably when Bush gave his recent “axis of evil” speech, identifying Kim Jong Il’s Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as one of the three nations, along with Iran and Iraq, that pose the greatest threat to global security.
“Why did he say this?” asked another North Korean after I inadvertently lost my minder, who had tried to block every attempt to talk to local people, in the crowds at the march-past. “I don’t understand why anyone would say North Korea is an axis of evil.
“Our government was very angry when it heard this; they said it is the U.S. imperialists who are evil,” he said, asking that he not be identified.
Hand in hand with this “new attitude,” however, comes plenty of evidence of the old.
In the lobby of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, a display of photographs show anti-Japanese and anti-U.S. propaganda that few stop to examine.
True to the language of the Cold War, the pictures are captioned: “Japanese brutes killing Koreans with bamboo spears and iron bars”; “. . . turning Japan into a slaughterhouse”; “The U.S. aggressors committed blood-curdling atrocities of mass slaughter everywhere they went”; and “(U.S. Secretary of State John Foster) Dulles, a warmonger of U.S. imperialism, making plans for the invasion of the northern half of Korea. On July 25 (1950), U.S. imperialists provoked an aggressive and murderous war.”
Similarly, the hotel book shop sells tracts titled “Japan’s war crimes, past and present” and “A duel of reason between Korea and U.S.,” while a two-page spread in the April edition of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea magazine is headlined “Japan makes open moves toward overseas invasion.”
TV movies portray the heroic feats of chisel-jawed soldiers in the wars against the Japanese and U.S., interspersed with clippings from the military parades.
It is little wonder that there is still such distrust — even hatred — of all thing Japanese and American.
“The Korean people see the Japanese as our enemy because they occupied our country for a long time,” another Pyongyang resident told me. “If Japan is ready to compensate the Korean people for what they did and if they want to be friends, then that’s OK.”
Our conversation revealed the gaps in local people’s knowledge, however. My newfound friend knew nothing about the alleged abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea, was completely unaware of the diplomatic row over the test-firing of a missile over northern Japan in 1998, did not know of concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and had not heard that a ship that sank after exchanging fire with the Japan Coast Guard in the East China Sea last year is believed to have been a North Korean spy vessel.
“That’s just not possible,” was the response to each allegation.
Instead, they have been imbued with a sense of belief in their homeland’s pre-eminence, and that of its leaders. Monuments and statues festoon the city: the Arch of Triumph, which marks the spot where Kim Il Sung gave his rallying speech after the departure of the Japanese in 1945 (“and it’s a full 3 meters higher than the one in Paris”); the six buildings housing the Three Revolutions Exhibition; the Kim Il Sung University; Kwangbok Street, an eight-lane highway almost entirely devoid of traffic; and the Monument to the Fallen Soldiers of the People’s Army.
And more gargantuan projects are popping up the whole time: The vast Kim Il Sung Memorial Palace is where he was entombed after his death and the newest monument — three towering arms holding, predictably enough, a hammer, a sickle and a spear — is so recent that it does not even appear on my map.
The state has been so successful in convincing its people of their good fortune that the average North Korean apparently genuinely believes that his or her life is far better than that of anyone beyond the borders.
I am taken to Revival Station on one of Pyongyang’s two subway lines. My guide looks at me proudly, and says, “I don’t think you have a subway system in your country, do you?” She seems genuinely shocked to discover that other cities do, in fact, have mass transport systems.
But I admit Tokyo’s subways are a far cry from those in Pyongyang. The 35 km of lines are 100 meters down (and possibly double as military facilities). They have incessant piped martial music, marble walls, chandeliers, elaborate balustrades and are richly decorated with scenes of workers’ feats in mines, docks and construction sites. They are, of course, all overlooked by a smiling Kim Il Sung giving workers “guidance” on a building site.
If Pyongyang is genuinely looking for engagement rather than confrontation with the rest of the world, then it wants to do it on its own terms; any international relationship is unlikely to make a great deal of difference to the lives of the average man or woman on the street.
Some things have definitely not changed just yet, however. Waiting for my Air Koryo flight to be called at the airport, the head of my guide’s tourist organization suddenly reveals over coffee that he is fluent in English.
“If you slander our social system or say anything bad about our government,” he says, “then it will be very bad for her,” indicating my guide, who drops her eyes and studies the table cloth.
Some old habits die hard inside the world’s last remaining Stalinist state.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.