Today is the Big Day in North Korea.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
That is the reason this abnormally high number of foreigners have arrived in Pyongyang – to see the guaranteed to be over-the-top celebrations.
So what do the North Koreans do? They round-up all the foreigners in the country and bus them to a sparsely-kitted-out children’s amusement park on the edge of town so that they can be kept away from the celebrations.
“It will be a chance for you to meet the locals,” our guide tells us. North Koreans, like West Coast Americans, have developed no sense of irony.
Locals, of course, are sparse on the ground in the amusement park. There are smatterings of performing North Korean children, tour guides and North Koreans in black suits with cameras plus a couple of visible video cameraman filming the entire thing, presumably to show foreigners cavorting in celebration of the Great Leader’s birth.
The centrepiece is a little area towards the back of the park where ‘sports’ are put on… These largely involve cute children in national costume grabbing overweight foreign men and running round hand-in-hand with them in ‘games’.
A Swedish man says to me: “It’s Make-The-Foreigners-Look-Silly Day,” but it feels more like a paedophiliac school sports day held on the outskirts of Nuremberg during one of Hitler’s rallies.
I meet Russians, Vietnamese, American and many other foreign visitors wandering around, bemused although, oddly, the Americans seem to rather enjoy it. There are tens of coaches parked in long lines on the periphery.
Because the amusement park is isolated and fairly self-contained, we are allowed to wander around it individually and unsupervised , but one woman in our group is told: “Do not walk too far away” – ie don’t leave the amusement park – “because there are tigers and wild animals in the hills”.
This is hardly the most believable or subtle piece of crowd control and is akin to saying: “Don’t leave Trafalgar Square, the elephants may trample you to death in Whitehall.”
I wander to the other end of the amusement park, where a handful of ‘real’ children and adults are almost absentmindedly meandering. I have my camera out and I am taking a photograph of an unused children’s rocket ride – the irony of the North Koreans sending up a real rocket two days ago – when three small children of maybe 6 years old come up to me.
“You pay?” asks one, looking at my camera. “You pay?”
Nearby adults urgently call the children back.
They have not heard what was actually said to me. But the fact that the children were interacting with a foreigner is bad enough – dangerous enough.
North Korea is on a slippery slope.
Like all such countries, it needs dollars and foreigners. But first we have children waving at coaches carrying foreigners and seeing smiles and waves in return. Then children talk to foreigners. Then money gets involved. I doubt if any ‘ordinary’ North Korean could do anything with a US dollar even if they got one – let alone a child. But it is a short and slippery slope from this to the regime starting to lose Big Brother control.
In the evening, we are taken to the circus. You can seldom beat Communist regimes for perfection of performance and this is no exception. It includes a juggler who briefly juggles eight balls (it may have been nine); this is mind-numbingly difficult. I am never impressed by anyone juggling three balls but, as I understand it, juggling eight balls is six times more difficult than juggling three balls. No-one can do it for more than a few brief seconds.
Communists are never strong on promoting though.
“No photos. No photos. No videos.” I am told by an official who stays near me throughout the show; but some videos have escaped onto YouTube.
Everything is a big state secret, including showbiz talent which is a pity, because there is a jaw-dropping white bird act (I don’t know if they were doves or not).
The act is indescribably good, involving the birds performing tricks unsupervised and climaxing with perhaps ten birds being released from various parts of the vast auditorium and flying to the small female performer standing alone on the stage. Perhaps they even have the birds brainwashed in North Korea.
In the evening, at a tourist restaurant, a Western tour guide tells me that the North Koreans are anarchic. I had already realised this. Extreme Centralised Control = Anarchy. No-one wants to take the responsibility of making a decision in case it turns out, in some way, to be a wrong decision.
The reason foreigners were not allowed anywhere near Kim Il-sung Square, where the big birthday celebrations were held, was that it was partially a big military parade, but the decision to make it a big military parade rather than a jolly dancy-pracey celebration was not made until very late. Or perhaps it was made earlier but no-one even in the Korean bureaucracy was told.
After the parade, there is a massively spectacular and massively expensive fireworks display on the river bank opposite Kim Il-sung Square – we sit in a foreigners/Party restaurant watching it on TV – but, although it was known there would be a massive firework display, no-one knew exactly where or when it would be until the last moment. Everything in the country is either a late decision or a massive secret (for no real reason) or both. The culture of fear and indecision runs deep.
At this point, our North Korean tour guide senses that everyone is wondering why we have not been allowed to see the clearly non-military fireworks display which is taking place perhaps a ten minute drive from the restaurant. So, our meals still unfinished, he gets us all into our coach and tries to cross the bridge or, at least, get close to the firework display so we can have a view. But all roads and bridges are sealed off by the police.
Eventually, he decides to park by a road tunnel and, with the tunnel closed to traffic, we leg it through the dark to try to get to the other side. By this time, the fireworks display is ending or has ended and thousands of North Koreans are coming through the tunnel in the opposite direction. We smile and wave at them. They smile and wave at us. Some say, “Hello!”
I think to myself: “Slippery slope”.
These are not the brainwashed zombies of American and South Korean propaganda. These are just people who have been enjoying a good night out with friends and family. Never assume the pictures and news coming out of South Korea are any less mindless propaganda than the stuff coming out of North Korea.
It is a great mistake to believe that the North Korean people are under an oppressive yoke from which they wish to escape. By and large, they are not being forced into doing or believing anything. They mostly genuinely lap up all the ‘facts’ and information spewed out by the regime.
In 15th century England under the rule of Richard III, the people did not yearn to own a Toyota Land Cruiser, an iPod and Google on the internet for a cheap flight to Spain because that alternate world did not exist.
In 21st century North Korea under the Kim family and the generals, the people, by and large, do not yearn for the ‘better’ life which they do not know exists. They believe, they ‘know’ – that their cutting-edge advanced country is the envy of the world. They have seen their living standards rocket. They have seen electricity pylons erected in the 1980s; they have been told and have seen the Juche philosophy of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung sweep the world; and now some people in the cities have mobile phones.
When I was here in 1986, we were taken to the Library in Pyongyang and, as we looked at bookshelves, a photographer appeared, snapping away. Presumably our photos appeared somewhere later as British students of the Juche Idea coming to study the Great Leader’s thoughts in the most-admired country in the world.
North Koreans know they are blessed and are one of the most advanced nations on earth. They have seen the tall apartment blocks rise in Pyongyang; they have seen those mobile phones arrive in the country – around one million of them; they have seen that rocket shot into space two days ago with, atop it, the advanced satellite which is, even now, transmitting to the world songs in praise of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung.
Truly, they know for certain that this is a people’s paradise.
In my hotel room, I watch TV coverage of the day’s events. The parades. The Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un watching from his balcony on high with his generals. His speech to the gathered tens of thousands in Kim Il-sung Square looks uncharismatic. His mouth is dry. As he watches the parade, there are cutaways to him, watching from the balcony. He seems slightly awkward, slightly nervous at first. But, as the parade progresses – from marching soldiers to lorries to armoured vehicles to tanks to rockets on giant trailers to a fly-past by five jets – he becomes more relaxed, more smiling, more happy. It is as if he is having displayed to him fully for the first time the toys he can play with.
He will have seen all this before but it is as if you can see, for the first time, the full reality dawning on him that he has all these boys’ toys to play with. He owns his own air force. What more could any young man want?
Also on TV, there is a celebratory stage production including a military ballet.
And the occasional, inevitable patriotic music videos develop into a sequence in which various world leaders – including President Putin of Russia, Fidel Castro of Cuba and American Evangelist Billy Graham – are shown in Pyongyang, coming to meet and pay tribute to the three truly great Leaders – father, son and holy grandson.
They come like the Three Wise Men came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus.
Because, as everyone in North Korea knows, the world acknowledges that the Land of the Kims is a truly great land. Other countries’ leaders come to pay tribute, just as lesser nations’ leaders came to pay tribute to the Caesars in Rome. Coming to North Korea, paying tribute to the Kims was and is like paying tribute to Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela all rolled into one.
That, I am sure, is what it feels like for North Koreans to see this on TV. Or it would be if they had ever known Albert Einstein and Mother Theresa existed. Who knows if they have ever heard of Nelson Mandela? Possibly only as a fighter against colonialist imperialism.
North Korea is like a young girl kept locked in a cellar for 25 years with no access to or knowledge of the outside world… except what her captor tells her.