Peering behind North Korea's celebrations


Celebrations began with a crowd of tens of thousands in Pyongyang

Central Pyongyang was a sea of faces today, a crowd perhaps a hundred-thousand strong packing the open square.

What was extraordinary was the way they all acted on cue, as one, clapping together, bowing together, waving their pink floral batons in unison.

North Korea has begun what it says will be the biggest celebrations in the nation's history, to mark the 100th birthday of the reclusive state's founder Kim Il-sung and the rule of his son Kim Jong-il too.

Both Kims are now dead and the North's current ruler is the third in the dynasty, Kim Jong-un.

I am among a group of journalists who have been invited to the usually closed country to witness the events.

This event in the capital was the unveiling of a giant mosaic of the former leader Kim Jong-il who died last December. The huge picture has been erected on a hill right next to a similar mosaic of his father, the North's founder Kim Il-sung.

Start Quote

The grey monotony of the city, the long, patient queues of people waiting for the morning tram - the drab uniformity suggesting the land of the Kims isn't quite a socialist paradise, not yet.”

End Quote Damian Grammaticas

The unveiling marked the start of a week of celebrations for the centenary of the elder Kim's birth. It was accompanied by speeches, blaring over loudspeakers, extolling the virtues of the two Kims.

The massed ranks of Pyongyang's citizens below bowed to the new portrait. The symbolism couldn't have been clearer. Although this week's celebrations are meant to be a birthday party for Kim Il-sung, they are also about fixing Kim Jong-il's position in North Korea's pantheon.

New Supreme Leader

Kim Jong-il has been officially elevated, posthumously, to sit alongside his father as another almost godlike figure. The hope must be that it will help ensure the dynasty continues to hold North Korea's people in thrall.

Later this week the third in the Kim line, Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il and the grandson of Kim Il-sung, is expected to be formally given the title of Supreme Leader. He is not even 30 years old. But he is already ruling North Korea and needs to have his role confirmed by the Korean Workers' Party and the rubber stamp legislature.

Crowd of North Koreans, Pyongyang 9 April 2012 The crowd in the capital Pyongyang bowed as the new mural of Kim Jong-il was unveiled

With this week's events the regime hopes to convince its people that their nation has been turned into a powerful, prosperous land. Most outsiders wouldn't view North Korea that way.

Instead, watching the mass celebration, it seems what sustains North Korea is the personality cult built around the Kim dynasty, and a system of totalitarian control.

As the hundred thousand people filed out of the square our group of journalists was hurried away by our minders. We were told we could not interview a single one of the crowd who had been present and were hustled away.

Inspired by Kims

Instead we were taken to a model silk-spinning factory in Pyongyang. Women in headscarves manned huge machines that boiled the silk cocoons, then extracted and spun the thread. Steam hung in the air.

The general manager, himself an official hero of industry, told me that the factory has never fired a single worker, they all toil so hard.

Apparently it is all down to the generous guidance of the two elder Kims; both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have visited the factory and given, we were told, invaluable guidance.

The factory handles 80% of North Korea's silk production, generating $20 million (£12.6 million) a year. But it's not quite the model of North Korea's spirit of Juche, or self-reliance, extolled by the Kims. The machinery is all imported from China and Japan.

Woman on a balcony of tower block, 9 April 2012 Away from the celebrations the uniformity of life hints at a less prosperous country

Portraits of the two elder Kims looked down from the wall as workers sat behind computers getting interactive instruction in mathematics, physics, and English.

"This birthday celebration for Kim Il-sung is the biggest national event in our country," one woman told me, adding, "I am going to celebrate by working even harder."

If the propaganda is to be believed the 2,000 workers are no slackers. Chang Yong-ok has worked at the factory for nearly 30 years. Like everyone we were allowed to talk to, she stuck to the same script, insisting Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il deserve the credit for everything.

"When they were alive they instructed us to provide clothes for the people," she told me proudly. "This year we have exceeded our annual quota in just three months."

But although North Korea has invited us in to witness the celebrations, ours is a tightly controlled visit. Where we go and who we talk to is all organised for us.

Outside though as we drive through Pyongyang, through the windows of our bus, are hints of a less perfect world.

There's the grey monotony of the city, the long, patient queues of people waiting for the morning tram - the drab uniformity suggesting the land of the Kims isn't quite a socialist paradise, not yet.

Damian Grammaticas, China correspondent Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Forget these fools.
    If they can ignore their starving people to conduct expensive missile tests -- when no one is even remotely threatening then -- they deserve no further consideration from any of us.
    They can conduct all the missile tests they want with their primitive rocket technology. We ain't scared.
    But they’ve better not cut too many corners as they rush to show off or they will blow themselves up first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Poor North. If they have oil, they could be rich and America's friend, like Saudi Arabia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I used to think Juche was the bottle in my fridge with the orange on it

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    kafantaris (#1):

    As nice as it would be if we could just ignore it, N. Korea's ... position ... makes that problematic. They've got nukes and a tendency to act up in dramatic ways when they don't get what they want.

    If the "West" won't play ball, there's no reason to think Pyongyang wouldn't be perfectly happy quietly marketing a few warheads to the highest bidder. Iran's nuclear program owes a good deal to N. Korea, if I remember right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Just to point out, "the North" wasn't founded by Kim Il-sung. It was founded by the Soviet Union & the US in the wake of Japan's defeat in WWII, and the subsequent power vacuum in Japan's former colony Korea. And the DPRK was only founded three years later under Soviet authority with Kim installed as the head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Remember George Orwell's 1984.

    A government like North Korea, that can convince its people that it is defending them against a real outside threat, will be able to exercise tight control and be cheered for it.

    Come to think of it, look at what the Americans are getting away with in the name of Homeland Security. They can arrest and hold indefinately any US citizen on suspicion of association with terrorist suspects. The legislation was sneaked in as a rider to a finance bill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Juche is quite a catchy name. North should use it as a trade mark for their delicious noodles, dog meat, steamboat, etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    In many ways, it suits China, South Korea and the US to keep the "status quo" in North Korea.

    If change comes, there will be tremendous upheaval on the Korean peninsula. Even if the change is peaceful - the reunification of East and West Germany being a model - how do you deal with 23 million people who have been brought up to believe the Kims are almost god-like and a nation that needs huge investment? Who will pay? Who will help the people there?

    Maybe change, peaceful or otherwise, is seen as a bigger threat than no change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    # kafantaris:

    Not remotely threatened? There are still nearly 30,000 US troops in-country, and the US and South Korea carry out large-scale military exercises along the border every year. The South frequently fires live ammunition into North Korea' national waters: if the French, for example, were to fire into the waters off Portsmouth or Dover, would England be expected to accept this? You have been told North Korea is the 'bad guy' and have decided their position is not work consideration.
    Also, do not underestimate the impact of US sanctions: the country is effectively under siege.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    # Toralisasam:

    N. Korea may not be the "bad guy" in all ways, but your view suggests a bit of a flip: while some aspects of its positions on this and that (such as being the more authentic, orginal Korean revolutionary movement) may have some teeth, a Stalinist dictatorship is not a particularly nice place to live.

    Traditionally, N. Koreans have been taller than their Southern kin. The reverse is currently true, for the obvious reasons.

    This, despite the point that China a next-door neighbor to the Hermit Kingdom. A siege that does not surround and isolate is not a siege.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    God forbid if they have a nuclear weapon on board & it misfires, no wonder Japan are ready to shoot it out of the sky. But then wouldn't that cause even more mayhem, if a nuke was a passenger? Seems Kim just as loopy as his dad & grand-dad & is hellbent on keeping the world & his neighbours on tenterhooks. Sanctions wouldn't work here as Kim & his Generals & military would always survive with the help of China & other "couldn't care less about the West, regimes". It's the people who sadly are suffering & a good percentage of them robotized by the constant agitprop thrown at them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.


    Don't be so quick to presume North Korean attitudes. A lot of people hold that belief about the Chinese with their political leaders, but this is far from the truth. The Chinese people are very critical of their leadership and the problems in the country; however, many keep their opinions to themselves or private out of fear of punishment. This does not change the fact they have these opinions though.

    I have doubts that the North Korean people buy into the cult of personality - they are not fools, and hunger and cold will be far more persuasive than giant murals ever will be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    They want publicity and we happily run along when the invites get issued so in effect we are their puppets, eager for insight & knowledge into something we will never truly understand, yet there we are reporting to the wider world what N.Korea wants to tell/show everyone to be are N.Korea in control of our media? Clever on their part if you look at it from this point of view.
    They are like any human craving attention - ignore it and they will get bored and go away but the more you react/pay attention, more 'acting up' will occur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.


    North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and China are all the same & are all friends too, they've much in common!


  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    # sithsmith

    Presuming that a nation state thinks and operates in the same mode as an immature human is ill-advised. It's a collective entity, albeit one headed by a small ruling elite-- a ruling elite that has proven exceedingly good at holding onto unchallenged power.

    That ruling elite acts up not because it wants the *attention itself*, but because it wants the economic and political perks that come from concessions made as a result. Deny these, and you risk cornering them.

    You do not want to corner a pack of vicious, nuclear-armed autocrats who might just believe their own propaganda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    To clarify, two of the "perks" I'm referring to are enough food aid to keep starvation under some kind of control and the ability to demonstrate to their own satisfaction that they can stand up to the "West". Take those away, and....

    Imagine a cult imploding, but on the scale of a nation-state. Nuclear-armed, as I keep pointing out.

    I like Seoul. I like the S. Koreans, and a quarter or so of them live there. I would rather not see Seoul get Hiroshima-ed or gassed.

    (Yes, the North's got chemical weapons, too.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Give it twenty years and this regime will be gone like Soviet communism ahhahahahahahaha ahhahahahahahaha hohoho!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Communists have always encouraged personality cult - Lenin, Stalin, Mao - with even their embalmed bodies being preserved so that even in death they continue to cast an influence on the people. The North Korean leadership is no different. Personality cult is indulged by those who are mortified of democracy & the ballot shorn of any political influence. What the Communist leaders consider as a very impressive show of might is nothing but a comedy circus to the rest of the world - reminscent of Charlie Chaplain's "The Great Dictator"

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Sometimes I wonder why anyone sends these crazy people food... Or anything. Countries and organizations supply N.Korea food and other items so they can keep their weapons programs up. I know that if I had a choice of dying of hunger or dying trying to topple the regime that is essentially starving me to death I'd choose trying to topple them. This might be me being a typical American, but I'd rather die on my feet than on my knees. We need to make the N.Korean government responsible for feeding their own people.

    Remember kids: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Strange, a nuclear power threatening to test weapons of mass destruction and they are not being invaded and set to rights. Of course, they don't have any oil and the country is so poor that it would be a huge liability for the west, making the unification of Germany look cheap. Oh and Bliar and Bush are no longer war-mongering at every turn. How times have changed.


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