North Korea

The ghosts of Pyongyang

The Korean People’s Army put us on a bus and took us away. All I had were my clothes and my passport as I took a seat on the right and got comfortable for the ride to destination unknown.

9 Pyongyang metro.JPG

This is a little like we’re going to prison, said the Frenchman to my left. Except prison buses don’t have seats covered with velour. Certainly not in North Korea.

We were banned from bringing virtually anything. Metal and liquids were out, watches were frowned on in case they had GPS locators inside, I left my belt behind to avoid the hassle. We had our passports checked and were scanned – subjected to close inspection – by metal detectors before boarding.

We waited half an hour in Kim Il-sung Square, that space in the heart of Pyongyang where a large portrait of the eternal president faces smaller paintings of Marx and Lenin, a space transformed into a bus terminal for the afternoon. In that time a Cuban military attache in full regalia, diplomatic figures, and representatives of the international news media had walked past.

It was the afternoon of February 16, the 70th anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s birth (officially) and the first major date on the North Korean calendar since his death in December. Word passed around that the destination was the palace, and there would be a military parade. A soldier sat three rows behind us.

The route was not the most direct available, instead we we drove past the prettiest buildings. The main road to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (the name changed that afternoon to reflect the fact Kim Jong-il’s body would soon be joining his father’s inside) is wide and long enough to be an airstrip but there was no traffic within two kilometres.

After a long but brisk walk from the bus, passing military hardware and unsmiling soldiers, we reached our vantage point, one of the balconies.  It was about 2.30pm, so the temperature was near the -3C maximum, but would soon drop. We found a place to stand that was mercifully out of the wind, generals to our left, aid workers and diplomats to our right, cameras in the pre-approved strategic locations, and waited.

To read the rest, click here. Originally published on April 13, 2012, the day a long-range North Korean rocket broke up shortly after launch. For a photo gallery, see Policy Forum.


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