North Korea’s recent campaign of bluster and escalation seems to be reaching new heights, but visitors to the reclusive country say there are few signs the capital is anywhere near a war footing.
International TV broadcasters have been repeatedly showing tanks trundling through Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square in a demonstration of North Korean national power.
But when Patrick Thornquist, a Chicago teacher visiting the North Korean capital at the end of last week, arrived in the square, he was surprised by what he saw. This iconic square — Pyongyang’s political, military and symbolic heart — was full of children rollerblading and shouting with joy.
One of leader Kim Jong Un’s contributions to the nation has been building roller-skating parks and promoting entertainment facilities. And Thornquist was struck by the fact that, on watching the news later that day, it was still featuring footage of tanks.
“It was definitely interesting to see tanks on BBC in the hotel, as if that was that day, when we’d been in that square a couple of hours earlier and nothing like that was happening,” he says.
Thornquist’s trip was full of such surprises: for example, visiting a brand new bar, whose minimalist-but-cool decor wouldn’t have looked out of place in Brooklyn. As a first-time visitor, he hadn’t known what to expect. But even the tour leader was taken aback by how normal the mood is.
“I did expect to see civilian drills or hear some air-raid sirens or the camouflaged vehicles,” says Amanda Carr of Koryo Tours. She has been to North Korea about 40 times, and this visit, she says, was just like any other.
“To be honest, I was quite surprised at just how calm everything seemed,” she says.
“In terms of seeing military on the streets and propaganda, that’s the same as I’ve seen the last few months. A lot of military were doing the construction work that’s been going on for a good few months, also tree-planting, which goes on every year,” Carr says. “So I didn’t really see any military doing anything different from usual.”
Patriotism On Show
That view has been backed up by other accounts, notably from an Economist correspondent in Pyongyang who had spotted the buses covered with camouflage nets but concluded that any preparations were “more comical than convincing — like a version of ‘Dad’s army’ in totalitarian drag.”
Thornquist, the American tourist, had booked his ticket in October, before the current crisis escalated. Otherwise, he says, he probably wouldn’t have gone in current circumstances because he was nervous about the rising tide of anti-American rhetoric. But his first encounters with North Koreans put him at ease.
“At the beginning, I was a little bit nervous,” he says. “But one of the guides said, ‘Calm down, we’re all people.’ …What surprised me most is how there really wasn’t any anti-American talk directly to me.”
One of his personal high points was visiting a gigantic bowling alley, with 40 lanes and state-of-the art computerization. Footage he recorded there shows well-heeled Pyongyang dwellers enjoying themselves.
Frequent visitors comment on the relative prosperity on show: Mobile phones are much more common, and the shops are full of goods. A new consumer class is visible, which appears to have grown since April of last year — the government’s deadline for North Korea becoming a “Strong and Prosperous” country.
During the bowling alley outing, Carr, the tour guide, noticed that this consumer class seems firmly behind its leader, Kim Jong Un.
“There was footage of leader Kim Jong Un visiting one of the front-line islands. It was a surprise visit for the citizens there,” Carr says. “And there were a lot of people standing around [at the bowling alley] watching it, and some people were getting quite emotional, as were people on the TV. A couple of people were sort of wiping their eyes, perhaps tears had come to their eyes.”
What’s Real, And What’s Not
That Pyongyang’s propaganda should trigger such a show of loyalty in the showcase capital — home to the elite and politically reliable — is not surprising.
The message to the domestic audience is that the outside world is bullying North Korea, and its very existence is threatened. This has the effect of uniting its citizens behind their young new leader, no matter how much hardship they’re facing.
The dueling realities have left Thornquist completely baffled after his trip.
“You try to grasp what is real and what is not. You’re trying to find that balance between what your media tells you and what they’re telling you because they’re very far off,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
It’s a question that foreign diplomats based in North Korea are having to address. They’ve been warned to submit evacuation plans, with Pyongyang notifying them that it cannot guarantee their safety after April 10.
So far, the foreign embassies are continuing their operations as normal, judging this to be another move from what one Korea-watcher, Sung-Yoon Lee at Tufts University, calls the “Pyongyang playbook.”
But the big question now is whether Pyongyang really is bluffing or if this relative normality in the capital is just the calm before the storm.