Inside North Korea's big birthday bash

To mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the North Korean founder, thousands came to Pyongyang to view elaborate displays. Most North Koreans got three days off for the party.

David Guttenfelder/AP
North Korean soldiers pose for pictures in front of a display of 'Kimilsungia' flowers, named after Kim Il-sung, at a flower display to mark 100 years since the birth of North Korea's late leader in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, April 17.

For the past few months, and even years, North Korea has been preparing for this moment.  

And true to form, the celebrations marking the 100th  anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President” and national founder Kim Il-sung have been filled with all the meticulously detailed preparations the West has come to expect from the East Asian “hermit kingdom.”

But for all the expectations of rigidity and regimented formality, there is a splash of spontaneity to be seen by visitors present at the ongoing festivities in the name of the “Great Leader”– even years after his death in 1994.

Thousands of military personnel from the Korean People’s Army paused from their choreographed performance as they exited the official parade route at Kim Il Sung Square on Sunday (the centenary of the April 15th  occasion). They reached out to locals, many of whom waved flowers and balloons during the bigger-than-Christmas and New Year four-day party of the century, which winds down today.

Kitted out in full uniform, soldiers from the army, navy, air force, and even several truck loads of service men and women dressed in the style of the guerrilla army famed in North Korea for battling the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945, shouted back to congratulatory cries from Korean onlookers.

There were welcomes, too, for a group of tourists, who had managed to find a way into the crowds despite the close watch of their nearby handlers. One visitor was even so lucky as to shake the hands of some dozen or so soldiers as their Russian-made Zil brand military truck stopped on the street, unable to inch forward on the road swarmed by hundreds of other identical vehicles ahead.

It was an unexpected shift from the stern faces seen earlier that morning on hundreds of military soldiers, who seemed to have nothing but sharp stares and suspicious eyes for visiting foreigners at the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery.

From a platform overlooking the central Kim Il Sung Square, portraits of Lenin and Marx, fixtures for decades, no longer hang here. Taken down in the past month or so, perhaps no longer needed. North Korea’s new leader, the youthful (some point out, inexperienced) Kim Jong-un, whose grandfather is at the heart of the celebrations, delivered a 20-minute surprise address.

“It was the first time for us to hear him speak,” a tour guide said, with his eyes almost glistening. “It [the speech] was peaceful.”   

Immediately analyzed at great length outside the North for clues on the intentions of the 20-something leader, the speech ranged from the need for progress, celebrating the nation’s achievements, and a future of reunification with South Korea. It was his first public speech and instantly stood him in stark relief to his late father, Kim Jong-il, who spoke publicly only once in his lengthy political career. 

The speech came amid repeated Western demands to suspend the testing of nuclear capabilities and long-range missiles in exchange for food aid, after the North's defiance in the form of a missile launch days earlier. But despite the failure of the country’s third attempt to launch a rocket to send a satellite into orbit (a failure that was, in a rare move, acknowledged by state media), the celebratory mood has not been spoiled.

Wearing their signature red ties, members of the Young Pioneer organization, teenage students, trekked to the city center for the Day of Sun celebrations, which are most extravagant in the capital of Pyongyang with festivals, games, music performances, dance shows, and parades. The commotion has contributed to traffic problems, another rarity in the city.

A teenage North Korean girl waiting to cross the street with her classmates said that she had walked nearly two hours to reach the part of town where they could see the soldiers passing by, expressing that she and her friends were “happy, happy.”

“It’s an important day because today is the 100th  birthday of General Kim Il-sung,” she said through a translator, smiling shyly before being ushered away for interacting with non-locals.

At Mansudae Grand Monument, meanwhile, locals arrived to pay their respects to the late Kims at the newly unveiled site, where Kim Il-sung’s statue, some 85 feet tall, shows evidence of a recent facelift – literally. While his body remains unaltered from the time of its erection at the site in 1972, the entire head has been replaced granting him an expressive smile, and a pair of glasses – more “happy grandfather” than strict national leader now. A new bronze figure of Kim Jong-il stands amicably at his father’s side.

Another key landmark is the Tower of the Juche Idea, which symbolizes the national philosophy broadly defined as national self-reliance. Workers rigged the 558 feet-tall structure that resembles a lighthouse with night lights, where fireworks exploded above it in bouts of grandiosity.

The pyrotechnic shows are meant to reward the people, whose everyday lives inside the recluse nation are far removed from the sights of such grand overtures, according to locals. 

Throughout the celebrations, however, tour guides, restaurant workers, hotel staff – students and volunteers of all walks of life – who have been recruited to serve the occasion, are missing the chance to spend the biggest holiday in North Korea for decades with loved ones.

Among them, a teacher, who has been drafted to help “mind” visitors during the days-long holiday, is one of many North Koreans working round-the-clock.

“I would prefer to be with my family,” she says.

* Editor's Note: Our correspondent in Pyongyang could not be identified for security reasons. 

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.