PYONGYANG, North Korea – From across the city, they are summoned to pay reverence. So on a chilly April evening, tens of thousands of people come tohonor their new ruler, as towering statues of his father andgrandfather are unveiled on a Pyongyang hilltop. The crowds bowbefore the statues in practiced unison and shake bright, fakeflowers in choreographed praise. Some weep with joy to be in thepresence of the baby-faced Kim Jong Un, who is now theirIllustrious General, their Leader, their Supreme Commander. |
For years, this is how the world has seen the people of thissecretive nation: as Stalinist automatons in meticulously stagedmass spectacles that glorify one-family rule. And there's plenty oftruth in that. But look closer. Go downtown on that April evening and mingle among the thousands ofpeople walking to their trolley stops after the ceremony, when thestreets are closed to traffic and crowds fill the night withlaughter.
Most have spent the entire day squatting in a hilltopplaza the size of a small cornfield, waiting to stand on cue andwave their flowers for a few minutes in well-practiced devotion.They should be exhausted. Instead, young women walk arm in arm, young men eyeing them fromnearby. Older women laugh as they swish along in the traditionalKorean dresses modernized here into polyester hoop skirts. Acrossthe street from Department Store No. 1, hundreds of people crowdsidewalk stalls to buy 1-cent servings of spring water ("Good foryour health!" a saleswoman promises), served in metal cups that arerinsed in buckets and quickly used again.
In many ways, it's a vision of 1950s small-town America. Most menwear hats and ties, few women show even a hint of cleavage. Thereare no teenagers with mysterious piercings, no fights, no obviousdrunks. This is the complex reality of the spectacles, which exist at aparticularly North Korean intersection of dogma, tedium andentertainment.
They are blatant propaganda in support of the rulingfamily, but also a chance to look around for girlfriends. They area source of widespread pride in a country best known for itsisolation, but require dull practice sessions that can stretch onfor days. And in a place with little to offer in the way of nightlife, theyeven count as fun. Movie theaters close early here, along with the bars. North Koreantelevision broadcasts little but odes to the ruling family.
Fewpeople can afford the city's restaurants. Private parties arediscouraged by the authorities, who frown on gatherings they do notcontrol. That leaves the rallies. "On days when rallies are held, people who participate can gettogether and talk over drinks after the event is over," says KimSeong-min, 26, a university student now living in South Korea."Rallies are chances to get together and feel the warmth of thecommunity." The ceremonies, like nearly all life in North Korea, revolve aroundthe three men who have ruled the country since its birth in 1948:The founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and now his grandsonKim Jong Un. Toddlers learn songs proclaiming their love of Kim Il Sung.Official accounts say Kim Jong Il's could control the weather, andthat broken machinery would spontaneously function at his touch.The state media proclaims Kim Jong Un, who came to power late lastyear after his father's death and is believed to be in his late20s, a living reflection of his two predecessors.
In the official tales, the Kims are kind and they are brilliant,they are strong and they are all-knowing. The government, of course, is also deeply feared, with vastinterlocking webs of intelligence agencies, informer networks andprison camps. Plenty of North Koreans proclaim their belief out ofthat fear, according to people who have managed to flee thecountry. Others pay fealty out of professional ambition. But many people genuinely believe the propaganda; it is soall-encompassing that in many ways it would be hard not to.
Thatmakes the rallies as close to religious services as most NorthKoreans have ever seen. "We, all the people, cried together while listening to the speechof the Respected General," says Paek Kum Hui, a schoolteacher whowas part of an immense April 15 military parade where Kim Jong Ungave his first public address. "The tears we shed were more than those of joy," says Paek, hervoice starting to break. She says they also reflect her pride inthe new leader, and in North Korea as "really in the center of theworld." Even people who have fled North Korea say the spectacles can betranscendent experiences.
Many say they believed the propagandawhen they lived there, and that others did too. Cho Bong-il, 60, who left for South Korea in 1998 and detests theregime he left behind, says he would sometimes feel emotionalduring the rallies: "I even had goose bumps." For centuries, rulers have used choreographed spectacles to helpthem maintain control, mixing the appearance of absolute publicunity with an underlying threat of what happens to anyone who goesagainst the grain. Mass rallies were a part of life in ancient Rome, in 1930s Berlinand in the former Soviet Union, which helped install Kim Il Sung inpower after World War II. But in Pyongyang, spectacles have become science. Two decades after the Soviet Union's fall, rallies that Stalinwould recognize occur regularly in the North Korean capital, hometo the country's political, military and bureaucratic elite.Members of that elite know that attendance at the rallies, and thepractice sessions ahead of time, are a part of living here.
So they learn the rules early — from how to dress(conservatively) to where to stand (look for the numbers painted onmany large plazas). They participate in mass political rallies, mass military paradesand mass outdoor dances, with thousands of synchronized couplesswinging their partners in honor of the 100th anniversary of Kim IlSung's birth. "When we as outsiders we look at these productions we only look atthe final product: these machine-like events that look very eerie,"says Suk-young Kim, a professor at the University of California atSanta Barbara who has studied the spectacles. "But imagine you'recoordinating every breath you take with 100,000 people: it bringspeople together, it eliminates individual will. It has tremendousefficacy in running society." Not that it can't get tiresome.
"Most people I knew in Pyongyang complained all the time about howthere are rallies all the time and they are sick of them," saysKim, the student in Seoul. "We did it because we had to. If theytold us to shout 'Hurrah!' we did ... If they told us to shoutanti-American slogans, we did it no matter how many times they toldus to." Watching the rallies can be bewildering for outsiders.
They aredazzling displays of unity, as thousands of people move in suchsynchronization that it doesn't seem possible. They can bebreathtaking, and at times even beautiful. Then there is the astonishing patience of those involved. No one goes to the bathroom during these gatherings, or fidgets orvisibly yawns. When a young woman had to sit down at a recentFriday afternoon political rally, apparently overcome with illness,she knew to do it discreetly.
The people around her closed in soshe could not be easily spotted by the security men prowling theedges of the crowd. By the standards of Pyongyang, that rally was fairly mundane,basically a series of speeches to denounce the South Koreangovernment with tens of thousands of people brought in to listen.The crowds knew from years of practice to stand at attention asofficials spoke. They knew when to applaud, when to thrust theirfists into the air, when to call out insults against South Korea.It was over in less than an hour. All during the rally, though, no matter the moment, the facialexpressions remained unchanged. That was no surprise to Kim Seong-min, the former Pyongyangresident.
He taught himself early how to participate in rallieswhile barely paying attention. "My mind just went blank," he said. Because in North Korea, sometimes it is easier to be a robot. ___ Associated Press writer Sam Kim contributed to this report fromSeoul, South Korea.
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