Magazine article The Spectator

Madness on Parade

Magazine article The Spectator

Madness on Parade

Article excerpt

A visit to North Korea

As Kim Jong-un might blow up the world next year, if not this, and people are forever trying to work out what is going on in his country, perhaps it is worth describing a military parade I attended in Pyongyang a few years back.

The occasion was the centenary of the birth of the current Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Marxist monarchy who, despite his death more than two decades ago, remains Eternal Leader of the nation. Other attendees included some flotsam and jetsam of the Cold War, a reunion of the Axis of Evil and representatives from various other rogue states and immiserated nations.

Presuming it to be one of the better covers under which to pass as an admirer of the regime, I claimed to be a schoolteacher from England. A friend who travelled with me claimed to be an 'agricultural adviser' (a choice that seemed more unwise with every North Korean field we saw).

On the day, it was clear something was happening in the city because our group was bussed away far into the countryside. Eventually we arrived in a remote field where ostentatiously happy Koreans were playing a variety of intricately impromptu games involving running on a marked pitch, catching balls in a bucket and hopping. At one stage -- by way of intermission -- there was a dance by children dressed as pandas. Glumly sitting through this under an awning, cracking his way through a small plate of nuts provided for his pleasure, was the guest of honour, a deputy mayor of Vladivostok.

Eventually, growing ill-will made itself known both to our minder and our minder's minder. It was made clear that we had not come to North Korea only to see ball games and a panda dance.

Finally, we were herded back on to another ancient bus that broke down only once on its way back to the capital. Traffic is not a problem in central Pyongyang, but disembarking from our bus just south of Kim Il-sung Square, it was clear that a parade was under way. We were hurried through the crowds to the bottom of a huge boulevard running down from the main parade square. There, on his balcony, Kim Jong-un was receiving the march-past and the adoration of the crowds. By the time they got round the corner to us, the soldiers were no longer goose-stepping, but otherwise the parade was as he saw it.

The word 'cacophony' is overused, but here was a cacophony. To our left, dressed in one of the great pastel-coloured ballgowns that the comparatively affluent Pyongyang women wear on special occasions, was a soprano soloist, accompanied by accordions and drum kit. She wailed one of those mesmeric, beautiful songs of her nation, extolling its military greatness and unparalleled leadership. All done with that fixed, stern yet ecstatic smile familiar to the world from when North Korean newsreaders announce successful nuclear tests. On each streetlamp, megaphones relayed this song, only slightly distorted, to the assembled masses.

On our right was a band of schoolchildren, conducted by a stern-faced girl of around ten, who was standing on a box. She was wielding her baton before the assembled trumpets and trombones of a couple of dozen children, all dressed in dark-blue trouser suits and red neckerchiefs. Following her determined lead, they played a succession of upbeat military marches. The combined aural effect was like being boxed about the ears.

Across the road, among the men in military uniform and the women in their sparkling dresses, further ranks of children were assembled on a tiered stand. …

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