Celebrations in Pyongyang marking the 100th birth anniversary of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung, gave a few foreign journalists a rare chance to visit the reclusive and impoverished nation, and to talk with some of its people. VOA's Sungwon Baik was one of them and has this report from the North Korean capital.
Pyongyang had a festive air on Sunday, the centenary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth. At the Koryo Hotel, where foreign journalists were staying, staff members presented guests with Kimilsungia – an orchid named in honor of the leader who died in 1994.
Foreign journalists went through a strict bag-check at 6:30 in the morning before heading to a military display at Kim Il Sung Square. There they joined a vast audience watching North Korea's newest leader, Kim Il Sung's grandson Kim Jong Un, give his first public speech.
In a country where leaders are worshipped, the young man's appearance brought a sudden outburst of cheering. In his 20-minute speech Kim praised North Korea's economic and military development. While his words were standard fare in North Korean media, the new leader's address itself stood out from the past: his father, Kim Jong Il, uttered only one sentence in public speech in his life – at an event honoring the North Korean People's Army in 1992. Kim Jong Il, the nation's second leader, died in December.
Pyongyang citizens who had never heard their leader's voice likened it to that of his grandfather.
The speech was followed by a large military parade by the Korean People's Army, the Korean People's Internal Security Forces and the Young Red Guards. Hundreds of pieces of military hardware were on display, including 34 different types of weapons.
Nearly 900 pieces in total – tanks, armored vehicles and missiles – were paraded through the Kim Il Sung Square. MiG jet fighters flew overhead.
On Sunday evening, a fireworks display wrapped up the daylong festivities. Waiting on the banks of Taedong River in Pyongyang for the fireworks to begin, journalists had a chance to meet and talk with Pyongyang citizens, who at first stared at the strangers, but then began singing a song of welcome.
They burst into laughter at the foreigners' unfamiliar clothes, and one old woman came before the singing crowd to make funny gestures.
But once Kim Jong Un arrived, the North Koreans turned into different people, no longer relaxed and singing.
Whenever Kim appeared, all the North Koreans chanted “Kim Jong Un, guard with life.” When the sun went down, the Song of General Kim Il Sung began to play loudly. Once the fireworks started, those watching shook off their rigid demeanor and began to clap and roar with appreciation.
North Korean explained to their visitors that the fireworks display was evidence of North Korea's solid economic power. Not even the United States, they boasted, could showcase such a grand event.