North Koreans Left Ignorant of Their Nation’s Atomic Test
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
PYONGYANG, North Korea — While the rest of the world was digesting claims that North Korea had tested a nuclear bomb, one corner of the globe was left in the dark about the news: North Korea itself.
It was not until 4 p.m. local time that “dear leader,” as Kim Jong Il likes to be known, deigned to let his people know of the momentous goings-on in their country. By then, several hours had elapsed since the official Korean Central News Agency had informed the outside world of a “historic event” conducted with “indigenous wisdom and technology.”
Even when state television and radio were permitted finally to break the news, it was buried deep down in the bulletin, most of which was dedicated to the apparently far more important preparations for today’s 61st anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Most people — in Pyongyang at least — were already aware of the test. Even in a total information vacuum like North Korea, where ordinary people have no access to the Internet, foreign television, or even international telephone lines, it is hard to control the power of the grapevine.
Pyongyang is not a place where a foreigner can just stop people on the streets and ask them their views on political developments. Still, from the occasional snatched comment gleaned from braver souls, it appeared that most approved of the test.
North Korea has the right to possess nuclear arms, they said, parroting the propaganda relentlessly broadcast on state-run outlets.
But if the people of Pyongyang were jubilant about the technological breakthrough achieved by their scientists, they were not showing it.
No mood of ebullience was evident in the capital, according to sources there. The city’s residents went about their business as they always do: trudging silently to and from work, their eyes firmly fixed on the pavement, a perpetual expression of exhaustion etched on their faces.
One of the most disconcerting things a foreigner has to get used to in Pyongyang is the drab uniformity of the place.
Everyone in North Korea, which has a population of 23 million, wears a uniform of some sort. Schoolchildren. University students. The country’s 1.2 million soldiers. Civilian men often wear paramilitary suits even after they leave the army.
Even though people are better dressed than they used to be, thanks to an influx of cheap Chinese clothes, few will choose colors other than grey or black.
A difference could be observed in the normal atmosphere yesterday — but it had nothing to do with the nuclear test.
The number of cars on the streets had doubled overnight — there was even a very rare traffic jam at one point — as state workers began to prepare for another opportunity to heap praise on the “dear leader.”
They draped red flags over lampposts and buildings for the 61st anniversary while dancers rehearsed in the central square throughout the day.
The commemorations will no doubt give President Kim an opportunity to boast of how North Korea has joined the world’s nuclear ranks. He will likely receive a warm and probably heartfelt reception from his people.
“People here do not even suspect that the rest of the world disapproves and denounces the test,” a foreign journalist in Pyongyang, one of the world’s most inaccessible cities, said.
“For the local population Kim Jong Il is a hero who has managed to secure nuclear arms for the defense of their country.” Even if, as some believe, Mr. Kim’s grip on his country is not quite as all-embracing as it once was, mutterings of discontent among his people have probably ebbed since a debilitating famine ended.
“Compared to three years ago, the situation with food supplies has improved dramatically,” the journalist said. “There is no impression of people starving here.” Although everything is far from rosy. The authorities may deny it, but many basic staples such as rice are still rationed through a system of coupons.
The number of coupons you get depends on your standing in the party. High ranking officials, of course, live in their gilded ghettos, where they shop in special markets that stock foreign luxuries before returning home to browse the Internet or watch satellite television.
But perhaps even among ordinary people, North Korea’s absolute isolation may be changing.
“People are becoming more open,” the journalist said. “Previously, if you stopped somebody and asked for directions to, say, the Lenin museum, he would sprint away from you in silence. Now, he would pause to give you directions and only then sprint away.”