On holiday in North Korea
National outpourings of affection and gratitude for the perceived selflessness of the leaders reach a climax on National Day, held each September to mark the founding of the republic. In Pyongyang, workers, soldiers and children gather in front of towering bronze casts or giant mosaics of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, taking it in turn to shuffle forwards in lines and bow. One member of each party is tasked with laying flowers at the statues’ feet, and the pavements are soon carpeted in bouquets.
There’s a carnival atmosphere in the city. People are dressed in their best clothes – some kids grappling with oversized military costumes – and there is laughter and chatter once the day’s duty has been observed. Families are out in the squares, teaching their children to skate or taking pictures. In Moran Park, the whole of Pyongyang seems to be having a picnic. Men and women sing and dance, falling onto the grass under the effects of too much rice wine. Miss Kim stays on the outskirts, scared she might be dragged into a dance by the boisterous throngs. But she is more gregarious herself now, keen to discuss life in Europe and compare it with her own. She smiles as a toddler jerks and wiggles to a pop song before scampering terrified back to his mother when the gathered crowd laughs. ‘Everyone has more fun now. We like to enjoy ourselves. People just want to lead a pleasant life and have a happy family.’
As night falls over Pyongyang, Miss Kim is persuaded to try one last new experience. The amusement rides at Kaeson Youth Park are all whirling neon and teenage screams. People wander giddily from rollercoaster to rocket, patiently queuing for the next thrill. Miss Kim refuses to join in and stays close to Mr O. At the pirate ship, the last ride before the exit, she suddenly throws her bag at Mr O and races to join the tourists already seated. As the ship swings higher, she throws herself in terror at the man sitting next to her and clamps her eyes shut. When she staggers off, she is pale, but laughing.
The following morning, Miss Kim chats eagerly all the way to the airport, seeking opinions on subjects from the news – David Beckham and Somali pirates, the 2012 Olympics and the euro crisis, the Queen and the ghosts in the Tower of London. She is tearful when we hug goodbye. ‘Before meeting foreigners I was nervous. I thought they would laugh at me. But now I see we are all the same. We all have the same emotions. We all have the same dreams.’
She waves a final time. And with that, Miss Kim is swallowed up by the crowds and is gone.