An Italian reporter gets a rare glimpse past the North Korean regime's attempt to portray the country in a positive new light.
PYONGYANG — Every year North Koreans spend months preparing the capital for the country's most important holiday: the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
No expense is spared on "The Day of the Sun," the April 15 festivities commemorating the hermit nation's "eternal president."
An enormous military parade in the capital demonstrates North Korea's newest weaponry and missile technology, followed by a four-hour-long civilian parade replete with chanting, goose-step marching and tears of joy. Grand dance performances are held in city squares, executed with rigorous precision to the tunes of triumphal music. Women in colorful costumes dance to intricate choreography with bouquets of fake flowers.
"We've been working and preparing for the parade for six months," says Jo Bong-chol, a colonel in the North Korean army, ahead of this year's event last month.
Look past the aesthetic beauty of the parades and performances, however, and the regime's true motivation becomes clear: eliminating any sense of individuality to promote a uniform society.
With its population of 2.5 million and its extravagant architecture, Pyongyang portrays just one side of the reclusive country's peculiar culture. The capital has changed considerably in the last three years. The authorities have erected new neighborhoods in place of old ones, imposing new buildings have gone up across the city, and new recreational centers have opened to bring the local quality of life up to what the regime deems "contemporary standards."
But for all the bluster and propaganda, life in Pyongyang is genuinely changing. There is more traffic in the streets than before and more people talking on cellphones. Some subway passengers can even be seen glued to their phone screens, playing the local version of the popular game "Candy Crush.
Small shops and grocery stores have sprung up on every street corner, and the rising North Korean middle class has been eager to spend its little disposable income to increase meager monthly rations.
The image of a developing, modern Pyongyang quickly fades as you reach the capital's outskirts. The province of Pyongyang, which stretches northward from the city, is a desolate, ghostlike place. Dirt roads lie in poor condition, turning even a short journey of a few dozen kilometers into an hours-long odyssey. Rural land is rocky and unsuited for agriculture, with peasants laboring to plow the earth by hand or with the help of skeletal cows that often collapse from fatigue.
The number of tractors in this province can be counted on one hand, and even these are Soviet-built relics from a bygone era. There is no irrigation system and few local farmers have access to fertilizers. Some tufts of grass emerge here and there in the drought-stricken landscape, a testament to efforts by exhausted but determined locals to try to live off the land.
China"s decision in February to stop coal imports from its North Korean ally, in an effort to abide by United Nations sanctions, compounded the country's economic misery. Coal exports make up 40% of North Korea's trade with China, by far its largest trading partner. It seems the pressure will not relent anytime soon, with the Chinese carrier Air China recently announcing the suspension of flights from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Just 60 kilometers from the capital, in the hills of Hoechang, lie battlefields that witnessed some of the most ferocious fighting in the Korean War. Many soldiers on both sides of the conflict lost their lives there, including the eldest son of the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong. The trenches and tunnels dug 60 years ago are still visible on the ridges; they are armed with anti-aircraft guns, ready for the next war with the South, whenever it may come.