As tensions rise over North Korea, Steve Beauchampé reports from inside a state seemingly on a perpetual war footing.
Huge, fiercely patriotic flag waving crowds gather in the heart of the capital ready to commemorate the birthday this week of the Dear Leader, generations of whose family have ruled this nation for as long as anyone can remember. Such is their power that no newspaper or broadcaster would dare to criticise, and if there is dissent it is effectively hidden from us, denied the oxygen of publicity.
To mark the occasion a display of military aircraft passes overhead, ceremonial guns are fired and members of the country’s revered armed forces parade before us around the square to cheering, adoring crowds. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, everyone sings a love song to the Dear Leader, the lyrics of which invoke God to protect and grant long life to nation’s seemingly eternal ruler.
Yet in recent years the country has taken an increasingly bellicose and belligerent tone, threatening to launch unprovoked attacks on other sovereign states, driving them back into the middle ages and forcing their governments from power in the process. In order to achieve this it has been busy developing sophisticated long range missiles and a nuclear weapons capability designed to strike fear into its enemies and anyone else whom it perceives as a threat.
However this vast military expenditure comes whilst rising numbers of the population survive in poverty, dependent on daily food handouts to eke out an existence, and with the economy increasingly kept afloat by the economic support of China. The modern high-rise residential blocks that have sprung up throughout the capital may initially give the impression of a modern, flourishing economy, but look closely and you will see that many are all but empty, whilst homelessness and a reliance on subsistence level housing grows. All this whilst the Dear Leader and their entourage live in numerous large, extravagantly furnished, decorative palaces, enjoying the trappings of vast, vast wealth.
Walk the streets of the capital and you will soon see monuments, statues and other references to the Dear Leader, their family and the country’s most heroic military endeavours adorning public squares, streets and buildings. So ingrained is this adulation of the ruling family and commemoration of the country’s military achievements that both have become part of the fabric of this odd, often intensely secretive country.
Recently, under the Supreme Leader (the unelected head of state, appointed only by senior officials of the the ruling party, and whose public utterances are rare and public appearances are often accompanied by beaming, flag-waving children), the country has taken an ever more isolationist stance, paranoid even, with those who dissent from this course both threatened and pilloried. Surveillance is at an historic high with spy cameras, and increasingly even microphones, installed in nearly all public places and with the state’s ability to track the population and follow their activities and conversations now at frighteningly sophisticated levels.
Meanwhile, tensions are rising across the border, where the neighbouring government has been pursuing a much more internationalist direction. Indeed, heightened divisions have been evident with most neighbouring countries since last summer, and talk of war with one of them over a territorial dispute briefly surfaced as recently as a fortnight ago.
Yes, welcome to Britain.