A rare look at daily life in Pyongyang
CBC's Saša Petricic shows life on the streets of North Korea's capital city
CBC News • Saša Petricic April 20, 2017
If last weekend's headlines about possible nuclear war made it to the ears of ordinary people in Pyongyang, it wasn't showing. During events marking the birth anniversary of North Korean state founder Kim Il-sung, there was no sign of panic, nor preparations for war. On the capital city's streets and subways, people carried on with their lives.
There are two subway lines in Pyongyang, with some 15 stations. But only two are shown to foreign journalists, pretty much every time any reporter visits. This is one of them. Carefully decorated with socialist realism motifs and elaborate paintings of North Korea's leaders, they seem well-used by people rushing to work — like anywhere in the world.
All North Korean men have to serve in the military, but young people are also assigned to work crews that are run much like the army. Except they're involved in cleaning, not combat.
The streets of Pyongyang are busy with life, and on Sundays, families with children and grandparents are everywhere, dressed up. Eating ice cream. Riding bikes. There are still relatively few smartphones, so it's uncommon to see anyone texting or playing games.
Following the news
News is tightly controlled in North Korea. Government-run newspapers are posted in public places, like subway stations. Smartphones and personal computers are slowly spreading, but there is no access to the global internet. Instead, people can browse local sites with approved content.
Pyongyang is by far the most sophisticated place in North Korea. People from rural areas need permission to move here. For many years, the buildings were drab and grey, but many are now painted in blue, green and pink — reportedly the idea of Kim Jong-un.
There seems to be quite a bit of construction underway in Pyongyang, much of it modern and residential. On this day, a whole new development was officially opened to great fanfare. It was held up as an example to the country that, while sanctions can slow things down, North Korea can still complete projects in record time. (Though often with financing and materials obtained by shadowy foreign shell companies and mysterious bank transactions.)
Preparations for the big annual military parade start weeks in advance, and on this evening, before the event, streets across Pyongyang were jammed with people rehearsing their carefully choreographed roles.
In praise of missiles
At an after-school children's centre for the arts, young people put on a performance singing the praises of the country's missile program. Depictions of missiles are everywhere in Pyongyang: statues among flower arrangements, missile-shaped lampposts on the streets, and on posters in schools. Moving beyond just being part of a defence program, missiles have become a national symbol.
The two most conspicuous faces in North Korea are Kim Il-sung, the founder of the state and its longest ruler, and Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader. Kim Jong-un, today's leader, is seen in public, but his picture is rare. During this latest tour for journalists, Kim Jong-un appeared in public several times, clapping and waving — but he did not speak.
Getting your picture (or your family's picture) taken next to the country's two previous leaders is considered a great honour — and for some, an annual tradition to be done the day after the annual parade.
Kim Jong-un is the man behind the North Korea's drive to develop nuclear weapons — and the missiles to carry them. He is the third ruler in the Kim dynasty, following from his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Raw emotion is on display at the big military parade. Many people cried as they passed the tower where Kim Jong-un stood. They also yelled out, wishing him a long life; their faith in him is absolute and their devotion is zealous.
Rural North Korea
This is as close as most journalists get to rural areas of North Korea. There have been stories of severe poverty and starvation here, perhaps made worse by international sanctions that have cut off exports of coal and other resources. These regions have almost certainly been hit by the shifting of government resources, from building the economy to boosting the military.
See more of Saša Petricic's images of North Korea on Instagram.