'I feel only pride': North Korea puts on unprecedented display of support for leader

For North Korea, the past week has been a grand and carefully orchestrated display of unwavering support for supreme leader Kim Jong-un, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes from Pyongyang.

Congress, huge parade preceded by campaign of super-productive work

CBC's Nahlah Ayed reports from Pyongyang 1:12

For North Korea, it has been a week of going over and above to show confidence.

While there has been some brandishing of the country's military capability to do that, it hasn't been the focus of the show. 

Instead, it's been a grand, carefully orchestrated and sometimes colourful and loud display of unwavering support for supreme leader Kim Jong-un, a rallying around him by the ruling party, the military and ordinary people.

At the start of the fifth year of his rule, it seems no effort was spared in projecting support for Kim at a time of even more tension than usual on the Korean peninsula and as the country faces isolation and sanctions over its continuing pursuit of nuclear know-how.

The spectacle culminated in a huge parade attended by the leader in the vast Kim Il-sung square today, a seemingly endless, energetic procession of people, floats and flags that has been in the works for weeks.

For an hour or two, every day, thousands of people practised for the celebration.

We've seen them on foot or on buses all over Pyongyang every day this week, many carrying bunches of red and pink flowers and women wearing flouncy traditional dresses.

Haunting procession

This morning, in the thousands, they walked to the square in a haunting procession that started before 6 a.m.

Cleaners were already collecting the rare wayward piece of garbage on the streets. Women along the sidewalk were cutting grass with scissors.

For about an hour today, the paraders had their arms constantly raised in the air, waving the flowers and chanting support toward the stand where Kim sat to watch as a huge military band kept time. Some cried as they chanted.

Preparations for the parade in Pyongyang had been underway for weeks. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Among the participants were factory workers, housewives, even medical students.

"As a member of this country, I feel only pride," a young woman who is a medical student said in excellent English. 

"I only believe in my party and my comrade Kim Jong-un."

Larger than life

The larger-than-life display of support for Kim began in another larger-than-life Pyongyang venue: the cavernous April 25 House of Culture.

The seventh-ever Korea Workers Party congress also rallied around Kim, approving his agenda for the country and giving him a new title: chairman.

Convening the congress after a 36-year hiatus was an ambitious enough operation.

But citizens were again asked to pitch in, with a 70-day lead-up campaign of super productivity that saw them putting in extra hours at work, even adding an extra workday to the week.

Others helped tidy the city ahead of the talks.

The congress itself required the presence of 3,400 delegates from around the country and their delivery to the House of Culture on dozens of buses that lined up to fill the lot outside.

It also enlisted the help of countless extra police to line the streets and countless cleaners to keep the city spotless.

Unprecedented access

Also part of the exercise was the inclusion of dozens of foreign media, some of whom, including CBC News, were briefly given unprecedented access on Monday to the historic congress just as Kim was returning to the hall to be named the party chairman.

With every available seat filled, mostly with men, the applause and shouts of "Mansae" to wish the leader a long life thundered even beyond the building itself.

Musicians marched in a huge parade today in Pyongyang that was part of a massive show of support for North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

We had to be checked by security twice before entering the building. On the first check, we were asked to hand over our mobile phones and microphones. Cameras were weighed. Purses were handed to guides, who stayed behind.

We were given 10 minutes inside the hall to watch Kim basking in the adulation of fellow party members.

All the events required meticulous security, some of it today carried out by soldiers wielding metal detectors.

Mobiles were banned at the congress, the parade and later at a nighttime event that ended with an anything-but-modest fireworks display that thundered over the Taedong river. Thousands of people carried torches and danced in formation to music.

Broad-based support

The events unsurprisingly put Kim front and centre, giving a sense of broad-based support for his agenda.

The party congress gave its crucial backing to Kim's "byongjin" policy of working on improving people's economic well-being while still spending money on nuclear capability.

It committed to bolstering nuclear capability "in quality and quantity" despite the UN sanctions and international condemnation of North Korea's continued nuclear testing.

But it also welcomed Kim's five-year economic plan to boost the economy — a clear nod to the clear need for improving the socialist country's standard of living.

Kim assumed power more than four years ago, but the past few days have defined more clearly what North Korea will be like under his rule.

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      About the Author

      Nahlah Ayed

      Host of CBC Ideas

      Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.