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2:30 pm
Mon April 8, 2013

Inside North Korea, No Obvious Signs Of Crisis

Originally published on Mon April 8, 2013 8:22 pm

North Korea's recent campaign of bluster and escalation seems to be reaching new heights, but visitors to the reclusive country say there are few signs the capital is anywhere near a war footing.

International TV broadcasters have been repeatedly showing tanks trundling through Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square in a demonstration of North Korean national power.

But when Patrick Thornquist, a Chicago teacher visiting the North Korean capital at the end of last week, arrived in the square, he was surprised by what he saw. This iconic square — Pyongyang's political, military and symbolic heart — was full of children rollerblading and shouting with joy.

One of leader Kim Jong Un's contributions to the nation has been building roller-skating parks and promoting entertainment facilities. And Thornquist was struck by the fact that, on watching the news later that day, it was still featuring footage of tanks.

"It was definitely interesting to see tanks on BBC in the hotel, as if that was that day, when we'd been in that square a couple of hours earlier and nothing like that was happening," he says.

Thornquist's trip was full of such surprises: for example, visiting a brand new bar, whose minimalist-but-cool decor wouldn't have looked out of place in Brooklyn. As a first-time visitor, he hadn't known what to expect. But even the tour leader was taken aback by how normal the mood is.

"I did expect to see civilian drills or hear some air-raid sirens or the camouflaged vehicles," says Amanda Carr of Koryo Tours. She has been to North Korea about 40 times, and this visit, she says, was just like any other.

"To be honest, I was quite surprised at just how calm everything seemed," she says.

"In terms of seeing military on the streets and propaganda, that's the same as I've seen the last few months. A lot of military were doing the construction work that's been going on for a good few months, also tree-planting, which goes on every year," Carr says. "So I didn't really see any military doing anything different from usual."

Patriotism On Show

That view has been backed up by other accounts, notably from an Economist correspondent in Pyongyang who had spotted the buses covered with camouflage nets but concluded that any preparations were "more comical than convincing — like a version of 'Dad's army' in totalitarian drag."

Thornquist, the American tourist, had booked his ticket in October, before the current crisis escalated. Otherwise, he says, he probably wouldn't have gone in current circumstances because he was nervous about the rising tide of anti-American rhetoric. But his first encounters with North Koreans put him at ease.

"At the beginning, I was a little bit nervous," he says. "But one of the guides said, 'Calm down, we're all people.' ...What surprised me most is how there really wasn't any anti-American talk directly to me."

One of his personal high points was visiting a gigantic bowling alley, with 40 lanes and state-of-the art computerization. Footage he recorded there shows well-heeled Pyongyang dwellers enjoying themselves.

Frequent visitors comment on the relative prosperity on show: Mobile phones are much more common, and the shops are full of goods. A new consumer class is visible, which appears to have grown since April of last year — the government's deadline for North Korea becoming a "Strong and Prosperous" country.

During the bowling alley outing, Carr, the tour guide, noticed that this consumer class seems firmly behind its leader, Kim Jong Un.

"There was footage of leader Kim Jong Un visiting one of the front-line islands. It was a surprise visit for the citizens there," Carr says. "And there were a lot of people standing around [at the bowling alley] watching it, and some people were getting quite emotional, as were people on the TV. A couple of people were sort of wiping their eyes, perhaps tears had come to their eyes."

What's Real, And What's Not

That Pyongyang's propaganda should trigger such a show of loyalty in the showcase capital — home to the elite and politically reliable — is not surprising.

The message to the domestic audience is that the outside world is bullying North Korea, and its very existence is threatened. This has the effect of uniting its citizens behind their young new leader, no matter how much hardship they're facing.

The dueling realities have left Thornquist completely baffled after his trip.

"You try to grasp what is real and what is not. You're trying to find that balance between what your media tells you and what they're telling you because they're very far off," he says. "It's crazy."

It's a question that foreign diplomats based in North Korea are having to address. They've been warned to submit evacuation plans, with Pyongyang notifying them that it cannot guarantee their safety after April 10.

So far, the foreign embassies are continuing their operations as normal, judging this to be another move from what one Korea-watcher, Sung-Yoon Lee at Tufts University, calls the "Pyongyang playbook."

But the big question now is whether Pyongyang really is bluffing or if this relative normality in the capital is just the calm before the storm.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The international community is bracing itself for the next step in North Korea's campaign of bluster and escalation. South Koreans officials say the North could test a ballistic missile this week, and today the North Korean regime said it's withdrawing its workers from a joint North/South industrial zone. But recent visitors to the reclusive country saw few signs in the capital of a country on a war footing.

NPR's Louisa Lim spoke with two people who just returned from Pyongyang.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Nowadays, when we think of Pyongyang, we think of tanks trundling through the main square, in a demonstration of national power. These are the images Pyongyang's propaganda machine has been beaming round the world.

That's what Patrick Thornquist, a Chicago teacher visiting Pyongyang at the end of last week, was expecting.

PATRICK THORNQUIST: It was definitely interesting to see, you know, tanks on BBC in the hotel, you know, they're showing tanks as if that was, you know, that day, when we had been in that square, you know, a couple of hours earlier and nothing like that was happening.

LIM: What he videoed in the square was actually lots and lots of kids rollerblading. Yes, rollerblading. That's one of leader Kim Jong Un's contributions to the nation - building roller-skating parks and entertainment facilities. Thornquist's trip was full of such surprises: for example, visiting a brand new bar whose minimalist-but-cool decor wouldn't have looked out of place in Brooklyn.

As a first-time visitor, he hadn't known what to expect. But even the tour leader was taken aback by how normal the mood is.

AMANDA CARR: I did expect to see maybe civilian drills and maybe hear some air-raid sirens or the camouflage vehicles. But to be honest, yeah, I was quite surprised at just how calm everything seemed.

LIM: Amanda Carr works for Koryo Tours. She's been to the North around 40 times. This visit, she says, was just like any other.

CARR: In terms of seeing military on the streets and the propaganda, that was the same as I've seen the last few months. A lot of military were doing the construction work, which has been going on for a good few months, and also tree-planting, which happens every year. So I didn't really see military doing anything different from usual.

LIM: The rising tide of anti-American rhetoric had made Thornquist nervous. But, he says, he didn't encounter any anti-American sentiment.

One of his personal high points was visiting a gigantic bowling alley.

THORNQUIST: It's got 40 lanes. This is the biggest bowling alley I've ever seen. Incredible.

LIM: This is footage he recorded there, showing well-heeled Pyongyang dwellers enjoying themselves. Frequent visitors comment on the relative prosperity on show: mobile phones are much more common and the shops are full of goods.

A new consumer class is visible, which appears to have grown in the last year. And this class is 100 percent behind its leader, Kim Jong Un, as Amanda Carr noted while watching a news report at the bowling alley.

CARR: There was footage of Lady Kim Jong Un visiting one of the front line islands, and there were a lot of people standing around watching it and a couple of people sort of wiping their eyes.

LIM: That Pyongyang's propaganda should trigger such a show of loyalty in the showcase capital - home to the elite - is not surprising. The message to the domestic audience is that North Korea is being bullied by the outside world, and its very existence is threatened. This has the effect of uniting its citizens behind their new young leader, no matter how much hardship they're facing.

After his trip, Thornquist was left completely baffled by the dueling realities presented.

THORNQUIST: You try to grasp what is real, what is not. You're trying to kind of find that balance between what your media tells you and what they're telling you, because they're very far off. It's crazy.

LIM: The big question now is whether Pyongyang really is bluffing or if this relative normality in the capital is just the calm before the storm.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.