I am scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on April 12th, 2012, a couple of days before April 15th. The date is not random—the Korean tourism agency strongly suggests that travel to the DPRK coincides with major a historical or political event. Fortunately, with a rich modern history, the DPRK’s calendar is full of dates of significance. These include for example the Korean New Year in January, Kim Jong Il’s birthday in February, the military foundation in April, May workers’ day, victory day in July, Liberation Day in August, and the mass games in August/September.
As the birthday of founder and President Kim Il Sung, April 15th is probably the most significant dates of all. Koreans get two days off to celebrate and express their appreciation for the Great Leader. Facilities are often fixed or upgraded, new buildings unveiled. All towns are decorated with slogans, flowers and large banners. People wear their nicest clothes for the occasion and carry Kimilsungias and Kimjongilias, special breeds of orchids, respectively pink and red, cultivated and named in honor of the leaders. A massive flower show in Pyongyang displays stunning Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia arrangements on two stories. The nation lines up to bow in front of the leaders’ statues and pay their respects.
This year’s anniversary is of even greater significance—it is the President’s 100th birthday and the scale of the celebration is believed to be unprecedented. Nobody is sure what to expect, given the unique ambivalence of the situation.
On the one hand, massive celebrations are definitely on the agenda. Rumors abound about military parades, possible mass games, mass dancing, and other special events. However, little information is known about the details and the extent or the schedule of the ceremonies. KITC, the government’s tourism agency, stops short of confirming the most basic details such as lodging arrangements for travelers, expecting record affluence with delegations from around the world wishing to pay their respect to the eternal President.
On the other hand, the country is in a somber mood. The recent passing of Generalissimo Kim Jong Il and the long mourning period that ensued caused the country to be completely closed to foreigners for a couple of weeks in the December 2011-January 2012 timeframe. North Koreans may not be fully ready to rejoice after absorbing such a shock. The body of the dear Leader is being embalmed, as was his father’s, and supposed to be on display at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (Kim Il-sung Mausoleum) by 4/15—an interesting fact since according to experts it typically takes around six months to prepare a body for permanent display, and the Leader passed away less than five months earlier in December 2011.
If traveling to the most closed country in the world isn’t exciting enough, doing so on a historical date is certainly a treat. The touch of unknown that surrounds most details adds to the thrill. I’m not sure what to expect—I’m hoping to see mass games, but above all I’m hoping to see something as there is always a risk that foreigners will be shunned from witnessing the action. As I board my plane to Beijing, I am fulfilled with the feeling that I will part of something special—something probably very foreign to me, maybe awkward or disturbing, but in any case, History in action, unfolding before my eyes.
Why does it start with Beijing? My next post will shed light on the question, in case you have missed earlier entries on practical considerations.