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Secretive North Korea unveils public face

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 04:00

April 17 - A Reuters team is allowed a rare glimpse inside one of the world's most isolated nations, as Pyongyang strives to project strength despite the failure of its rocket launch. Max Duncan reports.

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North Korea's rocket launch may have failed, but there were plenty more on display here in Sunday's military parade, to celebrate the 100th birthday of eternal president Kim Il-sung. We journalists were lucky enough to meet in person the newest and largest member of the family: a missile believed to have a range of 6,000 kilometres. This is just a part of the country's propaganda campaign to become a quote-unquote "strong and prosperous nation" under new leader Kim Jong-un. This is the "strong" in the "strong and prosperous nation" campaign, a massive display of weaponry and thousands of goose stepping soldiers all saluting their new leader Kim Jong-un. It's designed both to awe and to intimidate. And one wonders what the 23 million people of this country are feeling when they watch it on television. Are they proud? Do they feel trapped? Or do they just feel unmoved by a celebration that really hasn't changed in decades. For us, at least, it's extremely exciting to be here, to feel the rumble of the tanks under foot and to hear the roar of the soldiers as they pass. It's a wonderful opportunity. Who knows if we'll ever have another one like it again? The people must also be seen to be happy and prosperous, and that was where the evening gala came in. Now here's the "prosperous" in "strong and prosperous" - behind me, thousands of well-dressed young people dancing to waltzes and songs about Kim Il-sung. They will have practised these dances in their work units. Many people would be disturbed by the sheer size and scale of this kind of performance, but they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. And indeed many of the foreigners have been invited to join in, and many of them have accepted the offer. We've have seen signs of creeping prosperity in Pyongyang, but the countryside is another world. Last October, I visited South Hwanghae province on an unprecedented trip for Reuters AlertNet humanitarian news service to see the food situation. There we witnessed severe malnutrition in one children's hospital and orphanage after another. Medicins sans Frontiers, who came with us, said several of the children in this room would die without proper nutrition and medical care. They sung us a popular children's song called 'nothing to envy.' "We are one big family", they sang, "we have nothing to envy in the world" But during our recent 11-day trip, there was no mention of that. By the end, our minders were more exhausted than we were, and no doubt happy to see the back of us. But despite the inevitable tensions of our trip, their personal hospitality and humour was genuine, and sometimes even moving. Of course, we can't email or call them, or even send them a letter. But if and when North Korea is truly strong and prosperous, maybe we can see each other again. Max Duncan, Reuters

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Secretive North Korea unveils public face

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 04:00