The Korean War has often been called the "forgotten war" in the United States, but in North Korea it is a different story. This July 27 marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and the North Koreans invited the world's journalists, including an NBC News team, in to report on its "Victory Day" commemorations. Six buses of international journalists were shepherded around Pyongyang under the watchful eye of state minders and taken only to Korean War-related events. We were not allowed to take pictures out the bus windows of everyday street scenes.
ML Flynn / NBC News
It was rare to see an unguarded moment, and this was one. These students were on a class trip to Kumsusan Palace and a visit to the mausoleum of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung. His picture and one of his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, are on the palace wall in the background. When we asked the students who they wanted to be when they grew up, the answer invariably was "a soldier." Only one young girl, Han, had a different goal. She wanted to be a scientist, so, as she told Ann Curry, she could one day "make satellites to defend her nation."
Outside Kumsusan Palace we found this group of 10-year-old school girls. The girls were shy and wary at first, perhaps suspicious because of the blue armbands marked "press" we all had to wear. You can see Ann Curry's press band on her left arm. They were very surprised when we said we were Americans. Still, Ann managed to win the girls over when she showed them a photo she had taken of them.
Every moment of the massive Victory Day parade was tightly choreographed with military precision, so it was startling when suddenly what seemed like a tsunami of flag- and plastic flower-waving followers of Kim Jong Un rolled down Kim Il Sung Square. As tens, then hundreds and then thousands of his supporters went by shouting their allegiance, there was no doubt this performance was not only for Kim Jong Un but for the world press corps cameras, too.
We were never officially told when we were going to see Kim Jong Un at the Korean War events, but every time we were told not to bring cellphones, or small cameras, we ended up seeing him. At the Victory Day, the Grand Marshal, as Kim Jong Un is called, reviewed the parade from a balcony, but to everyone's surprise he did not make a speech. Kim Jong Un's chief military aide did the talking instead, and in another surprise, the tone of the speech was moderate and there were no threats of nuclear strikes.
North Korea has one of the world's biggest armies — some 1.1 million strong — and thousands of these soldiers came for the somber dedication of a new national veterans cemetery in Pyongyang.
At the military parade I saw Ann Curry taking a picture of a young soldier — they seemed to be staring each other down. When I asked Ann what she was thinking as she took the picture, she said, "I was thinking the soldier looked quite stern and that I better take the photo fast."
Even North Korea's military brass felt the heat during the military parade on Victory Day. The high temperature for the day in Pyongyang was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the heat index, it felt like a sweltering 100 degrees.
Every summer the North Koreans hold the Arirang games, or "mass games," where perhaps as many as 100,000 performers dance and do gymnastics to a patriotic theme. The real stars of the show may be these boys: the flashcard flippers, who with split-second precision form colorful mosaics. But this is what the boys behind the cards look like before the extravaganza begins: thousands of them — all dressed in white with their stacks of cards. The boys reportedly rehearse for months to get their moves down. If you look closely, you will find some taking a pre-"games" nap on their cards.
The Arirang games flashcard mosaics usually have patriotic themes. This year's theme highlights the exploits of North Korean soldiers in the 1950-1953 war. What you don't see on television or even across May Day stadium, unless you have a long camera lens or binoculars, are the heads of some of the boys popping up above their flashcards. I'm not sure if they were allowed to peek, but perhaps they wanted to see the big show on the field for themselves.
The only departure from our tightly programmed Korean War commemoration tour was when we were allowed to visit a store aimed at foreign tourists and their foreign currency. The store sold a mix of North Korean-made cigarettes, video and souvenirs but what caught Ann Curry and NBC News cameraman David Lom's eyes were the posters. All handmade and all glorifying the Kim regime and its ideology. For the equivalent of $60 in Chinese yuan or euros, you can buy one and a packing tube to take it home in.
On only one morning were we allowed to take pictures of everyday life in Pyongyang, and even then just fleeting glimpses out the window of a moving van. One sign of change: the woman with the cellphone. Less than 10 percent of North Koreans have a cellphone, and if they do have one, they are probably a member of the elite. Just this week, leader Kim Jong Un visited a Pyongyang factory where his country's first smartphone, the Arirang, was unveiled. Some foreign analysts question, though, whether the Arirang phone is really made in Pyongyang or is shipped in from China.
These two soldiers were some of the dozens of veterans who fought in what North Korea calls the "Fatherland Liberation War." After we saw them over several days at these war commemoration events, they became familiar faces. Maybe a bit frail, but always flashing a smile and proudly showing off their medals. When we interviewed some veterans after the military parade, they had a firm view on who won the war. They told us they won and beat the American imperialists.
All photos by ML Flynn / NBC News
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First published August 14 2013, 8:13 PM