David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea — From across the city, they are summoned to pay reverence.
So on a chilly April evening, tens of thousands of people come to honor their new ruler, as towering statues of his father and grandfather are unveiled on a Pyongyang hilltop. The crowds bow before the statues in practiced unison and shake bright, fake flowers in choreographed praise. Some weep with joy to be in the presence of the baby-faced Kim Jong Un, who is now their Illustrious General, their Leader, their Supreme Commander.
For years, this is how the world has seen the people of this secretive nation: as Stalinist automatons in meticulously staged mass spectacles that glorify one-family rule. And there's plenty of truth in that.
But look closer.
Go downtown on that April evening and mingle among the thousands of people walking to their trolley stops after the ceremony, when the streets are closed to traffic and crowds fill the night with laughter. Most have spent the entire day squatting in a hilltop plaza the size of a small cornfield, waiting to stand on cue and wave their flowers for a few minutes in well-practiced devotion. They should be exhausted.
Instead, young women walk arm in arm, young men eyeing them from nearby. Older women laugh as they swish along in the traditional Korean dresses modernized here into polyester hoop skirts. Across the street from Department Store No. 1, hundreds of people crowd sidewalk stalls to buy 1-cent servings of spring water ("Good for your health!" a saleswoman promises), served in metal cups that are rinsed in buckets and quickly used again.
In many ways, it's a vision of 1950s small-town America. Most men wear hats and ties, few women show even a hint of cleavage. There are no teenagers with mysterious piercings, no fights, no obvious drunks.
This is the complex reality of the spectacles, which exist at a particularly North Korean intersection of dogma, tedium and entertainment. They are blatant propaganda in support of the ruling family, but also a chance to look around for girlfriends. They are a source of widespread pride in a country best known for its isolation, but require dull practice sessions that can stretch on for days.
And in a place with little to offer in the way of nightlife, they even count as fun.
Movie theaters close early here, along with the bars. North Korean television broadcasts little but odes to the ruling family. Few people can afford the city's restaurants. Private parties are discouraged by the authorities, who frown on gatherings they do not control.
That leaves the rallies.
"On days when rallies are held, people who participate can get together and talk over drinks after the event is over," says Kim Seong-min, 26, a university student now living in South Korea. "Rallies are chances to get together and feel the warmth of the community."
The ceremonies, like nearly all life in North Korea, revolve around the three men who have ruled the country since its birth in 1948: The founder Kim Il Sung, his son Kim Jong Il and now his grandson Kim Jong Un.
Toddlers learn songs proclaiming their love of Kim Il Sung. Official accounts say Kim Jong Il could control the weather, and that broken machinery would spontaneously function at his touch. The state media proclaims Kim Jong Un, who came to power late last year after his father's death and is believed to be in his late 20s, a living reflection of his two predecessors.
In the official tales, the Kims are kind and they are brilliant, they are strong and they are all-knowing.
The government, of course, is also deeply feared, with vast interlocking webs of intelligence agencies, informer networks and prison camps. Plenty of North Koreans proclaim their belief out of that fear, according to people who have managed to flee the country. Others pay fealty out of professional ambition.
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