International Workers’ Day
It’s May Day in the DPRK – International Workers’ Day – and the country is on holiday. Sadly the sunshine that has softened our surroundings since we arrived has been replaced by an un-festive greyness.
Our minibuses head north-east out of town. Leaving the city behind, we pass through thick woodland in the midst of which we glimpse an impressive towered and arcaded building. This, we are told, is the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where lie the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I cross a small red line with So Hyang by referring to the legacy of these men in death. Death, she corrects me, is not a word that can be applied to the Great Leaders. ‘To the Korean people they are not dead – they are alive in our hearts.’
Crossing a bridge over the Hapjang river, one of the tributaries of the Taedong, the road leads to the slopes of Mount Taesong, home of the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, where hundreds of those who fought against the Japanese are buried, each gravestone bearing a bronze bust of its occupant.
It’s also the site of the city’s biggest amusement park. We disembark and join the rapidly growing crowds, walking up towards a tall decorative arch, beyond which is a Ferris wheel and a very noisy roller coaster on whose ancient frame cars race by with a screeching roar. In front of the arch, a small number of elderly Korean couples, the women in long, billowy national dress, are dancing, formally and carefully, as if in slow motion. This, I’m told, is the Senior Citizens area. I have the feeling that So Hyang expects me to be more comfortable here.
Once beyond the arch, the activity is much less decorous. In an open grassy area, loud, hearty and fiercely competitive games are in progress. Rival teams from various state companies vie with each other, stirred up by cheerleaders and yelled on by their friends and families. The garment factory in green versus the ball-bearing makers in salmon pink, are engaged in a game in which contestants have to pick up pieces of paper laid out on the ground.
On each one is written the name of three things (they could be musical instruments, bottles, articles of clothing, relatives, lunch-boxes, small children) which they then have to collect and carry as fast as they can to the finishing line. The atmosphere is hysterical. One man has had to take his wife. She falls as she runs with him and so intent is he on victory that instead of helping her up he drags her along the ground for the last hundred yards. I later see him as one of the contestants in the tug-of-war. Maybe he was just training.
There is so much spontaneous celebration going on that our minders are finding it hard to control where and whom we film. I’m warmly invited to join a dance circle, after which I walk down past a children’s playground where little toddlers ride, ironically, in ancient-looking tin missiles. Every inch of grass and woodland is occupied by festive families or groups of friends, most of whom have a Korean barbecue on the go, and some are insistent on my joining them.
Arms stretch out towards me, proffering fresh-grilled morsels on the ends of chopsticks, and tumblerfuls of beer or soju to wash them down. There’s also much dancing to music played at full volume from portable radios the size of small suitcases. I’m pulled into the ring by both men and women and at one point have a wreath placed on my head by the grandfather of a picnicking family. It turns out he’s had more than a few sojus and some of the younger members of the family usher him away from our camera disapprovingly.
It’s quite a liberating day. I’d expected more supervision, more self-consciousness and more mistrust of ourselves and our cameras. But the revels are unforced and uninhibited in a way which smacks of much greater freedom than I’d expected to see in the Hermit Kingdom. And they’ll go on late into the night.
Another surprise is that there have been no great military parades to celebrate May Day. The vast expanse of Kim Il Sung Square is deserted as, towards evening, we walk across it on our way to a half-hour river cruise. From the water Pyongyang looks impressive, with her iconic buildings all floodlit and a fine display of dancing fountains, rising, falling, surging and sweeping to the most patriotic music I’ve heard all day.