North Korea: ‘If the US has nuclear weapons, why can’t we?’

North Korea’s nuclear test drew international censure. But Pyongyang rejoiced, says Andrew MacLeod, in a rare dispatch from the pariah state

News of North Korea’s third nuclear test has been received with widespread condemnation and United Nations sanctions, and brought a significant deterioration of relations between Pyongyang and Seoul. Yet when the test was announced on 12 February, I saw the people of Pyongyang celebrating.

Convinced that South Korea has over 800 nuclear warheads pointing their way, people in the North believe nuclear weapons are essential for the safety of their country.

For the world, concern grew over whether the device had used plutonium rather than enriched uranium – a major technological advance if true. But for our North Korean guides, the capacity to have nuclear technology was a point of pride. It was also a point of fairness. If others have nuclear weapons and power, why can’t they?

My Scandinavian travel companions and I (an Australian) put forward the view that, in our countries, we see it as a sign of strength to be free of the weapons. “But what about the Americans?” came the reply from our guides. The people of North Korea share some of their sense of security with policymakers in China, France, the US and UK – all nuclear-armed states. It is one of the few things we have in common with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Outside Pyongyang airport, the differences are marked. I told myself the lack of cars on the road must have been due to the lunar new year holiday. But I was surprised over the next five days to find the roads were the busiest of the trip.

Our guide told us the government encourages people to walk or cycle.

“How much do cars cost here?” one of our group asked. “Cost?” the guide asked, bewildered. “Well, the state gives them,” he said.

Successful athletes, artists, actors or senior bureaucrats are given cars as rewards for service to Kim Jong-un’s regime. It is not possible for ordinary people to buy them, even if they had the money.

Aid agencies estimate that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of food shortages caused by economic problems and natural disasters.

Both Kim Il-sung, the father of Communist North Korea, and his son Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, lie in state in the former’s “ office”, which looks more like a palace or fortress. It serves as a grand demonstration of the inequality of dictatorship.

When I arrived at Pyongyang’s shrines to its departed leaders, I did not anticipate the gentle sobbing of the people who looked upon their images. For most North Koreans, brought up on a diet of propaganda extolling the semi-divine nature of the Kims, their rule is like a religion.

Though they lived in acres of marble lit by millions of dollars’ worth of chandeliers while much of the country starved, the emotion shown by mourners is real.

As we took photographs, most people fled. We waved, and a few small children waved back, but they were quickly grabbed by their parents and stopped. Yet, under all the reservation and fear, some did reach out and say hello. There is friendliness held back by indoctrination.

At the Study House, we were shown the hall where students were allowed to access “the internet”. In reality, they only have access to a local area network with pre-saved sites, mainly in Korean.

In the age of Twitter and Facebook, I would have liked to have stayed in touch with our guide. But there is no option to do so by electronic means.

So here we have it: two potential friends reaching across political and cultural divides, separated by politics with no way of staying in touch. That, more than nuclear weapons, is the tragedy of North Korea.

Andrew MacLeod is a former aid  worker, who travelled to North Korea as a tourist