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  

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent