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
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing