This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Residents of Pyongyang who were forced to participate in a parade to mark the founding of North Korea’s army this week waited for nearly an entire day before the event began, disrupting their work and leaving them exhausted, sources said Friday.
On the evening of April 25, Pyongyang commemorated the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army – the predecessor to the Korean People’s Army, formed when the country was founded in 1948 – with an extravagant military parade, classified as a “No. 1 event” because it was presided over by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
A city official told RFA’s Korean Service that tens of thousands of residents were forced to assemble well in advance of the event showcasing North Korea’s most advanced military equipment, including tanks, armored vehicles, and the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, which Pyongyang claims to have successfully tested last month.
“From the dawn on the 25th, about 100,000 Pyongyang citizens waited at Kim Il Sung Square for 17 hours to make the military parade possible,” said the official, noting that the start of the event was not made public until just before it began.
“They were all totally exhausted,” he added.
Sources told RFA that North Koreans have tried to avoid “parade duty” ever since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. The government has taken action to make sure parades are not sparsely attended, forcing them to practice watching or marching in the parade in the two months leading up to the actual event.
“Now the number of participants are assigned to each neighborhood watch unit and they are forcibly mobilized,” the official said.
“Pyongyang citizens mobilized for the event are complaining that their livelihoods are being disrupted as they were not able to do business during the two-month military parade practice period. There are many residents who think that it is better to pay $30.00 per month to drop out of practice so they can work instead.”
Those marching in the parade also sacrifice much for the highly publicized propaganda event.
“The authorities conducted a two-month training session for middle school students selected for the balloon group, but during this period, the children’s grades are bound to drop,” the official said.
Security for the event meant that certain people were kept away from the parade, even those who might have enjoyed watching it, a Pyongyang resident told RFA.
“On the day of the event, the members of No.1 event department checked the list of general citizens who were not eligible to participate in the military parade by their residence. General citizens, such as elderly and younger children, who were excluded from participating in the event, gathered in a certain place by residence until the end of the parade and their movement was restricted,” the resident said.
“Security agents with heavy firearms were stationed on the rooftop of an apartment building around the square, and strict security was maintained until the event was over… I don’t know what they are afraid of,” the resident said.
Citizens participating in the parade were instructed to wear black clothes to avoid being detected by satellites until just before the start of the ceremony,” the official said.
Sources said that authorities even blocked all mobile communications to ensure leader Kim Jong Un’s security, without providing details about the perceived threat.
“At the order of the Supreme Guard Command escorting the leadership, the operation of the mobile phone base station in Pyongyang was stopped, and mobile phone calls from and to Pyongyang citizens were blocked,” a second Pyongyang resident told RFA.
“Until now, whenever any No.1 events are held in Pyongyang, the event participants gathered at Kim Il Sung Square are inspected with metal detectors by members of the Ministry of State Security and are banned from possessing watches and mobile phones. It is the first time that the operation of the mobile phone base station has been stopped and the use of mobile phones in Pyongyang has been completely blocked,” he said.
Everyone involved in the parade was so unhappy about being selected to participate, including the soldiers, a stark contrast to the military parades of yesteryear when Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather ruled the country, the first Pyongyang resident said.
“During the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il eras, soldiers who participated in military parades were given considerable benefits such as commendations, 15 days of vacation, and gifts like televisions for their homes,” the first Pyongyang resident said.
“However, after Kim Jong Un came to power, the soldiers who participate in military parades are immediately returned to their military camp without any compensation.”
Despite the fanfare, North Koreans said that the parade did little to improve morale.
To drive the point home, authorities forced residents to attend two-hour lecture sessions to educate them about the weapons that appeared in the parade, a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA.
“The purpose of this intensive lecture is to promote North Korea’s military power as the world’s strongest by showing off strategic and tactical weapons that appeared at the parade, and to calm the dissatisfaction of the people who are tired of living difficulties due to sanctions and the coronavirus,” he said.
The North Korean economy is still suffering from a pandemic caused two-year trade ban with China, as well as international nuclear sanctions.
“Residents mobilized for the lecture were skeptical about the speaker’s statement that we are standing tall as the world’s most powerful military power,” the North Pyongan resident said.
The lecture also promised an end to North Korea’s economic misery, a resident of the city of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA.
“Residents did not hide their disappointment, saying that no one believed the authorities’ propaganda.”