North Korea: Surreal Land of the Kims

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod covers a military parade in Kim Il Sung square, Pyongyang, North Korea, October 2010.
CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod covers a military parade in Kim Il Sung square, Pyongyang, North Korea, October 2010.

Last week this time, I was in North Korea. Forgive the delay in writing, it took me a few days to let the dust settle on what I saw.

I visited Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. I went to a circus and saw an "Uncle Sam" character chase Russian children around the big top aiming a scaled-down model of a missile at them.

PICTURES: Kim Jong Un's Debut

I've been to Cuba, and been whispered to by dissidents about the repressive regime. But if I'm simply applying the weirdness filter, then nothing I've seen anywhere I've ever been - I mean nothing - compares to what I saw in and around Kim Il Sung square last week.

Fresh from the airport where our cell phones and blackberries were confiscated as a condition of entering the country, we were taken by our government minders to May Day stadium. We walked into a packed house, somewhere near the 75,000 a typical NFL stadium would hold. There were also 10,000 or so performers jammed together on the field. That's right - close to 100,000 people in one place -- but not one car in the parking lot. I still have no idea how they got there. But there they most certainly were when we arrived.

Great Leader Kim Il Sung's image is formed by thousands of North Korean students holding up cards at the Arirang Mass Games.

They'd been assembled for the Arirang Mass Games - a music and dance spectacular of an almost unimaginable scale. The people sitting on one entire side of the stadium held up colored cards roughly 2 feet by 3 feet in size, flipping them in various orders and sequences to create elaborate patterns of quasi-animated designs. My best guess is there had to be 20,000 people flipping their cards in unison at the same, precise moment. I didn't see one of the 20,000 make a single mistake for the entire three hour show. Oh, I almost forgot; They were all middle-schoolers.

A North Korean dancer breaks down in tears upon learning that Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un are in attendance.

When Kim Jong Il, and his son, Kim Jong Un appeared, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy that I actually found a bit frightening. I've been to political conventions and Super Bowls - I've never heard cheering like this. The North Korean government put us in the first row of the stadium, the best seats in the house. I was 20 yards from hundreds of performers. The appearance of the Kims let loose a torrent of emotion. Everyone in the stands, and on the field, including soldiers in uniform, turned in the direction of the father and son, started bobbing up and down on their feet with their arms outstretched toward the Dear Leader, palms turned up, and began to make a high pitched sound: "whoooooooooooooo." They didn't stop hopping and whoooooo-ing for 15 minutes, while the Dear Leader and Heir Apparent drank in the adoration.

I looked at the faces of the performers. A group of a dozen women were right in front of me. All had tears streaking down their faces. Clearly, being in proximity to Kim Jong Il was an experience beyond "powerful." Not even "enraptured" quite does it justice. This was a unique emotional transaction. Kim Jong Il didn't say a word to the crowd. No speech, no communication of any kind between him and them. I'd never been in the presence of a crowd that hyper-affiliated before. Which set the stage perfectly for the next morning.

N. Korea Shows Off Heir Apparent

That's when we were taken to Kim Il Sung square for the military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the Worker's Party. More importantly to the regime, the gathering marked the debut of Kim Jong Il's son and newly-designated successor, Kim Jong Un, on the world stage. The goose-stepping soldiers were chilling. Never out of step, heads turned sharply right to the viewing stand as they went by, I couldn't help but think of Nazi Germany. Across the square, thousands of North Koreans in civilian clothes stood ramrod straight for the entire two hour parade, shaking what looked like pom-poms in unison. When the troops were done parading, and Kim Jong Il, looking weak and frail, waved to the crowd, they all sprinted toward the viewing stand, still shaking their pom-poms, stopping just feet from the cameras to begin their bobbing, cheering, and chanting. Again, their faces, men and women, were flooded with tears.

For the rest of our stay, I was looking for some commonality. Some touchstone, just to remind me I wasn't in some alternate universe -- a place with plenty of storefronts and restaurants, but all empty. Where there are roads, but few, if any, cars. Where we could be in a national capital at 5 p.m., but there would be no rush hour. I thought I had found my link to reality at the national flower show, where I expected to share the beauty and sweet scent of a gorgeous yellow bouquet that had to cross cultural barriers, surely. But then I asked the botanist I was introduced to for the secret of growing such beautiful flowers.

"We have had excellent advice from the Dear Leader," she told me.

"He taught you how to grow flowers?" I asked. "Personally?"

"Oh no, he's too busy to come here. But he sent his advice."

On the way to the airport, I asked my minder; "So, where does the Dear Leader live? Is there a North Korean version of the White House? Is there a national palace? Where does he live?"

"Oh," he said to me, a bit stunned-looking that I'd even ask. "We don't know that."

North Korean men bow before a statue of Great Leader Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang.

Of course. The man who apparently controls everything from nuclear weapons tests to botany practices; the man whose father's face still dominates all public space in the country, appearing on a small pin attached to just about every lapel of every garment in an entire country, and whose statue young brides and grooms go to visit and seek blessing; the man whose family is set to become the first three-generation dynasty ever in a communist country. That man. And nearly all of the 23 million people he rules still don't even know where he lives.

I guess by that measure, it should be no surprise the next designated ruler of North Korea is a bit of a stranger to most of the citizens there. After all, up until two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un's name had never even appeared in the state-run media. I'm not sure they would even have tried that in the Kremlin, back in the old days.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.