May Issue: Kim Il-sung: The Centennial

North Koreans pose for photos in front of the newly unveiled statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il at the Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang.

Photojournalist Mark Edward Harris captures scenes from North Korea’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the nation’s late founder.

story and photographs by MARK EDWARD HARRIS

On April 13, the North Koreans launched a three-stage rocket. Seconds later, it exploded. The launch was no doubt timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s late founder, Kim Il-sung—an occasion also marked by a series of major celebratory activities, including a simultaneous, multicity fireworks display and grand military parade.

News of the failed launch was unusual in that it was broadcast to the people of North Korea without the usual spin—no scapegoating or attaching blame on those south of the 38th parallel or Washington. Is this a signal of the leadership style of new, third-generation leader Kim Jong-un?

I wanted to travel for the eighth time to North Korea to see the country for the first time since the passing of Kim Jong-il, son of Kim Il-sung, last December. I arrived April 14 at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, where I had first set foot in the reclusive country seven years earlier. I have witnessed a sea change since 2005—including scenes like this one: an Italian restaurant complete with red-and-white checkered tablecloths and Italian clothing-garbed women tossing pizzas; a Helmut Sachers Austrian coffee house; and a Paradise microbrewery.

Thousands of cars now travel on the once-barren streets. This is, of course, in Pyongyang, which is the showcase city of the North. But having ventured throughout the country on numerous occasions, I am witness to historic changes that cannot simply be passed off as propaganda created for foreign eyes.

While the North Koreans may have trouble with their rocket program, they do know how to put on a military parade.  I was able to mix among the locals to witness an almost endless procession of mechanized armor rumbling down the road from Kim Il-sung Square.


North Koreans wave to soldiers during a massive military parade, part of the festivities marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder.

That night, the birthday celebrations were capped off with fireworks that were timed to go off at the exact same time in major cities across the country. I had made it down to Kaesong to witness them in this beautiful town near the DMZ.

Kim Il-sung celebrations were capped off with fireworks, like these in Kaesong, that were timed to go off simultaneously in major cities across the country.

While spectacular, the fireworks did remind me of my time on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong that was shelled by the North in November 2010, a stark reminder of how miscalculations can unravel all the positive moves forward in a matter of moments.

A view of a 30-millimeter-high statue in front of Juche Tower at sunset. The figures hold a hammer, a sickle and a writer’s brush. Juche (self-reliance) serves as a central political ideology of North Korea.

This article was published in the May 2012 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today!