Picnics and paddleboats as Pyongyang celebrates

AP News
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Posted: Oct 12, 2010 12:12 AM
Picnics and paddleboats as Pyongyang celebrates

North Koreans took a long weekend to celebrate a major political anniversary and the unveiling of leader Kim Jong Il's heir-apparent in scenes of revelry that contradicted the shortages normally associated with this reclusive country.

Families packed baskets with food and liquor they received from the government in honor of the occasion and picnicked Monday along the Taedong River and on scenic Moran Hill. Others in North Korea's showcase capital headed to an amusement park, filling the air with screams as they braved a serpentine rollercoaster and rammed one another in bumper cars.

This was no ordinary weekend for a populace more accustomed to austerity.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: AP Seoul Bureau Chief Jean H. Lee and photographer Vincent Yu were among a group of foreign journalists allowed into North Korea for events surrounding the 65th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker's Party and the anointment of Kim Jong Un as the nation's next leader.

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It was a national holiday, the last day of a long weekend of festivities to mark the 65th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party founded by late President Kim Il Sung. The anniversary was more than just a milestone: It also provided North Koreans with a glimpse into the future as they got a good look at the young man _ Kim Jong Un _ who is slated to become their next leader.

"He has President Kim Il Sung's face," said Pak Chol, a 23-year-old who said he watched the live broadcast at home showing Kim Jong Un making his first major public appearance Sunday by joining his father for a massive military parade through the Pyongyang plaza named after his grandfather.

Until two weeks ago, Kim Jong Un's anointment as his father's successor was little more than rumor and speculation outside North Korea.

But his promotion to four-star general late last month, followed by his appointment to key political posts within the Workers' Party, confirmed what had been suspected for more than a year: that he is being groomed to succeed his 68-year-old father and to take the Kim family dynasty into a third generation.

Believed to be 26, the untested son would face a mountain of challenges if he were to take over soon as leader, including tensions with regional powers over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program and a faltering economy further strained by sanctions imposed by the U.S. and United Nations.

Separately, Kim Jong Il's eldest son said he opposes a hereditary transfer of power to a third generation of his family. Japan's TV Asahi showed footage of Kim making the remarks in Beijing on Saturday.

"Personally, I am against third-generation succession, but .... if there were internal factors, (we) should abide by them," he said.

Kim Jong Nam was once considered likely to succeed his father. He reportedly fell out of favor after being caught trying to enter Japan on a false passport in 2001.

North Korea, with few natural resources and arable land, has struggled to feed its people since natural disasters battered its agricultural industry in the 1990s and aid from the former Soviet bloc dried up.

But the communist regime retains dominance in this country of 24 million, and across Pyongyang, residents seemed ready to embrace the son already familiarly known as the Young General. Though he has been a figure of mystery outside North Korea, adulation of the heir-apparent is already well in place inside the country.

Pak, who was touring a flower exhibition Monday, said he had heard of Kim Jong Un well before his public debut in North Korean state media two weeks ago.

"We had heard that when the Young General was young, he was admired by everyone who met him for his intelligence and good personality," he said.

Pak said seeing the son alongside leader Kim Jong Il gave him a surge of confidence.

"I truly felt the strength of our country when I saw the Great Leader Kim Jong Il and the Young General Kim Jong Un," he said. "If we have Gen. Kim Jong Il and young Gen. Kim Jong Un leading the country, we can open up the gates and become a stronger and more prosperous nation."

As on most major holidays, every North Korean got a special gift from the government. Pak said he and his family took the beer, Korean soju liquor, meat, fish and snacks in their bundles to Moran Hill for a picnic _ a popular holiday tradition.

Families also gathered under willow trees along Taedong River, where they had a view of some of Pyongyang's grandest monuments, including Juche Tower, the palatial People's Study Hall and the massive bronze statue of Kim Il Sung that overlooks the city.

The Associated Press had a rare chance to chat with the families, away from events organized for the foreign media.

Three generations of one family feasted on beef stew, dumplings, tempura, blood sausage and kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that is Korea's most famous condiment. Further down the riverbank, a group of friends sang and clapped as one woman gave an impromptu dance performance before collapsing into giggles.

Down by the riverside, fathers taught sons how to shoot at a miniature shooting range, while others clustered around a rattling foosball table. Others jumped into paddleboats that dotted the waterfront.

Jo Hyang Mi, eyes bright and cheeks flushed, took a break from a heated game of badminton to roll up her pant legs. Jo said she, too, watched Sunday's military parade on TV.

"I was so happy to see Kim Jong Un after he was elected vice-chairman of the military commission" of the Workers' Party's Central Committee, she said. "I feel happy and full of conviction knowing that our country is powerful and that our strength comes from the leadership of our Great Leader Kim Jong Il and from Kim Jong Un."

After three public appearances in two days, the two Kims stayed out of the spotlight Monday. Kim Jong Il held talks with Zhou Yongkang, a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of China's politburo, state-run media said.

As the sun set, the lights went on at the Triumph Children's Park, an amusement park just a stone's throw from the Arch of Triumph where Kim Il Sung made a historic speech just days after founding the Workers' Party in 1945.

The park pulsated with neon, and tree branches laced with small lights gave the fair a festive air. Groups of friends posed for photos, and families crowded into fast food joints selling fried chicken, burgers, Belgian waffles and soft-serve ice cream cones.

Children raced around from ride to ride, lining up for bumper cars, a rollercoaster, a levitating pirate's ship.

One little boy begged his mother to let him on just one more ride.

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Associated Press writers Shino Yuasa in Tokyo and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.