The crowd applauded as the official announcement was read out.
This was breaking news, Pyongyang style: delivered bombastically, with much fanfare, one day late.
While the world learned about North Korea’s latest military test – in which it flew an intermediate-range missile over Japan – shortly after it took place early Tuesday morning, in Pyongyang the announcement was not made until the following afternoon.
Such delays are common, and most North Koreans are unaware, having no access to outside media or information. Unsuccessful launches are not announced at all.
Pride in Pyongyang
In a square outside Pyongyang’s central train station, large crowds of people going to or from their trains watched a television screen for what they were told would be an important news broadcast.
They cheered and clapped as veteran broadcaster Ri Chun Hee, clad in a pink traditional dress, described how supreme leader Kim Jong Un “guided an intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket-launching drill of the (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force on the spot.”
Kim Su Jong watched the broadcast with her classmates, clad in the dark green military-style uniform of the prestigious Kang Ban Sok Revolutionary School, named for the mother of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.
“As long as as we have our very capable Korean People’s Army and the leadership of Marshall Kim Jong Un, we don’t have any enemy we cannot conquer,” she told CNN as she and her classmates were en route to Mount Paektu, the highest point on the Korean Peninsula and a mythological site in North Korea – claimed as the birthplace of Kim Jong Il.
Tak Yong Sok echoed the young woman’s confidence in her government.
“I feel very proud of this brilliant achievement,” the railway work team leader said. “I’m seeing the launch and feel that our military is improving. I feel very proud to be Korean.”
Threats and sanctions
North Korean state media has warned that Tuesday’s launch was a prelude to more military operations directed at the American territory of Guam.
Pyongyang threatened to fire missiles into the waters around Guam earlier this month, sparking an angry response from US President Donald Trump in which he threatened “fire and fury” should North Korea continue its missile and nuclear testing.
Last week, joint US-South Korean military drills kicked off. The annual exercises always infuriate Pyongyang, and some have called for them to be called off or scaled back as a show of good faith that might bring Kim back to the negotiating table.
Kim is keen to alleviate heavy sanctions that have been placed on the economy, but has been adamant his country will not give up nuclear weapons as a precondition to any negotiations. Pyongyang views the nuclear deterrent as vital to prevent potential US regime change.
In Pyongyang, new propaganda posters showed a pair of hands ripping a document, with the slogan “we categorically reject UN sanctions,” after the Security Council imposed new restrictions earlier this month.
Other posters threatened the US. One showed missiles flying towards an exploding White House, with the caption “the response of Korea to US rhetoric.”
‘We love peace’
Despite the intense rhetoric from North Korean state media, and angry responses from the US, Japan and South Korea, life in Pyongyang proceeds as normal.
Much as South Koreans are used to living with the threat from their neighbor, North Koreans are not bothered by the possibility of war – they have been told their entire lives the US is poised to invade the country any day.
Speaking on the streets of the North Korean capital before the missile launch was officially announced, Jong Hak told CNN that North Koreans “love peace.”
“If another war happens, Koreans and Americans (both) will suffer,” he said. “But we will never beg for peace.”
Others were more aggressive. Pyongyang resident Ri Hyon Il said before the announcement that “real action” was needed.
Tuesday’s test, which was fired from a mobile launching site near Pyongyang airport, may have been a signal to North Koreans like Ri.
That location showed North Korea’s confidence in its technology that it would conduct a potentially dangerous launch near its most-populated city, and sent a message to the US or any other potential attacker that the humanitarian risks of a pre-emptive strike could be massive.
Back at the railway station, trolleybus driver Kim Sung Hyon said North Korea was “simply acting in self-defense.”
“We shot one yesterday, we could shoot one today, maybe tomorrow we’ll shoot for 10 more missiles,” he said. “We have to do it to defend our country.”
Will Ripley and Tim Schwarz reported from Pyongyang, North Korea. James Griffiths wrote from Hong Kong.