Not much happens in the skies over Pyongyang. Birds are few, aircraft fewer. On Friday, only three flights were scheduled to take off from the North Korean capital. And the first, to Vladivostok in Russia, was not to fly out until 8 am. But at 6.27 am Pyongyang time (3.27 am IST), an unidentified object streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of white smoke.
Shortly after 7 am, one of the seven channels that tourists can access inside hotel rooms broke the news — North Korea had launched a missile which flew over Japan’s northern Hokkaido to land in the Pacific, ratcheting up tensions further after Pyongyang tested its most powerful nuclear device.
In the hotel lobby, all eyes were fixed on the TV screen. But it was not the news that they were watching. On Pyongyang’s state-run channel, a music show was on. On the street outside, there was absolute calm — no gasps, no panic. People went about business as usual.
Like most North Koreans, Sin Mun-ji was unaware of the missile launch until one of the hotel guests walked up to her. “Really? Nice,” was her first reaction.
The 23-year-old, a business graduate, said the three state-run channels she gets at home had not yet put out the news. “If this is true, then it shows the strength of our country under the leadership of the dear, respected Marshal Kim Jong-Un despite the sanctions the imperialist Americans impose on us,” she told this correspondent.
The Indian Express was in Pyongyang for an Asian Football Confederation Cup match between Bengaluru FC and 4.25 SC, the North Korean military team, which ended in a goalless draw two days ago.
The news of the missile launch started spreading by word of mouth. By 10 am, people began moving out of their apartments — a car is a privilege very few can afford in Pyongyang, so people either take the tram, cycle or simply walk to their offices. There was no urgency, no panic this morning. But they were all discussing the missile launch.
In the capital, most people speak in one voice — ready for a war if it comes to that. Every 10 yards, there is an image of a missile being launched or of an American being crushed by one. Japan too is an “enemy”. Tokyo’s proximity to Washington and its role in imposing sanctions on Pyongyang have further stoked the anti-Japan sentiment.
In fact, a day earlier, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who held bilateral talks in Gandhinagar, had condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, saying these should be rolled back.
But on the streets here, they hail these programmes as acts of self-defence. “Every country is developing its own missile. But if we do it, the Americans say it is wrong. We have to protect our country and for that, we are ready to fight anyone,” Chang Wan-ho, a government guide, said.
By noon, school children started trickling in at the Kim Il-sung Square in the city centre for dance practice. Around 1,000 students were gathering to rehearse for the National Day on October 10. Attired in all-white uniform with red scarves around their necks, they began performing under life-size portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Next to the portraits was graffiti of a man in military green, blowing the bugle and calling on his troops.
Soldiers in dark Mao suits were everywhere. A few military trucks sped through Mire Street, better known as Future Street, towards Sunan from where the missile was launched. The Pyongyang international airport is also located in this tiny district — it has more military aircraft than commercial liners.
Inside the airport terminal, the ground staff prepared for the day’s final flight to take off. Music, meanwhile, still played on state-run TV.