World

What's Pyongyang like in quasi-state of war with South, US? Pretty much like every other day

  • In this Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015 photo, North Koreans read the public copy of a daily newspaper on the platform of a subway station in Pyongyang, North Kroea. North Koreans are accustomed to being told they are on the brink of war with their southern neighbors and U.S. troops, and as talks with South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom dragged on this weekend one had to look hard in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to find signs of a brewing crisis. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

    In this Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015 photo, North Koreans read the public copy of a daily newspaper on the platform of a subway station in Pyongyang, North Kroea. North Koreans are accustomed to being told they are on the brink of war with their southern neighbors and U.S. troops, and as talks with South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom dragged on this weekend one had to look hard in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to find signs of a brewing crisis. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 photo, a woman walks past a propaganda movie shown on a large screen in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Koreans are accustomed to being told they are on the brink of war with their southern neighbors and U.S. troops, and as talks with South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom dragged on this weekend one had to look hard in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to find signs of a brewing crisis. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

    In this Friday, Aug. 21, 2015 photo, a woman walks past a propaganda movie shown on a large screen in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Koreans are accustomed to being told they are on the brink of war with their southern neighbors and U.S. troops, and as talks with South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom dragged on this weekend one had to look hard in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to find signs of a brewing crisis. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)  (The Associated Press)

For 30 minutes in North Korea, as talks were underway to try to avert the worst crisis between the two Koreas in years, all eyes were glued to the television — but not to the news, which had just ended. After five long years, the "Boy General" animation series was airing a much-anticipated new episode.

Being in a "quasi-state of war" essentially sums up what it's like to be in North Korea on any day.

North Koreans are accustomed to being told they are on the brink of war with their southern neighbors and U.S. troops, and as talks with South Korea in the truce village of Panmunjom dragged on this weekend one had to look hard in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to find signs of a brewing crisis.

If anything, the question on people's minds seemed to be why it was taking Seoul so long to do what they assumed it inevitably would — back down.

The negotiations followed North Korea's deadline for the South to dismantle loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda across the border for the first time in 11 years. The South had resumed the broadcasts after two soldiers were maimed by land mines Seoul claimed were placed by the North.

In Tuesday's agreement, Seoul said it would halt the broadcasts and Pyongyang expressed regret, but not responsibility, for the mines.

Soon after the North issued its ultimatum, minivans equipped with loudspeakers plied the streets of Pyongyang to broadcast news the country was on a quasi-state-of-war footing and truckloads of soldiers singing patriotic songs rode along major boulevards.

But as the deadline passed, people awaiting their trains and busses outside Pyongyang's main station seemed oblivious to a single civil defense van decked out in thin camouflage netting parked nearby. Few paid attention to the big screen in the plaza outside the station as the deadline passed.

Throughout the crisis, there were no visible signs of increased security in or around the capital.

Food stalls selling ice cream and other treats were open as usual and families were happily popping cork bullets from air guns at Pyongyang's many street-side shooting galleries.

In subway stations, which double as bomb shelters and are where many people get their news from copies of papers posted on billboards, commuters generally got of their trains and headed to the exits without stopping to read the headlines. That's a big contrast with the genuine concern and interest shown by crowds who swarmed the boards when news of the execution of Kim Jong Un's powerful uncle was reported in late 2013.

The seemingly jaded atmosphere in Pyongyang was a sharp contrast with state media reports of increased coal production as miners scrambled to boost military readiness; of more than a million young people signing up to join, or rejoin, the military; of farmers, factory workers and students rallying behind the call to meet any provocations with a crushing, all-out fight to the finish.

Undoubtedly, there was much more going on than met the eye.

In the tightly controlled information environment of the authoritarian North, it's impossible to tell how tense the situation got near the Demilitarized Zone.

South Korean defense officials said during the talks that about 70 percent of the North's more than 70 submarines and undersea vehicles had left their bases and could not be located by the South Korean military. They also said the North had doubled the strength of its front-line artillery forces since the start of the talks.

In the North, it's equally difficult to gauge public sentiment since few North Koreans are willing to give candid responses when allowed to speak to foreign journalists. Whatever comments they give tend to be predictably jingoistic.

"The puppet military gangsters shot at our sacred fatherland, bringing clouds of fiery war while we are leading a happy life close together with our leader," Pyongyang citizen Kang Ju Hyob said in a typical man-in-the-street interview with an AP television crew on Saturday.

"How can we put up with this?" Kang said. "I think what our party has decided to do is completely right, and we should take revenge."

Still, there did seem to be genuine confidence in the capital that if Seoul didn't blink the North would prevail — just as, its people are constantly told, they managed to defeat the American imperialists and South Korean puppets the last time they clashed, in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Hardly anyone seemed to think the crisis would escalate enough to derail Pyongyang's next big event: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers Party on Oct. 10.

While the talks were still underway, thousands of Pyongyang residents, with plastic flowers or placards in hand, were mobilized across the city Sunday to practice for the mass activities expected that day.