North Korea may be the world’s most closely controlled society, but security during a week when thousands of Workers’ Party delegates were in town along with 128 foreign journalists was even tighter than usual.
North Korea’s Guard Command, an elite corps charged with protecting leader Kim Jong Un, and members from the feared state security apparatus put journalists through layers of intensive checks to gain access to events at the rare party congress.
It was the first such congress to be held since 1980, before Kim was born, and an opportunity for the 33-year-old to cement his grip on power and project his authority to the outside world.
At the events journalists were allowed to attend, it took them between three and four hours from the time they left their hotel to getting in.
Even when Kim was not there, such as at an evening of performances where other top officials were in attendance, protection was extensive.
A guard with a portable radio detector scanned bodies, looking for concealed wireless devices. Another stood at the top of a staircase, his right arm bent around a Kalashnikov assault rifle bulking under his jacket.
Mobile phones, satellite and GPS devices were forbidden, and anything deemed a potential threat was taken, including a hand sanitizer.
By comparison, when Kim appeared at the opening of a military museum three years ago, foreign journalists in the North Korean capital were briefly able to get close enough to touch the leader of the reclusive country.
One even lobbed a question at Kim, who did not answer.
Young red guards
It was not immediately clear why security was stepped up this week compared with events three years ago to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean war, or last October at celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the ruling party.
Kim seems far more comfortable in public than his late father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, and often travels within the country in a private jet. But his tenure has also been marked by a series of purges and executions, including of his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013.
The stricter checks may also have been part of the show, said Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked in the propaganda unit of the Workers’ Party and wrote a 2014 memoir, “Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea.”
The title refers the name by which Kim Jong Il is known.
“While justifying it as a security measure, there may be an element of trying to show off the highest level of authority to the outside,” Jang, who now lives in Seoul, told Reuters.
Jang said he would not be surprised if senior officials were forced to go through similar security procedures.
“But it’d be like, whereas they would check the contents of your pockets every time, they would check theirs may be five out of 10 times,” he said.
The North Korean capital was locked down even before the congress, which bestowed the title of party chairman on Kim, who assumed power in 2011 after his father’s sudden death.
Members of the Young Red Guards, a student militia, stood watch at key intersections south of the city.
On parade day on Tuesday, every bridge across the Taedong River that flows through the city was closed, according to residents of the city.
Fear of flying - and more
Nuclear-armed North Korea’s ruling ethos is based in large part on protecting the country from attack by enemies led by the United States, which state propaganda frequently characterises as imminent.
But the North’s security apparatus is geared to shielding the leader from internal threats, whether from a disgruntled senior bureaucrat or an unknown element in the public that might incite violence, a former bodyguard who defected from the North has said.
Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011 of a heart attack on a train while travelling to give field guidance, according to state media, was especially obsessed with his own safety, according to the bodyguard, Lee Yong-guk.
That fear may have been exacerbated by a huge 2004 explosion that destroyed a railway station hours after Kim Jong Il’s special train passed while returning from China.
Kim Jong Il, who was famous for his fear of flying and almost never spoke at large public events, would obscure his movements by sending trains, ships and motorcades in different directions, Lee told Reuters in a 2006 interview.