The Day That Everything Stopped

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Mourners in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Last December I traveled to North Korea to make sure that the second shipment of donated baby food was being distributed to the agreed upon locations.

We were taking photographs in the pharmacy of the children‘s hospital in South Hamgoing Province when all the personnel suddenly stopped in shock. I immediately noticed the seriousness of their faces; many women had tears in their eyes. Our interpreter informed me that news the death of the Leader Kim Jong Il had just been announced on the radio! 

No one expected this to happen. Kim Jong Il had just taken a trip to China and visited a military base a few days earlier. Anyone hearing the news found it hard to believe. No one knows what will happen with our group now, only that our program has been put on hold. First, we have to return to our hotel. The faces of the hotel staff are tear-stained; no food will be served at the restaurant. We are informed that we have to drive back to Pyongyang. The mood is very heavy in the capital too.

„We do not know what will happen next!“  „I am extremely concerned!“ – These were the typical responses we heard from the North Koreans. They wanted us to stay at the hotel all day, but, fortunately, we were allowed to move to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation office during the day. We were thankful for the good relationships that made this possible! The Swiss staff gave us a place to work in their warm library, we were allowed to use the internet and the telephone and there was hot water to make instant noodle soup.
During the mandated national period of mourning, flags fly at half mast, but stores, museums and restaurants are also closed. Still, people are encouraged to go to work, which means that the city is anything but deserted.
We see small groups of people carrying white paper flowers, which they lay in front of the various pictures of Kim Il Sung throughout the city. Gigantic portraits of Kim Jong Il appear on building facades. In the first few hours, only smaller groups of people wait in line to pay their respects, later on hundreds and by the third day thousands of people waited to lay flowers at the site. The smaller groups seem to have come together spontaneously, and it is deeply moving to see them mourning.
The fact that we were only able to complete about half of our intended monitoring visits is disappointing, but the opportunity to be part of such a historical event was also very special.

On the one hand, I long for a peaceful future for the region, yet I am also intrigued by the possibility of new opportunities.
I hope that the government and the official successor, Kim Jong Un – only twenty-eight years old – rise to meet the challenge and exercise their power wisely!

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