North Korea has always seemed strange to those on the outside looking in, and its national holidays are no exception.
The enigmatic regime just finished a weekend of gaudy festivities celebrating both its Party Foundation Day and the 20th anniversary of former leader Kim Jong Il's election as General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. In typical North Korean fashion, the capital of Pyongyang held massive military parades, festivals and other celebrations. Many of the scenes feel like something out of the Cold War era, but the cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim family remains strong in North Korea.
Party Foundation Day commemorates Kim Il Sun's foundation of the Central Organizing Committee of the Communist Party of North Korea, which was the predecessor to the current Workers' Party of Korea. Like many things in North Korea, the history behind it is shrouded in mystery and deception. The North Korean narrative claims that Kim Il Sun "liberated" the country on that day, but the truth is much more complicated.
North Korea, like much of the world after World War II, was split between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. Both sides technically advocated for a united government, so Kim could not initially form a Communist party outright. In fact, even the Soviets did not initially want Kim to head up the North Korean Section of the Communist party, according to NK News. Instead, Kim's colleague Pak Hon-Yong was the head of the party in Korea... until Kim has him assassinated in 1955. Kim scrubbed any reference to the Soviets being involved in setting up the party, and even changed the official date of the anniversary on Oct. 10, apparently for aesthetic reasons.
Though he died in 1994, Kim Il Sun lives on as a sort of mythic figure in North Korea. So too does his son, Kim Jong-Il, who died in 2011. North Korea celebrated the 20th election of the younger Kim's election on Oct. 8 with pomp and circumstance that rivaled even the most elaborate parades during the Soviet era. Kim Jong Un, the current North Korean leader, paid homage to his father and grandfather over the weekend while North Koreans celebrated.
Party Foundation day was somewhat less intense, but it is still considered a major holiday. The government is known to hand out snacks and meat each year, rare commodities in the destitute country. Residents are also often provided with electricity during major holidays, a luxury for a country whose power grid has been nearly dead since the country's economy collapsed in the 1990s. North Korea continues to suffer economically, but you wouldn't know it by looking on the streets of Pyongyang. Staged celebrations abounded in the city while average citizens wore smiles and repeated typical party line phrases praising the regime.
One might not even think North Korea is at its most isolated in years looking at the elaborate festivities, but it is no secret to those outside of the country that tensions are at their highest in years. The regime has ramped up its provocations under Kim Jong Un, including illicit nuclear weapons research and aggressive missile testing, and it does not appear to be interest in stopping despite pushback from the international community.