PYONGYANG, North Korea -- All afternoon we obsessively checked our phones, seeking a reason -- or even a clue -- as to why North Korea wouldn't let us leave.
I was among roughly two dozen foreign correspondents, tourists and diplomats waiting at the Pyongyang airport's departure gates on Monday. Our flight to Beijing was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.; now it was nearly 4 p.m., and as the evening loomed, the question felt increasingly urgent. We had no explanation for the delay, and no information on rescheduling. Soon, as we exhausted the limited cellular data allotted by our exorbitantly expensive North Korean plans, we would have no connection to the outside world.
Saturday was the most important day on the North Korean calendar -- the 105th birthday of its founding president, Kim Il Sung. His grandson, Kim Jong Un, planned to preside over a massive military parade in Kim Il Sung's honor, and the North Korean government invited about 100 foreign journalists to attend. It clearly intended to send a dark but unambiguous message to the outside world: that the country was well-armed, unfazed by U.N. sanctions over its budding nuclear program, and prepared to go to war with the U.S.
All week, the mood was tense. The U.S. had reportedly dispatched a naval strike group to the Korean Peninsula, and there were reports that officials were considering a pre-emptive strike. (It would later turn out that the naval group was headed in the opposite direction.) North Korea threatened to retaliate, raising the specter of nuclear conflict. "We will go to war if they choose," a high-ranking North Korean official told The Associated Press.
So at the airport, we puzzled over the delay and feared the worst. We ruled out the weather, unofficial Chinese government measures, and a mechanical issue with the plane -- Pyongyang and Beijing both had clear skies, and a flight from Pyongyang to the Russian city of Vladivostok was also grounded. Several people waiting had visited North Korea on multiple occasions, and they were equally perplexed.
Rumors flew. What if the government had closed its airspace for a missile test? What if it didn't want us to leave? Suddenly, just after 4 p.m., the departures board went dark, and the group went quiet.
'Liberation of the fatherland,' then sandwiches
On April 12, I few from northeast China to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, North Korea's state airline. About a half-hour after takeoff, a flight attendant announced that we had entered North Korean airspace. "Our President, Kim Il Sung, came across the river with great ambition for his country," she said in English. "It reminds us of his revolutionary exploits in his liberation of the fatherland." She then distributed sandwiches.
Since the late 1940s, the Kim family has ruled North Korea with an iron fist -- hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have died in its vast network of internment camps, according to best estimates. Any sign of dissent, or even disillusionment, can carry unspeakable consequences.
Its capital, Pyongyang, is a city of clean streets and modest apartment blocks. It's also an urban testament to a personality cult so entrenched that it subsumes many aspects of its residents' daily lives. Golden statues of Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, the country's ruler from 1994 to 2011, tower over the city. Their smiling portraits stare out from socialist-style edifices, living room walls and red lacquer badges that all North Korean adults are required to wear in public, on their left lapels over their hearts.