Impressions of a week in North Korea Impressions of a week in North Korea

By Stephen Endicott

                                                                                                Senior Scholar, York University (retired)

As part of a Montreal-based film crew preparing a docu-drama on the Korean War, I made a visit to North Korea in November 2002. This was my first trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Our host was Mr. Pak Yong Gyun, secretary-general of the Korean Democratic Lawyers' Association, a slight, energetic man in his late forties, serious-minded yet with a wry sense of humour, possessed of a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about Korean history and a strong command of the English language. Together with two younger English-language assistants he was a delightful guide to the unfamiliarities of North Korea. Before taking our leave the Canadian film director thanked our hosts most warmly, declaring that of all the foreign visits he had made this group had been the most helpful and congenial in assisting him to achieve his objectives. Mr Pak responded by saying that he hoped the film, by its balance and good judgement, would be suitable for showing in both the northern and southern parts of Korea.

We spent most of our time in and around Pyongyang, the capital city, with side trips to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel, to Sincheon city south-west of the capital, the site of unimaginable atrocities that occurred during the 52 days of American occupation in 1950, and to a co-operative farm at Taekam some miles to the north of Pyongyang.

When we arrived at Pyongyang airport we were surprised to see a giant US Air Force transport plane parked on a corner of the runway. It was loading the remains of GIs from the Korean War for return to the USA. This unusual gesture of DPRK-USA co-operation was an exception to the general atmosphere of tension. On the second day of our visit an air raid alarm occurred, sirens wailing. We were told this practice was in response to US sabre rattling following President Bush's speeches in 2002 designating North Korea a rogue state subject to pre-emptive, unannounced nuclear attack and as a country that is on an 'axis of evil' with Iraq and Iran. As we drove through the streets, quickly deserted save for traffic police and army sentries, our hosts said the objective was to have Pyongyang's 2 ½ million citizens into underground shelters within ten minutes. Koreans are acutely aware that the 1950-1953 war has never officially ended; there is only an armistice, no peace settlement as yet although some countries, including South Korea and Canada, have begun to normalize relations with the DPR of Korea.

We had heard much about food shortages and hunger in North Korea and were keenly alert to see such signs. Our crew interviewed about thirty people face-to-face for the film and we saw thousands of others on the city streets at close hand, in the countryside, children going to school and in after-school activities: without exception the people we saw looked sturdy and healthy, not emaciated in any way. The hard years, we learned, were 1996-1998 after three successive crop failures, a time when people were down to having 100 grams of cereal grain per day. "It was unimaginable," said one of our young friends. Now the basic grain ration is up to 350 grams daily, getting closer to normal requirements of 500 grams as North Korea reconstructs its economy.

According to Richard Corsino, an American living in Pyongyang, whom we met and who is director of the United Nations World Food Programme there with a staff of 50 people, North Korea's 23 million people and their livestock need 5 million tons of grain each year. As of last year there was a shortfall of about one million tons made up by international sources. The most reliable, stable source, he said, is China, which supplies 400,000 tons each year, part of it gift, part by barter trade; South Korea supplies an equal amount. The rest comes through the World Food Programme, mainly donors and donationsfrom the United States and Japan, and is targeted to supplement the diets of the young, pregnant women and the elderly. This source is unstable, depending on political conditions. "As far as I can tell," Mr. Corsino told us, "the available food is rationed out fairly and equitably."

I was surprised by the visual images of Pyongyang. Together with hundreds of tourists from China (and a few from Japan), we stayed in a modern 47-storey hotel (swimming pool, bowling alleys, billiards, several restaurants, casino and nine-hole golf course etc., ) that is situated on an island in the middle of the Taedong River which runs through the centre of the city. After being leveled by the American bombing in 1950-1951 the city has been reconstructed in a manner reminiscent of the great urban centres of Europe - Paris, Budapest - wide tree-lined boulevards, many parks, seven bridges over the Taedong, grand-scale public monuments including an Arc de Triomphe; stadiums that can seat up to 100,000 people; large, striking public buildings in both traditional and modern architectural styles surrounding Kim Il Sung Square. We saw wedding parties posing for pictures at several of these locations. There is a Moscow-style subway with stations having grand cathedral ceilings and art work, there are electric trolley buses and street cars which are somewhat crippled at the moment owing to shortages of electricity. People seem to do a lot of walking. Nevertheless Pyongyang is a beautiful city and will undoubtedly attract and welcome large numbers of tourists when American hostility subsides and the economy revives again. In the 1980s, before its socialist market disappeared (the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of oil supplies, fertilizers, spare parts for tractors, generators and irrigation pumps), North Korea was a food surplus producing country.

One member of our group thought it monstrous that a starving country builds monuments (not to mention nuclear weapons). This opinion was not shared by others. For one thing, we learned that the government suspended its grand-scale building projects when the hard times came in the mid-nineties - a point dramatically illustrated by the unfinished skeleton of a building towering above all others in the centre of town. Apart from that, in addition to spending resources on housing available to everyone at nominal rents, free education up to and including university (there are 300,000 university students), health care paid for by the state, paid holidays for workers and other social benefits that were explained to us at a meeting with a member of the Academy of Social Sciences, Professor Li Gi Gong, there was the argument that a people needs some grand public buildings, arches, vistas, cultural palaces and galleries, theatres, sports stadiums to remind them of their strength as a people and a nation, and places to give them the opportunity to develop and display their cultural achievements. To replace and rebuild their capital city from the ashes of the Korean War was to bolster the peoples' self-confidence and to create a vision for a better future. It was an argument that I certainly found to be reasonable.

As for nuclear weapons, to my knowledge, the North Korean government has never said that it has them, only that it has the right to have them so long as other nations keep them. And with its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors imported from the Soviet Union it is capable of creating weapons' grade materials. This is what has the United States upset. According to a DPRK-USA entente in 1994 North Korea agreed to freeze its existing nuclear program in return for two light-water nuclear powered electrical generating plants and a promise by the United States to withdraw its nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and surrounding area. The United States did not keep its promises: the generating plants are five years behind schedule (the first one was supposed to start operating in 2003 but only its foundation had been laid by 2002) and it did not withdraw its nuclear weapons from the area. (When in Beijing we met a senior member of a Western embassy and asked if the United States still had nuclear weapons in South Korea as the North Koreans claimed. Speaking off the record his answer was unequivocal that the US continues to have nuclear weapons in South Korea. The United States also has almost 40,000 troops stationed in South Korea.)

In recent times there have been many harsh words said about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by newspaper columnists who follow Washington's line in international affairs. Their words, it seems to me, are largely based on ignorance or prejudice. Even from a very short visit there I think it can be safely said that North Korea is a country more sinned against than sinning.

As for the future perhaps the most important developments for the people of North Korea lie in the economic reforms that the government headed by Kim Jong Il has started to implement as of July 2002. In the wake of the abrupt collapse of its socialist markets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China, the North Korean economy, its management system, its openness to foreign capital is being reinvented by the introduction of market forces and elements of private enterprise. "Since the external environment changed we've experienced many management problems, " Professor Li explained to us, "we couldn't continue on a solid basis, we had to make a new balance." I have the impression that people in North Korea are still unclear and more than a little nervous about how all the price changes (including rent payments for housing) and revised employment practices that reduce job security are going to work out for them.