Meeting the North Koreans

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea continues to be the world's most closed society. But nongovernmental organizations are gaining some access as the country seeks to bridge the gap between economic development and environmental stewardship. Graham Ashford visited the DPRK in September 2004 as part of a delegation from the Canada-DPR Korea Association

By Graham Ashford | 2005-04-01 12:00:00

While I have travelled and worked in many developing countries, and read extensively about the DPRK, I was still a bit unprepared for the experience.

Pyongyang feels especially modern, yet impersonal with its wide roads and concrete apartment buildings. Still, there are several beautiful parks in the capital, with winding trails, large ponds and peaceful spots for local people to rest and enjoy the surroundings.

Throughout the city (and indeed the country), there are endless monuments and murals of a heroic society marching forward in the face of adversity to a limitless future. It's the sort of place where you only notice much later that there is no litter, advertising, or pets.

Outside the city, remnants of a more ancient kingdom are hard to find. It feels like a country rebuilt; it is, as most of it was devastated during the Korean War. The roads range from 10-lane giants to small, bumpy back roads with very few cars and conspicuously little public transportation. From the minibus window, I get the impression that people often walk long distances. Groups of soldiers, farmers, and others are often seen chatting on the side of the road, seemingly miles from anywhere. Military roadblocks are common.

Unlike most other Asian countries, where you see small plots of private land with a house on each, in DPRK there are large tracts of communal farmland with apartments or small dwellings closely clustered on hills and other less productive pieces of land. In the rural areas, the dwellings are each surrounded by a fence. Inside the fence every square inch seems to be planted, with vegetable vines growing up walls and onto roofs where field crops are frequently seen drying. Virtually everywhere we went, the streams ran clear and the hills were vegetated, although older-growth forests were largely absent.

An Emphasis on Detail and Order

The people of DPRK are warm and witty when you are allowed to get to know them, which is not often. Our interaction with local people was always prearranged. It occasionally seemed strained, with nervous factory managers or local guides unsure what to tell us in the presence of our minders and seeming very relieved when the visit was over. At times, the visits appeared somewhat staged. For instance, in the factory in Nampho, machines to press soybeans into soymilk were spotlessly clean, but there was no electricity to operate the equipment. I was unclear whether the factory was trying to look operational, or if the whole place had been cleaned to an immaculate level to impress us.

Our exposure to local arts and performances left me astonished at the ability of the Koreans. The Children's Palace was especially fascinating. Children come to the palace after school as a place to learn art, music, and dance. We attended an hour long performance by children between about four and 10 years of age. The calibre of their dance, singing, and musicianship was beyond what I had thought possible from such young children. They were amazing. I left the performance smiling as I thought about elementary school concerts I had been to at home. The Pyongyang circus was also a marvel of athletic strength and co-ordination. Local artwork demonstrated incredible attention to detail. I bought a large embroidered picture that must have taken months to complete. I also bought a picture made entirely of tiny seashells that someone had sorted into different natural shades and meticulously glued on to complete the scene. The shading and detail are extraordinary.

A lifeless economy

As we toured around the country, the economy seemed lifeless. Virtually none of the factories we passed had smoke coming out of the stacks or trucks bringing supplies or taking away finished goods. Outside our hotel, the electricity was frequently out. In the city, people were storing coal away for their winter needs. That struck me as strange -- people burning coal in their apartments. A lack of heavy machinery means that production and construction occur in very labor-intensive ways. The 10-lane Children Heroes Highway, constructed by thousands of children, is an example.

Outside information sources are very effectively restricted and many aspects of life seem controlled. I saw a sense of pride among the North Koreans and a genuine desire to help one another and work toward the common good. It can be seen in selfless acts and a feeling of camaraderie that are less common in other countries. Yet, I also had the sense that people know their situation is not all it's made out to be.

A genuine hope for peace

I only felt that I really got to know two people (outside of our delegation) -- our minder and our driver. At night, after dinner I would often play pool with the two of them. They seemed to enjoy the chance to relax, have a beer, and laugh at particularly bad shots. We enjoyed each other's company. It was in this setting that I had the most open conversations with our minder. He was very interested in knowing what life was like in Canada, how much money I made, what my family was like, why Canada couldn't be more independent of the US, which countries I had been to, what my job was, and why I had come. He had a hard time believing that delegation members contributed their own money to come to DPRK in the interest of peace and engagement. He explained how his country was going through a tough time, but how people were still willing to sacrifice for the common good, especially when it came to putting the military first. He described his desire for peace but conveyed that his country felt threatened by the US and felt that only a strong military had kept them from being invaded. He expressed the difficult circumstances that people were living in and appealed to me to bring a project that would help them. I conveyed to him my genuine hope for peace on the Korean peninsula and my desire to develop a project that would improve environmental security. After I described my idea in detail and conveyed the type of help that I needed from him to make it happen, he finally seemed convinced. The next morning, he set up a meeting that I had been requesting for two days. This seemed to confirm my feeling that access came with trust, and that he wasn't going to put his neck out arranging senior meetings unless he felt certain that only good could come from it.

An Interest in New Ideas

During the trip, we had several good meetings with officials from the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection. They were very good natured, open, and eager to get involved in a partnership project with the Inter- national Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) that would build the country's capacity for sustainable development. Their English skills were quite good. They recognized that economic production had environmental consequences, and they were very open to new ideas on how to mitigate those impacts. They desire to be a world leader in green technologies and to share some of the processes that they have pioneered. We agreed that a good place to start would be to provide overview training to their senior staff in sustainable development principles, emerging trends, and issues specific to DPRK. This would be followed by specific capacity-building measures to assist DPRK to develop a national strategy for sustainable development. The implementation of a strategy would require further specific training on topics such as integrated environmental assessment and reporting, legal frameworks, etc.

Progress in our meeting with the section heads at the College of National Economy was less obvious. Discussion didn't really go anywhere until the very end, when the senior professor described measures that were being implemented to increase the efficiency of production. These included moves to decentralize more decision-making to the factory level, and allowing factories that produce extra to sell the excess to other factories or business. Proceeds from the sales go partly back to the state, with the remainder available for reinvestment in the factory or profit-sharing among the workers. Other measures include an increase in the size of private plots of land, where surplus agricultural produce can be sold in local markets. The last measure mentioned was an increase in responsibility for budgeting at the provincial level. Provincial level planning that produced budget surpluses could be used as the provinces see fit.

Wading into Unfamiliar Waters

In DPRK, foreign currency is in extremely short supply. A small cadre of entrepreneurial officials has been given the task of generating revenue through new foreign business opportunities. This is unfamiliar territory for people who have been schooled exclusively on operating the rigid structure of a planned economy. In one meeting we met a businessman who informed us that he would like to buy several thousand used Pentium computers at a price of $25 each, including shipping to DPRK, which he understood to be the going price in Canada. He wanted to start with 600 pieces (which he would only pay for after he received them) and move up to 50,000 per year if the arrangement worked out. His misunderstanding of market conditions overseas reflected DPRK's prolonged economic isolation. We feared that he would be taken advantage of as he ventured into international waters.

Overall, I felt that the trip was valuable for all those involved. From my perspective, I obtained a better understanding of DPRK, its people and its government, and secured interest from the Ministry of Land and Environment Protection for a partnership project with the IISD. While I was occasionally disheartened by the propaganda and anti-American rhetoric, I was impressed by the ability of the Korean people to work hard toward their goals in the face of significant international change.

The flames of peace and reunification burn strongly in their hearts, and a tempered view of socialism continues to provide the momentum for common action. I look forward to doing what I can to enhance relations between DPRK and Canada and to develop projects to improve the lives of Korean people and the land they call home.

Graham Ashford is an associate of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and is working with the DPRK Ministry of Land and Environment Protection on environmental standards and practices.

Canada-DPR Korea Association, c/o Emmanuel College, 75 Queen's Park Crescent, Toronto, ON M5S IK7
Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2005, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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