It was the beginning of autumn in North Korea, or more correctly, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), when we moved there. The hills were auburn and gold when I was driving back from a field trip. The drivers of our vehicles pulled to the side of the road for a smoking break. I got out to stretch my legs and pulled out my camera to take a picture of a beautiful cottage in the valley below us. Multi-coloured melons on vines covered the roof of the cottage. But my government minder edged up to me and politely but firmly told me that I should not take the photo. For the rest of the trip, I badgered him about why I could not take that photo. At first, he was non-committal. Finally, out of exasperation, he told me: “We do not want pictures of poverty going out of our country”.
North Korea was a black box for us, when my wife and I flew in there from Beijing—the only place from where the country was connected by air. The airport was a concrete structure, grey and cold. We had to surrender our cellphones at the airport...we were told that we could collect them when we left the country! Greeted with hot tea in the lounge, we were driven to the compound where all foreigners are required to stay. The streets through which we drove were spotlessly clean and tree-lined. My apartment was part of the office building blocks. We had the luxury of internet connection and satellite TV—neither of which was available to the people in the country. The telephone system we used could not connect with those that were used by the nationals. Strict limits were put on contacts between foreigners and locals. There’s of course no private sector in the country: the government is the only employer and sole owner of all property and land.
Within the compound are the homes of a handful of NGOs and embassies and residences of about 25 countries. The Chinese and Russian embassies were the only ones that were located outside the compound. A few shops and a couple of restaurants were located within the compound so that the foreigners had little need to go outside.
Life is generally on a slower pace in Pyongyang, except when there is a military parade or when the mass gymnastics called, Arirang, take place. On a holiday, we could drive our cars around the town passing the “Juche” tower and the replica of the Arc de Triomphe, built so that it stands just a few metres higher than the original in Paris. A Sunday afternoon in the park on Mansudae hill is tranquil, with families having picnic lunches, children sprawled out in front of easels, a grandfather playing on his violin.
UN Agencies like UNICEF, the World Food Programme and WHO were invited to the country following the major famine in the early 1990s that killed anywhere between 1.5 to 3 million people. Don’t say it out too loud in Pyongyang, but it’s the inefficiencies of a centralised command system economy, aggravated by repeated droughts and floods, that led to this famine. Raising funds for doing programmes in the country has always been a difficult task. It’s only when donors are convinced that their resources will not be diverted to other uses that they agree to consider funding programmes. The layers of sanctions also make the delivery of assistance complicated as banks and shippers are unwilling to assist in moving material or funds even for payment of salaries for international staff in the country. A priority action that was taken up was about rehabilitating water supply systems that were lying defunct. An unforgettable experience for me was while visiting a county town along with Murat Sahin, our young Turkish water engineer, after a new scheme was commissioned. We were taken aback to see a grey-haired grandmother, breaking all protocol and rules, rushing to embrace Murat and thank him for this gift of water.
The upcoming meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will have a momentous impact on North Korea—but the delicious paradox is, of course, that all bets are off on that one, including on whether it takes place or not. Having lived and worked in that country in the period that saw the first and second nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, it’s hard not to be sceptical about a positive outcome. In between the two nuclear tests, we also saw the excitement of the six-party talks that included all the major world powers—the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia—at which DPRK made a pledge to “shut down and seal” the Yongbyon nuclear facility. This period of hope was extinguished a few short months later with the firing of short-range and anti-ship cruise missiles that put paid to the whole process. Sanctions have come again and again—the price has always been paid by the common people through starvation and deprivation. There’s little hope that this will change and if it does, it will be a miracle.
(The author was Unicef representative in Pyongyang)