An Interview with Two Canadian Travelers to North Korea
Having grown up in a country where Kim Il Sung, the former leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was regularly portrayed as a drooling pig (with a disproportionately large pair of fangs) in children’s cartoons, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Dr. Annie Cheung and Ms Susan Cox. Both are members of the Canada DPRK Association, and recently visited the DPRK. 11 years of formal education in South Korea had taught me very little about the other Korea, beyond the official lines of the South Korean government’s anti-communist dogma. I was therefore eager to catch a glimpse of arguably the mostly reclusive state in the world, through these two Canadian travelers’ accounts.
The two ladies visited DPRK in September, 2004 for one week as part of a delegation of five. Originally, seven had applied, but two media people had been turned down. For both Annie and Susan, this was their first visit to the DPRK. Upon arrival, the delegation was greeted by a friendly crew who, presumably, had been appointed by the government to escort them during their visit. This crew included a driver, a tour guide, and two senior government officials, one of whom acted as the translator. None of the members of the delegation could speak Korean, and all communication was done through the translator although Susan was able to communicate occasionally in Spanish with one of the government officials who had previously worked in Latin America as a diplomat.
The tight itinerary included visits to political monuments, an orphanage, a food factory, a hospital, a university, a meeting with a group of economics professors, and a tour through various scenic and historical sites. “Generally, the condition resembles China’s in the 70s”, noted Annie. Like China at that time, DPRK is undergoing social and economic changes. For instance, the signs of a limited market economy were noticeable: merchants were selling fresh fruit and vegetables on the roadside.
Despite the recent economic difficulties, a major city like Pyongyang looked surprisingly ‘normal’; there were many people on the streets during the rush hours along with some cyclists and a few buses. No signs of extreme poverty or starvation were visible, but perhaps that’s unsurprising, as it is thought that the cities shown to the delegation were the designated showcase cities for all foreign tourists. Also, as Annie remarked, the disparity between the development of the rural and urban areas is probably quite significant, so one must interpret such aspects with caution.
I was most intrigued by Annie’s photos of the subway system with chandeliers and the murals of brightly coloured mosaic tiles. “It was probably built in the 60s with the help from the former Soviet Union”, Annie commented. Apparently, many monuments were built in the 60s and the 70s to inspire a sense of identity and pride. Some urban structures were in good condition, some looked as if the construction had never been completed, and others seemed to be in need of repair, reflecting recent economic difficulties in the country.
Did the North Koreans seem scared or suspicious of a group of Westerners?
“People were curious and friendly. At one point, we noticed two ladies walking around us in circles at a subway stop, and later we found out that they were just fascinated by Miranda Weingartner, another member of the delegation who is beautiful, tall, blonde, with light colored eyes, and therefore stood out in the crowd”, Annie remarked, showing me the photos of the two North Korean ladies and the delegation.
Unfortunately, the delegation did not have much opportunity to speak directly to, or interact with ordinary people on the streets, as they were mostly on the tour bus. Moreover, the whole tour was tightly chaperoned. For instance, the delegation was told which subway stop to get on and to get off at, and they had to ask for permission each time they wanted to take photos. This formal supervision combined with the language barrier created a sense of distance, and this was the most frustrating aspect of the visit for both Annie and Susan. On the other hand, Erich Weingartner, another member of the delegation who used to live in the DPRK, commented that even this level of interaction was a recent improvement.
On the rare occasions that the delegation did encounter ordinary people on the streets, they seemed shy and reserved. “It’s understandable, of course”, said Susan. “It’s only recently that the country opened up, so people aren’t used to seeing a lot of foreigners. It’s like a small city in any country where they don’t see a large number of outsiders.” Susan later heard from the head of the UN Food Program in the DPRK that people are becoming used to seeing foreigners as they see more of them working in North Korea as members of international organizations.
Not so surprisingly, the North Koreans had not quite warmed up to the Americans; Susan and Annie were told of the North Koreans’ fear of being attacked by the Americans and the Americans’ hatred for them. On the other hand, neither Susan nor Annie saw any glaring signs of hostility towards South Korea, which is a big change from previous years, according to Erich.
Indeed, this change seems to be just one aspect of a larger change. The most encouraging thing both Annie and Susan observed was that the DPRK is reaching out, and the signs of wanting to reach out were everywhere, be it during a discussion with economics professors cautiously outlining structural adjustments the DPRK has been making, or various government organizations such as the DPRK-Canada Friendship Society. Particularly with respect to South Korea, recent engagement through a joint development project like the Kaesong Industry Park, is seen as “ground-breaking”, and is received warmly and hopefully. Equally unmistakable was the North Korean people’s wish for peaceful reunification with South Korea, as demonstrated in flags showing a single Korea where children of both Koreas were holding hands.
What is driving all these changes? In Annie’s opinion, which is shared by many analysts at the moment, it is the realization that the current system in DPRK simply cannot feed its own people.
How should Canada respond? Is there a unique role for Canada to bring the DPRK closer to the rest of the world and to promote peace on the Korean peninsula? “In general, Canada is perceived as a peace-promoting country, and certainly it’s not viewed as antagonistic to the DPRK as the US. But we should be careful because, if we look closely, we do share some foreign policies with the US. For example, Canada doesn’t have an embassy in the DPRK and, thus far, it has refused to give development aid to the DPRK, which is in line with the American policy”, commented Susan.
In highlighting a potential role of Canada in peace-building in the Korean peninsula, Susan also cited the recent peace-building conferences organized by the Canada-DPR Korea Association and the United Church, which brought together delegates from Canada, North Korea, South Korea, China and Japan.