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North Korea's human face

By Susan Cox

Susan Cox of Eastminster United, Toronto, travelled to the Democratic Peoples' Republic of North Korea (DPRK) in the fall of 2004 as part of a delegation of the Canada-DPR Korea Association, a network of Canadians whose membership includes former moderator Very. Rev. Lois Wilson, dedicated to building peace on the Korean peninisula. Her report:

Four years ago, a leaflet advertising an excursion to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea promised highlights such as the "Infiltration Tunnel and the Anti-Communism Hall. Through a telescope you can watch the North Koreans going about their daily life." I took the excursion from Seoul, South Korea, to the DMZ, the most heavily fortified border in the world. I didn't see any "ordinary" North Koreans that day, but negative images of the "enemy" lingered.

Earlier this autumn I visited North Korea, and I now count North Koreans among my friends.

Led by former Division of World Outreach Asia/Pacific chair Erich Weingartner, we were met at the airport in the capital city of Pyongyang by the secretary general of the Korea-Canada Friendship Society, a government department that establishes relationships with Canadians. He was dressed in a typical high-collar suit and like all North Koreans wore a pin with a picture of Kim II Sung, the first leader of the DPRK.

He was one of two minders who would accompany us throughout the week. Because three in our delegation were women, he explained, a woman would also be along to deal with any "women's issues" that might arise. Our female host wore a bright red suit, with a Kim II Sung pin on her jacket. We quickly discovered that she didn't speak English. The language barrier frustrated me -- to communicate with a woman, I would have to go through a man! But my disappointment soon turned to delight when I discovered that she spoke Spanish, which I also speak, and travels regularly to Latin America and Africa. In beautiful Spanish, she shared many stories with me about her travels to Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Mozambique.

Pyongyang is a modern city. Our hotel was surrounded by apartment buildings, modern-looking office towers, beautiful cultural centres, an efficient subway system, and a few trams and buses. The beautiful Taedong River was crowded with adults and children fishing along its banks. A silence hung over the city -- wide boulevards were virtually empty due to a shortage of motorized vehicles; North Koreans travel by foot.

During our sojourn in the DPRK, I was privileged to meet with North Korean women involved in building peace in Korea. One of the women spoke about the hardships that face North Koreans today. "Food and electricity are the most difficult issues for us right now," she said. "We are trying to solve the energy crisis by building small and large power plants around the country." She also mentioned that they are involved in double-cropping, land realignment and potato farming to deal with the food shortages. She then brought up the nuclear weapons crisis: "To solve the nuclear crisis we must build up the confidence between the United States and the DPRK." In other words, we must get to know each other first.

The U.S. argues that its aggressive policy towards the DPRK protects South Korea. And yet, South Koreans and the North Koreans have been in dialogue since 1997. Nowhere is co-operation between the two Koreas more obvious than in Kaesong, a city along the border where an industrial complex is being constructed with financial investment from South Korea and cheap but skilled labour from the North. Trucks and buses now regularly cross the demilitarized zone. The complex will include light industries, electronics, and machinery. During our two-day visit to the city, we met the director of the Kaesong City People's Committee, who proudly said, "the Industrial Park has been a breakthrough in the history of the region." The United States could learn from South Korea, whose current Sunshine Policy approach to the DPRK is one of diplomatic and economic engagement.

North Korea is often described as one of the world's last Communist hold-outs. But travelling through Nampo, a port city on the west side of the Korean peninsula, we saw a few farmers' markets and were surprised to see families selling cigarettes and canned goods in front of their homes. Previously all food was distributed centrally. A professor from the College of National Economy explained to us later that the North Korean government is giving increased responsibilities to local areas. "But," he said, "they have to adhere to socialist principles." I wondered if these changes amounted to more economic freedom than political rights.

The DPRK is also said to be one of the least-visited countries in the world. But we encountered many tourist groups. I met young New Zealanders in our hotel, chatted to members of large tourist groups from Britain and Australia, and spotted a delegation from South Africa at the Children's Palace. A Chinese and Russian delegation had visited the country just before our arrival. Although the itinerary and movement of the tourist groups are strictly controlled, there is no doubt that the DPRK is slowly welcoming more foreigners.

Political sensitivities in the DPRK still make it very difficult for foreigners to learn about the local culture spontaneously. While we saw some spectacular performances by children and adults, we were unable to visit Koreans in their own homes or drop in on a cultural gathering. This restriction makes forming close relationships with North Koreans challenging. But even this is changing. While foreigners still cannot visit Koreans in their own homes, Koreans can now visit the homes of foreigners.

A highlight of the trip was visiting Pakyon Falls, a local tourist area. It was a beautiful site where we relaxed, enjoyed a tasty lunch and shared funny stories. We eventually rolled up our trousers and waded into the pool of cold, glistening water, with the falls cascading behind us. We couldn't stop laughing. It was then I realized that building personal relationships is the first step in building peace.

As my trip to the DPRK came to an end, I remembered visiting South Korea four years earlier and peering through the telescope for glimpses of our "adversaries." But once I formed friendships with some North Koreans, I realized they have the same basic needs and desires as everyone else in the world. It is easy to demonize a society; once a population is demonized it is not difficult to support military action against them. The DPRK is changing and so are its neighbours. Chinese tourists in North Korea often comment that China was like the DPRK 20 years ago. While there is still a long road ahead in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, peace will come through increased openness and dialogue with the DPRK, rather than confrontation and military force.

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