Monday, August 24, 2009

DPRK North Korea

At the end of last November, I traveled across the DMZ by bus into North Korea. Ours was the last public tour of Kaesong (Gaesong 개성); that evening the border closed, and hasn't since reopened to tourists.

I was interviewed by TV and print media both before & after my trip. One interview was with a student reporter, Park Boram, a pre-journalism intern for the Ministry of Unification. Here's the summary transcript:

1) What is purpose of your sightseeing to North Korea?
North Korea is a very uncommon travel destination. As a specialist in place marketing, I’m very interested in unique destinations that are fun, educational or confer conversational capital. A tour to Kaesong seemed challenging and a bit scary (not least because I went by myself on a Korean language tour, and my Korean language skills are still very limited). The trip was also an uncommon chance to learn and appreciate something special.

I visited East Germany in 1981, a day trip to East Berlin. It was highly eye-opening to be in a society so radically different than my own. I had a few memorable conversations, and spent most of the day in museums, but left recognizing that humans are much the same even though their political systems might be radically different. (Demonizing whole communities is nonsense).

I have had some experience training groups from North Korea: they came to Sweden and I taught them about market economics & Swedish ideology. My strongest impressions were not involving politics, but rather basic human interaction. For example, when out with a group at night in Stockholm, my wife & I asked an older male professor “Who does the cooking at your house?” ("And who does the shopping and cleanup?" "What favorite dishes can you cook?") These topics generated laughter and joking among the North Korean colleagues. Such discussions may be a basis for humor & gentle ribbing, but also for human communication.

2) What is the picture of there? I mean, is there same to report which is from broadcastings or books? Or is there seems to be hard to live there?

Hyundai Asan has made a truly amazing effort. The corporate effort has bridged an area where the South Korean government could do little. It is a great tribute to private initiative that such a thing has been possible. I would expect this to lead to improved rapprochement. Certainly any North Koreans seeing or working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex would be impressed with the modern infrastructure, which so strongly contrasts with nearby villages & hamlets (normal villages reminded me of visits to Nepal; tougher & more rustic than settlements south of the DMZ).

3) Where is the most impression place? Or what is special food in North Korea?

A tour is a great way to feel pushed to learn more history (I’m still learning the basics of Korean history). For example, I knew that Kaesong was a former capital (918-1392 Koryo Dynasty), but I was surprised to learn the name was formerly Songdo (sounding similar to the place name for South Korea's huge New Songdo City development near Incheon).

I had a strong sense that the government in Pyongyang is taking care of cultural treasures as the joint heritage of all Korean people. We enjoyed visiting Sonjuk Bridge, Pakyon Falls and the ancient Songkyunkwan University buildings. Considering North Korea's economic condition, seeing these treasures was a sadly ironic contrast to the poor stewardship of the Seoul government with the tragic destruction of Sungnyemun (1st national treasure of Korea; Feb. 2008 Namdaemun fire in Seoul).

My group had a delicious 13-course meal served in traditional polished brass bowls, with alcoholic drink starter (Kaesong Koryo Insam Liquor). The waitresses wore "Songdo Gisaeng" Hanbok. The kimchi used coriander, and had a special tangy taste. Also an arrowroot jelly was yummy, peppery samgyetang, unseasoned kim (nori / seaplant), sukchu namul with ginger, and yakbap (sticky "medicine rice" with ginnan, chestnut, etc.)... I guess very few others in that city ate as well as we did.

4) This question is so privacy and individual, but I expect to know your opinion. What do you think of unification between North and South Korea? And why do you think so?

Highly-partisan positions within South Korean politics (GDP / Democratic Party antagonism) have made progress difficult, as unification policies are treated as a political football. Differing parties and politicians repudiate each other at the cost of Inter-Korean reconciliation. Partisan politics have led to the Sunshine Policy being promoted or opposed in narrow partisan politics, instead of in terms of nation-building. The partition of Korea has huge costs. In my personal opinion, unification is a great, perhaps primary, national goal worthy of major, serious, sustained effort.

5) And last question, do you have some opinions to Korean government or Koreans relation to North Korea?

During the time we visitors were at ancient Songkyunkwan University for sightseeing & nearby shopping, I had the chance to watch our guides. Though they were from North and South, and were dressed very differently, I could clearly see rapport: they nudged each other and joked and laughed together. From my perspective as an outsider, seeing them speaking Korean together as colleagues clarified the tragedy of a divided land. I wish more Koreans deeply recognized this tragedy. We might imagine a time when 72 million Korean people cherish their heritage; when buses and trains carry all Koreans throughout the Korean peninsula or perhaps onward to China, Russia or Europe. That scenario promises more dynamic culture, cheaper imports and the freeing-up of huge resources and vast areas of land now dedicated to military defense. This trip to Kaesong opened my imagination. It was a peak experience!