When Gareth Morgan went to North Korea

by Gareth Morgan / 13 July, 2012
North Korean soldiers march with a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Photo/Getty Images

On a reconnaissance mission for a road trip, Gareth Morgan gets a rare peek at the land beyond the DMZ.

We’d looked forward to this trip for weeks. After years of requests, North Korean officials had at last granted us permission to visit, and our expectations were intense. But as we boarded the Air China 737 in Beijing we couldn’t help noticing our clunker of a plane with its rough and tattered cockpit had seen more miles than we’d seen minutes. Sure enough, an hour into the flight, an announcement in Mandarin prompted sighs from the other passengers: the plane had a fault so severe it had to turn back. Uncertain whether to admire the pilot’s decision or fear for our lives, we sat back and thought of Wellington – and wondered whether the decision to pop across to Pyongyang to pry into life north of the Demilitarised Zone was the right one.

Six hours later, courtesy of a rather more modern plane, and having decided we couldn’t blame the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for Air China’s aircraft servicing, we finally arrived at our destination. My wife, Joanne, and I have been Korea-philes for 30 years. She made her first trading trips to the South in the early 1980s. New Zealand was at that time providing aid to South Korea, but its GDP per capita is now higher than ours. We’ve both been seduced by the peninsula’s mountains and its food. But we’ve always wondered what the North was like. In eight trips to South Korea we had looked through the barbed wire of the DMZ into the DPRK; we’d been in the underground tunnels; we’d even tried to persuade South Korean soldiers on the border to let us through, all to no avail.

It took a word from longtime New Zealand-DPRK Friendship Society leader Don Borrie to finally get us there. He is revered in the North, in much the same way as Rewi Alley was in China. We wanted to meet the locals, not just the Pyongyang hierarchy, but our real aim is to return next year. We have this crazy idea to ride our motorcycles in 2013 from Magadan in Russia down to Otorohanga in New Zealand. Magadan and Otorohanga are at opposite points of the globe and both have notable public toilets, so the trip has become known as our “Long Drop” expedition. North Korea is famously black when seen from space at night, so we are not entirely surprised that, when we arrive in the dark, hardly a light can be seen from the air, even at the airport. The airport itself is efficient, and the only new experience is that our cellphones and GPS gear are sequestered in cupboards at the terminal.

There to greet us are our hosts, General Secretary Hwang Sung Chol and his assistant Miss Mee. They see us, our DPRK-NZ Friendship Society envoy and our Kiwi friend Roger Shepherd to a private bus that will be our taxi for the week. The 15km trip into town is hardly illuminating – the lack of lights see to that – but once we get into the city, we are treated to a dazzling display of the capital’s formidable monuments, bathed with spotlights. We were perfectly happy to stay in modest accommodation, but they have booked us into the Pyongyang Hotel, which is much like any middle-tier capitalist hotel. And the location is great, a mere 500m from Kim Il sung Square, site of the famous displays of North Korea’s military prowess. We surrender our passports for the week and head to our room to take in the view. It’s 9.00pm and there’s not a soul visible on the streets below.

Earthmoving DPRK-style. Photo/Gareth Morgan

Children's voices

Our first day is crammed with visits to various cultural highlights including Kim Il-sung’s birthplace at Mangyongdae, and a visit to a middle school. Roger’s Korean is pretty good and Jo’s is coming back by the minute so the interaction with the children is animated with a lot of laughter. We’re already aware that the literacy rate in North Korea is an astonishing 99% and English is widely taught. School is compulsory up to the age of 17 – it’s beyond that where the system struggles. The highlight of our visit is during a musical concert in the school hall, when the kids sing Pokarekare Ana in Maori and Korean. It brings us to tears. How much effort did that take, we wonder. Hell’s bells, these folks really value contact.

In the playground, football practice is under way. Later in the day I meet the head honchos of the DPRK Football Association, to find out what the prospects are for any player exchanges or loans, and discover that the sport is struggling. Their Fifa ranking is the same as ours, but they clearly have fewer resources to develop their promising players. Jo, seized by nostalgia for our house-bus days, wants to get behind the wheel of a tram or at least a trolley bus, but despite her persistence she is politely told it’s not going to happen. As consolation we take a ride on the subway, which also serves as a bomb shelter and is therefore the deepest in the world. Predictably she wants to drive that, too, and by the end of a long day our hosts seem relieved to finally get us back to the confines of our hotel.

Our welcome dinner is attended by Mr Pak, the chief of the Korea-NZ Friendship Society and key to getting approval for our motorcycling mission. He’s a lovely man although clearly a bit stressed as he’s also playing host to China’s recently retired Minister of Foreign Relations, who I suspect is slightly more important than we are. “So tell me why you want to motorcycle our country?” he asks. Right, Gareth, I think: don’t muff your lines. I show him the business card that has all our rides around the world and point out the obvious omission of North Korea. I mention that we have had a long and frequent association with Korea, and I also tell them that we are riding from the top of Siberia down to our homeland and it would be a shame not to take advantage of that to traverse North Korea. Silence. Don’t bugger it up by rabbiting on, I tell myself. More silence. Then: “Why don’t you ride from the DPRK down to the bottom of our peninsula?” he suggests. Bejesus, this chap’s onto it. “Well, Mr Pak, that’s a great suggestion.” My mind’s racing.

Just think about that: Korea, two countries but one people – we could promote that truism. This is a people tragically divided, at war with their brothers and sisters – almost literally. It’s nuts. I mention that we are planning to have six bikes and riders on our expedition. Would that be a problem? “In principle, no. Do they all have New Zealand passports?” “Yessiree, Bob. All dinkum Kiwis.” Mr Pak says we will spend the next year putting it all together. Then he picks up his jacket and politely withdraws to attend to his Chinese guest. A good initial encounter, for sure.

The next day Jo and I are up early and we head out for a stroll along the Taedong River, where some other earlybirds are fishing with poles and thread. The size of their catch is minuscule. Soon we’re in a sea of cyclists and commuters. We’re a bit of a freak show, and the  mpulse of most locals is to look away. Uniforms are ubiquitous – khaki military suits are the most common for both men and women – and everybody sports a badge of one or other variant of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, or both. The last time I saw this kind of garb was in Mao Zedong’s China. Gradually, office workers appear in the kind of smart attire that is commonplace in Beijing or Shanghai. But there are no street stalls and the wide avenues of Pyongyang are more reminiscent of those of Minsk, the capital of Belarus – grey and unadorned.

There are no shop window displays. There are, however, statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il everywhere and the walls of most rooms are adorned with their photos. Then we’re off to Mt Myohyang. The mountains are Korea’s big attraction, and the Baekdudaegan range that forms the backbone of the peninsula is the passion of my friend Roger Shepherd, who is photographing them for a major documentary. The three-hour excursion provides us with our first views of the countryside. Every square inch is cultivated and because it’s planting season, huge numbers of people are working the land.

Buddhist temple in the mountains dates from the 13th century.

Spirit of self-reliance

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea has struggled to maintain a fleet of tractors, and to afford fertiliser and fuel. Hwang tells us that his team will soon be leaving Pyongyang for the country where they will join their comrades in the fields for the planting. Little Miss Mee doesn’t look like she’ll be up for much, but she assures us she will be working alongside everyone else. And they’ll be back for the harvest. The crop is all-important in this economy, and there’s a fine line between a good year and disaster. Agriculture here is the epitome of what they call juche, the spirit of self reliance that Kim Il-sung made a national imperative in 1955. The seasons are short and double-cropping is required. Where possible, other crops such as fruit trees are interspersed between the rows of rice.

Koreans love their picnics in the mountains. Out comes the barbecue and it’s kimchi and bulgogi washed down with Korean beer. Koreans drink a lot of beer, but I can’t quite match their love of soju, a vodka-like beverage. I recall a previous trip to South Korea in which soju left me paralytic by 9.30am, after I naively accepted the hospitality of some teachers on a train. They went climbing after that, while I slept for four hours. The afternoon is devoted to a visit to a 13th-century Buddhist temple and then a hike up a mountain trail. I’m starting to feel a bit unwell, so opt for a nap in the bus, but Jo is off with great gusto to see if she can get to the top. She encounters a group of women day trippers and their joy at seeing a foreigner equally enthusiastic about scaling steep slopes is evident.

We spend the night in a hotel full of Chinese tourists and in the morning we head south again, for the Korea-NZ Friendship Farm some 30km out of Pyongyang. Its 1100ha are worked by 4500 farmers with seven trucks, a couple of minivans and a few tractors. Around 900ha is in rice and the rest in fruit trees. It produces 7500 tonnes of rice a year, of which the farm workers keep 20% – the rest goes to the state. I work out that this equates to under 1kg of rice a day per person for the farmers and their families. The standard daily food ration is 700g of cereals per person a day, but this average varies. After the harsh winter of 2010/11, for example, it was reduced to 400g, then cut further to 150g. With rice the dominant food by far, I quickly appreciate just how vital each harvest is.

The farming system is the traditional communist model I learnt about at school. People can have small private plots around their homes to augment their personal food supply, and we’ve also noticed people digging wild grasses on the roadsides as an additional food source. Housing is allocated according to need, and the wage is €30 a month, which equates to about NZ$11 a week. Even though food and accommodation is already supplied, these hard-working folk are very poor. Their diet is also light on minerals and vitamins, so it’s no wonder one in three of the children is stunted – a fact I would be reminded of later in the week when I visited the local Unicef office in Pyongyang.

The children in one of the farm’s nurseries sing some wonderful songs for us. Although attendance is optional, 97% of littlies go to nurseries. The Ministry of Public Health has been exploring strategies to minimise the incidence of social attachment disorder (in which children fail to bond properly with their parents). In particular, it is evaluating a move away from age-segregated care and towards a family-model approach. It is a model Jo and I have seen in orphanages. The farm’s manager offers us a morning tea of beer and an apple and Jo enjoys trying to drink him under the table. When the time comes for the obligatory photos, we have a couple of ruddy-faced new-found buddies. Meanwhile, I’m short a few bob as I pledge them a few extra tonnes of fertiliser.

I’m still feeling a bit crook, so I’m not looking forward to the next stage of our whistle-stop tour – Pyongyang’s large maternity hospital. As I stagger around the corridors, it’s all I can do to stay upright. Mothers stay longer in hospital here than in New Zealand, and breastfeeding is promoted along with mothers’ diets. To the extent they can, given their limited budgets, the health professionals are pushing the right stuff. However, my own health is now suffering and I retreat to the bus, leaving Jo and Roger to complete the official duties.

Morning tea with the farm manager. Photo/Gareth Morgan

Top level negotiations

Back at the hotel I take to my bed, missing another dinner with Mr Pak as well as a performance of an apparently spectacular circus. While I’m comatose, Jo takes charge and holds negotiations with the Joint Venture Investment Committee. I bet they didn’t know what hit them. The next day I’m feeling better. Jo isn’t sure if my affliction was due to dodgy food or being taken to too many monuments, but this time we’re off to a 1000ha apple orchard. The massive orchard, girded by piggeries that provide a ready source of fertiliser, reminds me why North Korea is one of the world’s top producers of fresh fruit.

But it’s the road to the orchard that proves even more fascinating – it’s a pristine dual carriageway with almost no traffic. Alongside the road, thousands of locals travel on foot or by bicycle. It’s time to refl ect. What the hell is going on in Korea? There are 70 million people on this peninsula and despite a brief respite at the end of the 20th century, relations between the North and the South seem to be getting worse. During our visit we prompt as much discussion on this as is polite and some of the conversations surprise us. For example, North Koreans seem to agree that former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung (whom I was lucky to meet once, but that’s just name-dropping) was a great leader. Kim Dae-jung led South Korea from 1998-2003. He was the first Southern president to take power by peaceful means, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Sunshine Policy, which was designed to reduce tensions on the peninsula.

The policy was based on an undertaking by South Korea to co-operate with North Korea and not try to assimilate it. Co-operative business ventures began, a tourism region in the North for South Koreans to visit was opened, a railway between the North and the South was established, and some family reunions were facilitated. Kim Dae-jung’s successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued the policy even after the declaration by US President George W Bush in early 2002 that North Korea was part of an “axis of evil”, along with Iran and Iraq. But his five-year presidency came to an end in 2007. The current president, Lee Myung-bak, is a former CEO of Hyundai and a conservative, and has toughened his stance against North Korea and strengthened ties with the US. In mid-2008, he and Bush urged North Korea to reveal more about its nuclear programme.

As far as the South’s conservatives are concerned, the main impediment to reunification is North Korea’s vision of a confederation where separate political systems would remain as distinct regional governments, and the federal state would not be allowed to be a member of any political or military alliance with other countries. Given the origins of the Korean War, it is understandable that the conservatives would be uncomfortable with this vision, particularly the requirement for foreign forces (175,000 Americans) to leave the peninsula.

North Korea’s nuclear programme, which has been in place since 1993, also fuels the conservative mood in the South. The only way forward seems to be to park the reunification objective and accept that it’s a one-people, two-system situation. That appears to be what the Sunshine Policy was about, although it, too, was saddled with perhaps unrealistic talk of reunification. With that reality then, and with the chance of a little motorcycle diplomacy down the whole Korean Peninsula, it’s time for Jo and me to focus on how to bring about this “ride for détente”.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2012 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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