Even a New Year's party needs negotiations in the North

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Even a New Year's party needs negotiations in the North

Expatriates spend their Christmas and New Year holidays in some exotic places -- some interesting and exciting, some not so. As I look around the bright lights and bustle of Seoul, I think back with mixed emotions on two holiday seasons spent at a construction camp -- in North Korea.

Time has done its usual job of smoothing out memories. It's hard to recall fully the sense of isolation and constant unease at the site of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization project. We broke ground for the nuclear power plant project there in the summer of 1997. Our prime contractor, the Korea Electric Power Corp., had our little village in good shape by November; we had continuous heat, hot water and electricity, all luxuries that the North Koreans in the area mostly did without.

In the rush to get the work off to a fast start, Kepco had decided to work on Christmas; the North Koreans, of course, did not celebrate it and the South Korean workers were just as happy to get the overtime pay for holiday work. But we wanted to do something to greet the new year in style.

After nearly six months of dealing with the North Korean officials at the site, we knew enough about their sensitivities to look carefully at the agreements we had signed with them to see if our planned celebration would violate any of the rules designed to keep us out of view and earshot of the North Korean villagers in the area.

We Scrooges at the KEDO office vetoed a suggestion by the Kepco managers to decorate our water tower or an electric pole with a string of lights in the shape of a tree. We had been through a tussle with the North Koreans just before the groundbreaking ceremony that summer over some signs at the site entrance that were visible from the road and railroad track nearby, and we decided that the sight of gaudy bright lights looming high over the surroundings would have been considered a provocation. We settled on a more modest tree of lights at ground level in the middle of the compound.

A Korean party without singing is not a party, so we approached the North Korean authorities to negotiate the volume and positioning of speakers so our men could play Sinatra. After the initial flat rejection -- everything was rejected by the North Koreans the first time around because they hoped you'd go away and not make them navigate their own bureaucracy -- we finally agreed on a place to put up the speakers, pointed at the ocean, and as far as possible from two North Korean hamlets in the area.

New Year's Eve was bitter cold, but all 200 people in our little community bundled up and turned out for the party. Folding tables overflowed with nuts, fruit and soju, and pinewood was burning in oil-drum halves topped by jury-rigged grills for the samgapsal (sliced pork belly) and other meats. A few speeches were made, the singing began and my three KEDO colleagues and I walked along the perimeter of the camp, worried that the volume was too high and a North Korean would appear to demand that we pull the plug. I wandered off alone for a moment and climbed the water tower to get a better view of the scene. There was no moon, and the bright lights of the party and the occasional snatches of song drifting on the wind combined with the sound of the ocean and the pitch-blackness in a strange way.

New Year's Eve in North Korea. Who'd have thought?

The construction camp is more comfortable now, with a golf driving range, an indoor karaoke and new brick apartment buildings to replace the converted shipping containers we used initially for homes and offices. The future of the project looks dim now as tensions rise, a far cry from the optimism tinged with trepidation with which we greeted 1998. But to the people at the site now: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

by John Hoog

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