[NOTEBOOK]Slowly, North may be emergingMy recent one-week stay in Pyeongyang has shown me how isolated the country is. The government newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, uses two of its six pages on South Korean and foreign news every day. But many reports were fabricated to fit the government’s political interests, often covered two or three days after the fact.
Pyeongyang had only one network television channel, which aired hardly any international news. I have not heard that Pyeongyang has ever sent correspondents abroad. That may be the reason, but the week in Pyeongyang was so surreal that I felt like I took a time machine back 50 years. The feeling of isolation was dramatic.
According to a Western diplomat posted in Pyeongyang, North Korean citizens are completely banned from entering the capital’s embassy row. If an embassy wants to invite North Korean officials to a party, it must obtain written approval from the foreign ministry. The guest would need the required permit to be admitted to embassy row, even if he were a deputy-minister level dignitary.
But there were still signs of change. In a guest room in the Koryo Hotel, I was able to watch BBC, NHK and CCTV, which were not available a year ago. Pyeongyang-based foreigners hold a party every Friday at the World Food Program, located in embassy row, and more than 50 young foreigners working for nongovernment organizations attend the gatherings. A Western diplomat commented that he has spotted unfamiliar foreigners in the streets of Pyeongyang more often than he did a year ago. The country seems to be slowly opening up to foreign traffic. In fact, I flew with a group of Dutch filmmakers on the Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyeongyang. The team was visiting Pyeongyang to make a documentary on a factory worker. Aside from them, nearly half of the passengers were Westerners, and including South Korean citizens, two-thirds of the seats were occupied by foreigners. Another diplomat said that North Korean authorities have recently permitted each embassy to have its own satellite dish. In the past, foreigners had to use slow dial-up connections to check e-mail, but the satellite antenna is providing much faster Internet service. He added that he now could freely watch satellite television, and living in Pyeongyang was a much better experience.
Returning from a Pyeongyang visit in mid-October, European parliamentarian Glyn Ford said that when he visited a free market, he found oranges from Spain, date palms from North Africa and various computer parts in addition to meats, fish and rice. The market was lively with thousands of merchants and traders. The goods were expensive, apparently they were not for the average citizen. But I heard, at least, that similar markets were spreading nationwide. Mr. Ford also said that he saw a bus in front of the market that had brought people from other areas. His observation shows how North Korea has set out on market reforms in a way that China managed successfully.
A middle-aged North Korean professor I met in Pyeongyang said, “A nation should learn to live with other countries as a human has to co-exist with others.” After the Cold War ended, North Korea’s trade with former socialist countries was severed, and a series of natural disasters completely destroyed the economy, he said.
Emphasizing the need to pursue economic exchanges with other countries, the professor said that he had his children learn English and computer skills, which he thinks are essential in the future.
In the professor’s opinion on why North Korea had economic difficulties, I saw a ray of hope.
* The writer is international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Jae-hak