Bleak reality of North seen clearly in cartoonsA famished cow pulling a cart falls to the ground and won’t budge, bewildering its master on his way to work. Like many hungry North Koreans, the animal is a victim of famine that has swept through the impoverished communist country.
This is a description of the real life of some ordinary North Koreans in cartoons drawn by a South Korean architect who once worked on a now-defunct international nuclear reactor project in the country.
In another episode, a small, outdated North Korean Air Koryo plane, dwarfed by Chinese and Singaporean jumbo jets, sits on the tarmac past its departure time at Beijing International Airport.
Bad weather in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, is given as the reason for the delay, but when someone opens one of the plane’s doors to let some fresh air in, mechanics are seen working on the plane’s engine.
“You could see how hard life is up there. Even cow dung on the roadside was liquid, not solid,” the South Korean building designer, Oh Young-jin, said.
The 37-year-old employee of Seoul-based state utility, Korea Electric Power Corp., was assigned to the nuclear project in Sinpo, an isolated costal town in northeastern North Korea, for a year and a half from 2000.
The US$4.6 billion reactor project, a reward for the North’s promise in 1994 to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program, was scrapped permanently in December in a new nuclear dispute.
While staying in North Korea, Oh took notes on his encounters with ordinary people there and published the cartoons after he returned to Seoul.
Oh’s comic, titled “Southern Guest Unlocks Door,” is currently the feature exhibit at the Korea Comics Museum in Bucheon, west of Seoul. His latest installments are drawing rave reviews on the Internet.
“I saw them living the time we South Koreans had lived in the 1960s. Those days were hard for us, but we know it had a romantic side, too,” Oh said.
The cartoons feature what Oh saw in North Korea ― barefoot children chasing fish in their village stream, an old woman trudging, her back bent under the weight of a heavy bundle, and a daughter walking a long way in the bitter cold to bring her father a hot lunchbox. Some locals would secretly bring a basket of boiled potatoes and corn for the South Korean employees.
Oh said he saw utter poverty in the North, which made him doubt the military power of its government. Local workers would come to work with empty stomachs and fill up with food provided by the company at lunchtime.
“One scoop after another, they would pile the rice layer after layer onto their plates. That made me think it was probably the only meal they had the entire day,” he said.
Some of the workers would suffer frequent bowl movements after over-eating, which affected productivity in the afternoon, he recounted.
The monthly salary of the North Korean workers was US$110 each, paid by a U.S.-led international consortium that was responsible for the project.
But all the money went to the North Korean authorities. The major financiers of the project were South Korea and Japan.
Oh still remembers the great pride North Koreans took in the light-water reactor project, believing that it was a “project Dear Leader Kim Jong-il won by wringing Clinton’s neck.”
The project was promised by the then U.S. government of President Bill Clinton in return for North Korea’s promise to mothball its plutonium-based nuclear program.
The project was doomed to failure after U.S. officials in 2002 accused North Korea of pursuing a secret uranium-based nuclear arms program in violation of earlier agreements.
Oh said he drew the cartoons after work, hoping that they would portray the real life of North Koreans, one separate from their country’s political and economic systems.
“We are extremely divided over how to see North Korea,” Oh said.
“Some fantasize about it, others berate it as evil. There are lots of stories about Kim Jong-il, his cook, his private life and women, but not the lives of ordinary people there. After all, I’ve come to know that their life is no different from ours.”
by Kim Hyun