[OUTLOOK]Seeking answers in the NorthRecently, I visited North Korea for the first time in my life. I joined a group of 70 visitors, led by the JoongAng Ilbo’s research institute for North Korea, and stayed for five nights and six days in the North.
The official aim of the visit was to look at a trade fair, but we experienced many more things than that. We had a tour of Pyongyang and visited the harbor facilities in Nampo, a port city situated some 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, southwest of Pyongyang.
In Nampo, we visited farms, an electronic cable factory, a glass factory and a computer center, plus the Kim Il Sung University and the Kim Chaek Polytechnic Institute.
We even played golf at a country club in Pyongyang. A road show designed to attract foreign investment was also included in the schedule. We hiked Mount Myohyang and had a barbeque beside the water.
We were told that this was an unprecedented trip, which included a variety of activities.
A few words cannot describe the excitement and mixed feelings that I have from this experience. Talking about the entire communist regime after just looking at one limited aspect does not make sense either. Nevertheless, I was able to see what I had always been curious about. Although these are subjective views of mine, I would like to introduce what I saw and felt during the trip.
Firstly, people might ask whether North Korea is changing. I would answer “yes,” without hesitation. Although the pace of change is not satisfying, I sensed that the North is changing with careful steps. From the South’s point of view, we can ask if their move deserves to be called a change. But by the North’s standards, a number of things that can be seen as significant changes are taking place.
Secondly, is North Korea’s economy improving? I do not know about the other regions but I would answer that the economy of Pyongyang is showing a relative improvement. Although times are still hard, it has improved compared to the famine of the 1990s, which is called the “arduous march” by North Koreans. Those who frequently visit Pyongyang also agree that Pyongyang has shown economic development.
There were few cars on the street but the power supply has improved and less people suffer from hunger.
Thirdly, does North Korea have the intention to open its doors to the outside world? I believe that it clearly has the intention. Not only does it say it aims for such an opening but it also seems to have started to make efforts toward that goal.
An expansion project of the harbor facilities in Nampo, an equivalent city to Incheon in South Korea, was impressive. I was even asked to write an article for a newspaper to draw South Korean companies’ investment in order for North Korea to build a modern harbor and shipbuilding manufacturer.
However, I felt helpless whenever North Koreans ended their sentences with “great leader,” or “respected general.”
The fourth question people want answered is whether North Korea really wants foreign investment. The answer might be a conditional yes. North Korean officials claimed at the road show that trade and independence of the country’s economy are not at odds with but are complementary to each other.
However, the road show was one of the type in which officials gave speeches but did not take any questions from the audience. North Koreans still do not know what they should do to attract foreign investment.
The fifth question is where North Korea’s standard of living ranks among other countries that claim to be socialist. North Koreans seemed to have the strongest national pride but the lowest standard of living. The North has opened its market to the least extent among such countries. No cell phones and no credit cards are used there.
The sixth question is whether North Korea is copying the way in which China opened up to the outside world. North Koreans answer, “No way, we seek our unique way of opening the market.” They strictly oppose any opening that might damage their juche ideology of self-reliance. However, it seemed to me that they said so in order to save face while thinking slightly differently in their minds.
The seventh question is who will be the major beneficiary of the North’s opening. Needless to say, that will be China. No matter what changes occur in the North, the biggest beneficiary will certainly be China.
There is already a sign of this as most of the imports in North Korea are from China. At the trade fair that I attended, most of the products were made in China, including refrigerators, washing machines and television sets.
Although the current size of North Korea’s market is minuscule, the dominance of China in its future seems certain. A modern-style glass factory was built by China, free of charge.
What should South Korea do, dealing with North Korean issues under these circumstances?
I cannot help but feel lost when I think about this final question.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine.
by Lee Chang-kyu