Feeding Hope Under a Rogue Regime
I flew into pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on June 3, just days after the rogue nation-state had set off a nuclear explosion, conducted missile tests, and declared its truce with South Korea null and void. During my travels, two American journalists were put on trial for infringing on North Korean territory; their conviction and sentence to 12 years imprisonment were announced just after I left.
As a journalist, I never believed the extremely insular Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) would let me in. For years, Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International, wanted me to witness his organization's work there. I scoffed. "Do you know how long it takes on the Internet to find out what I do for a living?"
Despite international tensions, North Korea is cautiously open toward a handful of Christian humanitarian groups, including World Vision. A five-person delegation from the relief agency received visas at the North Korean embassy in Beijing and flew to Pyongyang the same day.
Inside the airport, we were required to surrender our cell phones until our departure. Two government minders escorted us to the capital. At our 40-story hotel in central Pyongyang, we saw only a handful of guests. Our first evening, we stood at the hotel door and asked to cross the street for a closer look at a fast food restaurant. Our request was denied.
When we went for a morning walk, minders told us which streets we could walk on and for how long. Photographs and conversations with pedestrians were off limits. We were allowed to visit World Vision projects to ask questions and take photographs.
Legacy of Suffering
At 5 a.m. each morning, loudspeakers throughout Pyongyang began broadcasting music. Two hours later an alarm would sound, and the loudspeakers would switch to a hectoring female voice urging workers to greater effort in the coming workday (so our minders explained), interspersed with short bursts of martial music. This would go on for an hour.
We saw squads of flag wavers greeting workers as they entered their offices, and school bands playing on street corners to cheer their parents on to more diligent work.
The nation's capital city has broad streets but almost no cars. Drab, grey concrete apartment and office blocks dominate the skyline. Most people travel on foot. Men and women dress in conservative Western apparel. There is no litter or graffiti anywhere. Pyongyang's boulevards seem eerily empty.
Propagandistic art is everywhere, on billboards, posters, and murals. Massive statues, towers, and plazas commemorate North Korean identity and achievement, including huge, idealized portraits of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, his son and present head of state, General Kim Jong Il, and heroic marching workers and soldiers. In Pyongyang, Stalinism has never gone out of style.
In the mid-1990s, catastrophic floods triggered massive crop failure, malnutrition, and starvation; by some estimates, up to 3 million people died. In 1995, World Vision initiated famine relief for North Koreans. Hirsch remembers seeing obvious malnutrition during those early visits. One night, he sat in a hotel restaurant looking out over a completely dark Pyongyang. There was simply no power to light the city.
Negotiations to bring food aid into North Korea were fraught with difficulties. Other American and European agencies include Mercy Corps, Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resources Services, the Eugene Bell Foundation, Samaritan's Purse, and Fida International. Most have been active for a decade or more. Other major aid comes from the United Nations World Food Program, the United States, China, and Japan. North Korea remains unable to produce enough food to feed its 23 million people. But, according to Human Rights Watch, more families are bartering for food in small, private markets that the government tolerates.