Beyond Official North Korea

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This Monday, June 25, the Brookings Institution hosted John Everard, the former British ambassador to North Korea who spent two and a half years of his life in the country, from 2005 to 2008. The panel featured David Straub and Jonathan Pollack, with Richard Bush moderating. Everard gave a presentation on his experience in North Korea, entitled “Beyond Official North Korea: A British Diplomat’s Observations of Daily Life,” which consisted of observations that were the basis for his book on the topic. Everard described life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as poverty-striken and desperate, but he put a human face on the citizens of the country. He described how, though all the country’s stresses, it remained a very organized society where most members greeted him warmly and cheerfully described their most desperate circumstances. Despite the anti-American propaganda and the fact that most of the population will refer to the Americans with crude names, North Koreans do not seem to have a very serious or grounded hatred for Americans. When one North Korean was questioned about her experience with Americans, she said that she enjoyed their company and would not mind meeting more.

Many citizens are very patriotic, with one man voluntarily cleaning the sacred steps consecrated to North Korea’s godlike leader. Every person at a young age is taught to sing so that they can repeat the propaganda hymns, and frequently, spectacles are put on to encourage patriotism. Despite this, there appeared to be discontent with the government, especially after an economic collapse that caused many people to lose their life’s savings. The majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty where they are subject to the whims of the military, who will steal their fuel and most basic supplies, or try to find them watching an American soap opera in order to have something to hang over their heads for a bribe. Many of the humanitarian aid shipments go directly to the military, and those scrounging in the farmland never see it. Furthermore, the working conditions are such that farmers lack even boots to wear in the marshes, forcing them to plant rice barefoot. This exposes them to the various parasites in the water, which is a severe problem that the population completely lacks any resources or medicine to treat. The nurses have a sparse collection of medicine, if indeed they have any at all, and mostly serve to give psychological support. The situation on the rice farms and at other employment opportunities is so dire that the best jobs are in factories run by South Korean managers, who will give the workers food at lunch time. The talk ended on a somber note, with the acknowledgment that change is unlikely, and that the DPRK is probably going to be a staple of the future.

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