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Reflections On A Visit To The DPRK, April, 2004

Reflections on a visit to the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, 9-19 April, 2004

By Don Borrie,
Titahi Bay, Porirua, NZ


In April of each year an International Performing Arts Festival is held in the capital of the DPRK, Pyongyang. In 2004 NZ performers Richard Nunns and Kingi Tauroa participated. In our capacities as Secretary and Chairman of the New Zealand – Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea Society Tim Beal and I were invited to accompany Richard and Kingi, as well as taking the opportunity to update our knowledge of political, economic, cultural and social developments which have potential significance on DPRK-NZ relationships. My participation was made financially possible by grants from the Centre for International Development, Christian World Service, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and permission for leave by St. Martins Church.

We entered the DPRK via Beijing. In Beijing we stayed at a national academy for music arranged by the NZ Embassy so that Richard and Kingi could lead a graduates’ class in pre European Maori music. A meeting was also held with the directors of Koryo Tours – a company run by two Englishmen specialising in DPRK European sports teams and tourist exchanges.

The 1hour 20minute flight on Air Koryo was fully booked with Festival participants. Our Pyongyang accomodation was in the 60 story Koryo Hotel from which we could observe the falling blossom and the two week greening of the trees, the city scape of tall buildings and wide streets, the numerous pedestrians, moderate number of cyclists and fewer cars and busses; and in the early morning hear the crowing of the roosters and the horns of passing trains.

The first day was spent finalising the schedule and accompanying Richard and Kingi to their performance venue where they joined Ukranian dancers, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Swiss singers and musicians . The Festival was spread over three concert venues and was given national media coverage. Approximately 1 million Pyongyang citizens welcomed the Festival visitors when we came together for a street procession.

From Easter Sunday onwards Tim and I began our separate schedule. This included meetings with representatives of the Korean Christian Federation, the Kaesong Joint Venture Industrial Project, the Taesong NZ Friendship School, the Haksan NZ Friendship Cooperative Farm, the National Tourism Bureau, the Korea-Europe Technology and Economy Services, the Korean Red Cross Central Committee ,the Wonsan City Committee, the Wonsan Munchon Korean WFP Nutritional Biscuit Factory, the World Food Project DPRK head office.


This visit was the latest in a number of visits to the DPRK I have undertaken since co-founding the NZ-DPR of Korea Society in 1973. Since that time I, and a small group of New Zealanders, have endeavoured to establish relationships of friendship and trust with people in the DPR of Korea who themselves have wanted to achieve similar goals vis a vis New Zealand.

While there have been barriers of ignorance and prejudice to overcome from both sides the most deep seated have been from within New Zealand. Unlike the Koreans , who have consistently shown a desire to enter into mutually respectful relationships , New Zealanders have never, until recently, taken official or unofficial initiatives to search out the North Koreans ie except for the efforts of our small Society.

To date there has been no in depth consideration as to the causes of the New Zealand behaviour. Factors such as the New Zealand engagement in the Korean War where the DPRK was the enemy; a deep seated bias against Communism ; an historic uneasiness about Asian ambitions for the Pacific; white racial prejudice against Asian peoples; and a bias in favour of Euro – American culture and foreign policy have all contributed. Probably an underlying characteristic among the Pakeha people has been an assumption of cultural superiority vis a vis the culture of the DPRK despite the latter having an historical memory spanning at least three thousand years.

Despite these impediments the last thirty years have seen a gradual normalisation of relations with a series of cultural, political, and economic exchanges leading to the formal recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations between the DPR of Korea and New Zealand. Where for a long time those of us who were openly associated with the NZ -DPRK Society were viewed with suspicion and even imputations of treason, today the thawing of the last vestiges of New Zealand’s Cold War has allowed for the development of respect and cooperation between politicians, Government officials, aid and development agencies, denominations and Society members.

Examples of this change in New Zealand attitudes and behaviour range from the regular communication between the New Zealand Ambassador to the DPRK and Society officials, Government and NGO emergency relief grants to the DPRK, messages of greetings being exchanged between the Mayors of Porirua City and Wonsan City, a letter of greetings from the CEO of Whitireia Community Polytechnic, participation by New Zealand performers in two DPRK Performing Arts Festivals, the rapid increase of readers of the NZ-DPRK web site and newsletter, “Pyongyang Report”.

New Zealand Churches and Church agencies have contributed to this process of normalisation between the two countries. The Methodist Conference and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand passed resolutions supporting recognition of the DPRK. Christian World Service and Caritas sponsored a national appeal within the churches for DPRK humanitarian relief. Local congregations from around New Zealand responded to an appeal for aid and messages of greetings initiated by St Martins Presbyterian Church, Porirua in 2001. St Martins is the first congregation to host the DPRK Ambassador to New Zealand. In the late 1990s the General Assembly of the PCANZ formally issued an invitation to the Korean Christian Federation for a delegation from the North Korean Church to visit New Zealand. The Council for World Mission helped facilitate the transmission of the invitation. The Salvation Army of New Zealand indicated in 2002 an interest in sending a concert party to the DPRK. The Korean Christian Federation has issued an invitation to the PCANZ to send a four person delegation to Pyongyang. The Convenor of the PCANZ Overseas Mission and Partnerships,the Rev Stuart Vogel will be meeting with the Korean Christian Federation in Pyongyang, 29 May to 6 June, 2004.

Some salient features of the DPRK.

The size of the South Island this artificially divided part of Korea, with its 22 million people, is a mixture of arid ,forested, strikingly beautiful mountains and arable plains potentially fertile through extensive use of irrigation and chemical fertilizers .

Highly dependent on foreign supplies of fuel for energy and transport the DPRK economy has become extremely vulnerable to the constant changes in international power politics especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and exacerbated by a series of natural disasters during the 1990s . Underpinning this chronic vulnerability has been the long term hostility of the United States which has been expressed in ongoing military threats, including preemptive nuclear strikes, and economic sanctions thereby shutting the door to systematic financial and trading relationships.

While the Juche philosophy of self reliance provided the basis for a rapidly developing socially cohesive society up to the 1990s since then the DPRK hasfor reasons of survival, been obliged to enter into partnerships with the international aid and development NGO community . Unlike the careful opening of the doors during the 1980s when Joint Venture agreements were being formed on the basis of mutual strength the last decade has seen the DPRK being obliged to engage with the international community out of need.

Given the idealogical hostility of the United States and her allies this has been a very dangerous period for the DPRK in terms of national unity and security. Having gone through the pain of a weakening of national identity and values as a consequence of 19th and early 20th century western imperialism the conservative DPRK leadership has remained convinced that the effects of globalisation must be carefully managed if a collapse of the society is to be avoided. Hence the slow and careful engagement in reunification talks with the Republic of Korea(south); the retention of a strong military force and nuclear capability as a deterrent; and the control of domestic and foreign movement in and out of the country.

Despite these dangers and pressures the DPRK has continued to change from the Hermit Kingdom of the 1970s to a time when foreign agencies have access to nearly 90% of the country, the connecting of the railway between the north and the south is on the verge of completion which itself will open up transport links with Asia and Europe, and the potential of an economic union between the ROK, DPRK, China and Japan is emerging despite the consternation of the United States.

The Korean Christian Federation

A litmus test of these changes has been the standing of the Korean Christian Community. While it is true that Faith communities have had a recognised place in society as per the Constitution , the early period of the DPRK following the Korean war was a difficult time especially for the Christians who decided to remain in the country rather than move to the South. DPRK Christians have had to cope with the anger of fellow Koreans who found it impossible to reconcile the Christian Faith with American Christians bombing Christian churches.

At the philosophical and idealogical level there has been the tension between the Korean Communist philosophy of Juche with its emphasis on self reliance and the centrality of individual and social human achievement,and the Christian acceptance of human fallibility, and the Judeo-Christian belief in a covenanted relationship between the people of Faith and the Creator God.

This tension has been most acutely felt at the point of national loyalty. In the eyes of many Korean secular nationalists the historical relationships between Korean Christians and western, especially American, Christianity and culture had been an undermining influence on Korean identity and culture. This concern gave rise to doubts over Korean Christians’ loyalty to the State, especially during the prolonged threat to the Korean nation at the hands of the Japanese, then the United States, and subsequently by aggressive western cultural and economic imperialism (globalisation) again spearheaded by the United States.

With great caution and sensitivity the North Korean Christian community, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, have been able to show by example that they are fully committed to the well being of their nation . They strongly identify with the ideals of the DPRK and sincerely believe that their Christian Faith strengthens and deepens their role as loyal citizens.

In terms of Biblical and Theological themes, the Exodus, the people of the Covenant, the prophetic commitment to social justice, crucifixion, reconciliation and hope are seen to be relevant to the Korean experience.

This has led over a period of fifty years to an acceptance by the majority of Koreans that the Christians have a legitimate place within society. The Korean Christian Federation for their part have exhibited an ever increasing confidence that they can practice their Faith in word and action. Founded in 1948 the KCF now consists of 500 house groups, two churches, involving 12,000 members and a theological seminary catering for 10 students in a 5 year program. The KCF considers Christian Education a priority for mission along with social service projects which include a noodle factory and a green house – these projects being supported by international ecumenical initiatives.

Whereas my meeting with members of the KCF Executive in 1975 took place semi secretly late at night in a Pyongyang hotel, on Easter Sunday April 2004, I was accompanied by the Secretary General of the Korean –NZ Friendship Society , together with Dr Tim Beal to the Pongsu Church (one of two KCF congregations in Pyongyang) where we joined in an Easter Communion service along with two hundred Koreans, a smattering of foreign visitors and members of the diplomatic service. Despite being in Korean, the Order of Service was familiar as were a number of the hymns which were sung with the same energy and conviction found in Pacific Island acts of worship. The congregation was a balance of women and men, a number of whom assisted the ordained male minister in the conduct of worship. Communion was with individual cups with communicants coming to the Communion Table.

Following the hour long service I held discussions with Mr Ri Jong Ro, Director, International Affairs for the KCF in the Administration Building adjacent to the church. These buildings are located in a common compound surrounded by high rise apartments. The KCF buildings are well cared for and in good repair.

As already mentioned Mr Ri welcomed the possibility of strengthening relationships between the KCF and PCANZ. He referred to the relationships the KCF have with the World Council of Churches, the Christian Conference of Asia, South Korean, American and Canadian Churches. Previously I had helped facilitate KCF membership of the World Christian Peace Conference. These ecumenical relationships are in keeping with the DPRK desire for the nation to be linked to the international community on the basis of peace, friendship, and mutual respect.

Of special interest to the KCF is the attitude of the PCANZ and NZ Churches generally to the Joint Declaration signed by the North and South Korean Governments. This Declaration has already been endorsed by European Churches meeting in Germany, convened by the World Council of Churches. For the KCF the Joint Declaration is a practical example of mission promoting the Christian themes of Peace, Unity, with an underlying attitude of Hope. These Christian themes coincide with the priorities of the State thereby underlining the positive partnership which is developing between the Faith communities and the Government.

Overall my conviction remains that in the KCF there exists a genuine community of Christian believers whose presence is accepted as a legitimate part of the population , whose existence, continuing growth and role in promoting and being party to global ecumenical relationships is valued by a nation whose basic hope is for peaceful coexistence .This provides the context for the emerging ecumenical relationships between the KCF and the PCANZ.

The DPRK economy:

My impression is that the economy is marginally stronger than when Tim and I last visited the country in 2001. While still in the early stages of development the Kaesong Industrial development project reflects a confident expectation of growth based on North and South Korean collaboration. The linking of rail and road systems will be of strategic importance. A constant supply of electricity to the hotel compared favourably with the blackouts and disruption of water supplies experienced two years ago. There is a significant increase in the variety of consumer goods available in the shops, a significant proportion being Japanese with few items from South Korea. There are obvious efforts to develop DPRK-European commercial relationships .

Nevertheless the economy has a long way to go before it reaches the bouyancy of the pre 1990s. Unlike the past, international visitors are now asked to pay for internal transport and contribute to accommodation costs. The Korean NZ Friendship Society emptied its budget to help pay for relief of the train explosion victims. They now face difficulties in being able to pay for stationary, email charges or office rent. In other words the weak economy is affecting all stratas of society. Instances of free enterprise may be of marginal benefit to a few but does not offset the chronic impact of US led economic sanctions impacting on the overall economy.

Social Wellbeing:

From day to day people are going about their normal activities as in any society. People are genuinely interested in the world about them, are aware of international affairs and are as concerned over military policies of the US as are most NZers. There appears to be no lessening in the resolve to remain as a nation whose destiny is the peaceful reunification with the South.

Compared to 2001 I detected an increased sense of anxiety vis a vis the US Bush administration . While not evident in Pyongyang there were more sentry posts along main inter city highways. Perhaps only the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can have an inkling of what it is like to be living in a country towards which the world’s most powerful nation is pointing its nuclear weapons. Nuclear annihilation could be seconds away.

On the positive side international NGOs are reporting that they are able to access 90% of the country, that despite stop-go supplies of food aid the health status is being slowly improved . The World Health Project does not expect it can withdraw inside ten years. The Munchon Nutritonal Biscuit Factory is an excellent example of a successful partnership beween Korean operators and WFP suppliers for the benefit of local kindergartens and primary schools in the Wonsan province. An annual supply of 100 tons of NZ milk powder would make it a fully operating enterprise.

Likewise security and wellbeing would be advanced at the NZ Friendship School and NZ Friendship Farm if simple practical and reliable aid was forthcoming from NZ in the form technical books, teacher and student exchanges, horticultural and agricultural advisors.

Koreans like NZers need and want friends not enemies .

**** ENDS ****

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