Goethe Institute opens-closes library in Pyongyang

UPDATE: In 2004 Germany’s Goethe Institut opened a reading room in Pyongyang (see Choson Sinbo article below). This week it was closed. According to Deutsch Welle:

After five and a half years in operation, the Goethe-Institut in North Korea has said it will close its reading room in the capital city of Pyongyang due to censorship concerns.

The institute, a non-profit organization that promotes the study of German language and culture in 91 countries, opened the reading room in June 2004. It was the first and only Western cultural institution to establish itself in the communist country.

Raimund Woerdemann, director of the Goethe-Institut in Seoul, told Deutsche Welle that, contrary to an agreement made with the North Korean government, access to the center was often hindered.

“The building in which the reading room was located was often locked from the front,” he said. “There was a permanent construction site in front of the back entrance: not a welcoming situation.”

To his knowledge, there has never been an Internet connection in the Pyongyang center, said Woerdemann, and attempts to establish an Intranet connection with other North Korean educational institutions were interrupted on multiple occasions.

The reading room is slated to close in summer 2010. Woerdemann added, however, the Goethe-Institut would make an effort to maintain positive relations with North Korea through participation in the North Korean-German Friendship Society, the Committee for Cultural Relations Abroad and other partnerships.

Criticism from Berlin

The decision to close the reading room has met with strong criticism from the German parliament. Phillip Missfelder, parliamentary foreign policy spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU issued a statement Wednesday, calling the closure “a bitter experience and a big disappointment for everyone who has stood up against resistance to cultural exchange and for the gradual opening of communist North Korea.”

The move represented “the end of an important aspect of German foreign policy in the areas of culture and education, which was a ray of light in the darkness of the repressive, totalitarian government in North Korea.”

In the statement, Missfelder said the CDU parliamentary group takes the closure “very seriously” and would make every effort to reverse the decision.

The center in Pyongyang was founded with the aim of reducing the information deficit in the country, offering unrestricted access to the Internet and free press, networking with South Korea and other countries, and promoting literature.

The Pyongyang reading room has been removed from the Goethe Institute’s web page, although not all of the links have been removed.

The reading room was located near Tae Mun and the DPRK’s Ministry of Culture in Pyongyang here.

UPDATE 1: According to Korea.net, the Goethe Institut plans to expand Pyongyang reading room:

On the sidelines of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conference last week, a German cultural institution reaffirmed its commitment to promote freedom and democracy in North Korea.

The Goethe Institute, an NGO sponsoring German language and culture worldwide, said it is ready to expand its collection of media resources in North Korea.

The institute opened a reading room in Pyongyang in 2004 where North Koreans can freely access a variety of German media, including books, newspapers, and music. The content is completely uncensored and accessible to all North Koreans. That was the condition under which Goethe Institute agreed to open the reading room, said Jurgen Keil, director of the Goethe Institute in Seoul.

“The reading room has been received very positively by North Koreans. We hope that it can contribute to normalizing North Korea’s relations to the outside world,” Keil said.

The efforts mirror a similar German diplomatic strategy in the 1970s when then West German Chancellor Willy Brandt pursued a policy of “Change through Rapprochement” of easing ties with East Germany through a series of reconciliatory measures.

Former President Kim Dae-jung made reference to this strategy when he formulated the South Korean “Sunshine Policy.”

Claudia Lux, IFLA president-elect, stressed that “knowledge is always a step toward freedom.”

Keil added that many North Koreans can speak German. Until German reunification in 1989, a great number of North Koreans were living and working in East Germany.

North Korea was eager to establish the reading room in order to boost its international diplomatic profile, even though the content available there undercuts the strict censorship imposed by the country.

The reading room in Pyongyang currently holds 4,000 items. Keil said it plans to gradually increase the number to 8,000 in the coming years.

ORIGINAL POST: From the Choson Sinbo (August 14, 2004):

A library of German science books was opened in central Pyongyang on June 2, as the first institution where people can freely read foreign books.

The library was opened in cooperation between Pyongyang’s DPRK-Germany Friendship Association and Germany’s Goethe Institute.

The library has 4,000 scientific books in natural and social sciences and leading German newspapers and magazines. In addition, the library has various kinds of movie tapes, music CDs and cassette tapes and audiovisual education aids for German language study.

It is the first time that the DPRK has opened a library of scientific books of a specific Western country.

An official concerned with the library said that the institute aims at introducing advanced science and technology of Western countries and at promoting mutual understanding between the DPRK and Germany by spreading Germany’s scientific books in the DPRK.

The library introduces German books to libraries of domestic universities and research institutes while allowing people to freely read German books, newspapers and magazines. It lends books to users.

Accepting users’ requests the library orders books from the Goethe Institute, a nongovernmental cultural organization of Germany. Pyongyang’s counterpart offers requested books to the library free of charge.

The library has plenty of natural science books, such as books of medical science, information technology, geology, physics, architecture, chemistry and biology. In addition to natural science books, there are books of German literature, art, philosophy and books of social science including law and history.

According to an official concerned, main users of the library are university students, researchers and scholars.

Officials said that a delegation of the Goethe Institute plans to visit Pyongyang in September to provide 4,000 more books to the library. The Goethe Institute also plans a training course for librarians to staff the library.

Kim Mun Ik, 57, an official of the Association of External Cultural Liaison, said, “The DPRK is not an ‘exclusive country.’ The library is a clear indication that we have been open to the outside, receiving foreign things as far as these are useful for us and now we are making every effort to develop relations with foreign countries, even with Western countries.”

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  • Gag Halfrunt

    In the statement, Missfelder said the CDU parliamentary group takes the closure “very seriously” and would make every effort to reverse the decision.

    So the Goethe Institut wants to close the Pyongyang reading room because no-one can visit it, but the CDU wants it to stay open. You’d think that the CDU, being conservatives and presumably opposed to wasting money, would approve of the decision. (And, since they’re in government, it’s not a case of the opposition opposing the government for opposition’s sake.)

  • http://leonidpetrov.wordpress.com/travel Leonid Petrov

    Universities, science and technology research institutions and publishing houses might be interested in participating in the 7th Pyongyang International Science & Technology Book Fair (15-17 September 2010).

    PISTBF introduces and shares the world’s recent science and technology achievements through books exchange and aims to develop friendship and cooperation between the nations.

    At the exhibition the participants can conclude contracts of copyright and book sale with international organisations and North Korean publishing houses, they can discuss the practical issues, share the opinion and update their knowledge on the recent developments in world science and technology. All participants can exhibit recently published science and technology books, CDs and DVDs.

    Exhibition dates: Sep. 15-17, 2010

    Exhibition venue: Pyongyang International Cultural Exchange Centre

    Sponsorship: Organising Committee of PISTBF, Committee of Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries

    LP

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