Archive for the ‘Germany’ Category

Sport in North Korea

Monday, July 11th, 2011

A German-language documentary was recently released on the sports facilities in the DPRK.  Featured in the film are the April 25th Sports Team football field, Moranbong Sports Team facilities, Kim Il-sung Stadium, Sosan Sports District, Pyongyang Indoor Stadium (A State of Mind), Pyongyang Primary School No.4, and Yangggakdo Stadium.  The documentary makers also apparently had access to the North Korean women’s team at the recently concluded Women’s World Cup.

Click on the image below to watch the film.


Nosotek developing popular software in DPRK

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Volker Elosser of Nosotek gives an interview in German here.

Here is a translation of the article by Google Translate:

Click on the images to read the article.  I apologize for using these awkward images, but Google Translate only allowed me to copy/paste the original German.  This was the only fast/easy solution I could come up with.

The article references an article in PC World by Martyn Williams.  You can read this here.


Donor fatigue…

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

According to Kang Hyun-kyong in the Korea Times:

As a veteran aid worker, Wolfgang Gerstner was weary of a vicious circle of escalating tensions between South and North Korea after the latter was found to be responsible for the sinking of the warship Cheonan on March 26.

According to the German consultant working for international aid group Caritas Germany, North Korea’s bellicose acts have led those outside the country who have tried to help it to harden their attitudes.

This has resulted in a decrease of donations, causing children there to live without vaccinations for example.

Gerstner, 53, went on to say that children and ordinary people living in the impoverished North, whose living standards couldn’t be worse, suffer the unintended consequences of the regime-led provocations.

“It is difficult for people living outside North Korea to separate ordinary people living in the North from the regime,” Gerstner, who oversees Caritas’s humanitarian aid program to North Korea (the CI-DPRK program), said last Thursday in an interview with The Korea Times at a hotel in Seoul.

Caritas relies on donations from individual and corporate members to sustain their humanitarian aid to less developed nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

The aid organization also receives funds from the German government and Catholic churches here in Korea for the vaccination campaign for North Korean children.

North Korea is one of the nations where the rate of child mortality is alarmingly high.

According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 55 of every 1,000 children in North Korea die before they turn five.

Child mortality can be largely preventable if young children are vaccinated.

The North issuing a threat, however, is a stumbling block to the international effort to save children there.

When recipient governments make threats, it is natural for people living outside those nations to harden their view toward them, making donors or potential donors rethink their contribution.

“I don’t have the exact figure regarding the loss in donations after the provocation, but it certainly does have an effect on the amount,” Gerstner said.

“Escalating tensions make it difficult for aid workers like me to convince our donors to contribute to humanitarian assistance for the people there.”

Catastrophic security

The German aid worker sat down with the reporter days after wrapping up his recent visit to North Korea from June 8 to 12 this year for the regular vaccination program.

During the four-day field trip, Gerstner and August Stich, a medical advisor working with the Medical Mission Hospital Wuerzberg in Germany, visited the Sadong Tuberculosis Center, the new national laboratory at the Pyongyang Tuberculosis Hospital.

The two-man delegation also met with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Public Health and experts in medical institutes in Pyongyang and in the neighborhood of the North’s capital.

They made the June visit after about 500,000 North Korean children aged from seven to 16 years old were vaccinated in three rounds from February to April, thanks to the Caritas program.

Since March 2007 when he was first called upon to handle the CI-DPRK program, Gerstner has been to the North approximately 20 times for talks with his North Korean counterpart — the Ministry of Public Health.

His most recent trip came at a time when tension on the Korean Peninsula has shown little sign of subsiding after a multinational investigation team concluded last month that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for taking the lives of 46 sailors.

The North has denied it.

In an attempt to teach North Korea a lesson that any criminal acts will invite punishment, South Korea referred the Cheonan case to the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) in early June, calling for retaliatory measures against the North for the unacceptable act.

North Korea has claiming it is “innocent” and further threatened to take “counter-measures” if the UNSC sides with the multinational team over the probe results and comes up with punitive measures against it.

The two Koreas’ engaging in a game of chicken in the wake of the sinking of the ship has led to international media headlines featuring the peninsula on the verge of a war.

A vicious circle

The security standoff has spillover effect on humanitarian assistance to the North.

Disappointed, individual and corporate donors have become skeptical about contributing money or goods for the improvement of living conditions in the North.

Lesley-Anne Knight, secretary general of Caritas, expressed her concern over the unintended consequences of rising tensions last Tuesday during a news conference held in Seoul.

“This tension, of course, makes it much more difficult for us as humanitarian actors to maintain a neutral and impartial interest at the international level for North Korea,” Knight said.

“When there is a bellicose act, when people start to feel concerned about conflict escalating, international attention and the sympathy perhaps of the international humanitarian community for the plights of the (North) Korean people tends to diminish, tends to wane.”

Knight went on to say that “that is the extreme concern for us.”

Caritas, which has spent a total of $33 million on humanitarian aid and development in North Korea since 1995, called for a continuation of assistance.

The reaction came weeks after the South Korean government’s halt of assistance to the North in retaliation for its torpedo attack on the ship.

“(Humanitarian assistance) is absolutely essential for us. The situation of the majority of the North Korean people is that most of them are struggling to get their daily basic needs. Most specifically, food and health,” Knight said.

‘N. Korean kids are brave’

In his previous visits to the North in March, Gerstner had opportunities of taking a closer look at the facilities of clinics, institutes, and primary and secondary schools, while monitoring the North’s implementation of Caritas’s vaccination programs.

“Compared with South Korean hospitals and their amenities, hospitals in the North are less modern. Doctors there have to rely more on traditional medicine as they don’t have necessary facilities and medicine,” he said.

He called North Korean children “very brave.”

“It happens in other countries that school age children cry when they wait for their turns in line for taking vaccination shots. But North Korean children never cried even when they took the shots,” he said.

Previously, Gerstner was involved in several emergency relief programs in Africa, Latin America and the former East Germany. He helped organize rehabilitation programs in the local community.

Gerstner said North Korean teachers and children were “friendly and open-minded” when meeting with him, although they never spoke.

He said the most difficult part when implementing the aid program to North Korea was access to information and communication.

“For planning, we need information and have to communicate with our counterpart. The ministry has no email account, making it more difficult for us to execute the program,” he said.

Read the full article here:
Donors turn their back on N. Korea for provocation, putting kids at risk
Korea Times
Kang Hyun-kyung


Ulrich Kelber interview on recent trip to DPRK

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

The interview (in German) can be found here. A reader, however, sent in an English version:

Klaus-Martin Meyer: Mr. Kelber, you were recently in North Korea for the first time. Was this trip in what is certainly a totally different world consistent with your expectations?

Ulrich Kelber: Though I prepared myself with both oral and written accounts, there were things, both positive and negative, that surprised me. Among the negative things were the uniformity and control; among the positive were how well educated the people are, and their effort to bring the country forward.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: The political climate of the Korean peninsula is currently more tense than ever. The North Koreans described their version of the fall of Cheonan. How realistic is it?

Ulrich Kelber: I’m not an expert on these sorts of questions, which prevents a very detailed assessment. North Korea’s November threats of retribution alone aroused suspicions. But, in fact, South Korea has to allow questions. Why can’t an independent commission examine the evidence? Why aren’t the survivors permitted to testify publicly?

Klaus-Martin Meyer: In Pyongyang you also visited a German joint venture with the company Nosotek. As a member of the Bundestag, what are your impressions of the working conditions and day-to-day work of software developers in this sector of the North Korean economy? Are you convinced that Nosotek is actually developing for the international market?

Ulrich Kelber: Yes, we saw typical products for the international market, which, as a computer scientist, greatly interested me. The programmers and graphic designers are obviously very highly trained, with technical equipment up to Western standards. One significant exception to this is the lack of internet access in the company itself. Of course, this makes business and customer support more difficult, but isn’t an obstacle for actual software development.

The working conditions were the same as I have seen at German start-ups or in developing countries. No one could comment on the wages, which is also the customary rule in Germany. However, I had the feeling that the employees were part of the middle class, to whatever extent it exists in North Korea.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: How do you rate the opportunities and risks for foreign entrepreneurs in North Korea?

Ulrich Kelber: That’s hard to say after a single visit, but at Nosotek there seems to be little standing in the way of economic success. Possible risks would be the regime further shutting the country off, or wider-reaching sanctions. The well-trained employees, which I also can affirm in other areas such as the trades and agriculture, represent a great opportunity for all businesses.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: As usual in closing, our standard question (not just in interviews about communist countries.) Where do you see North Korea being in five years?

Ulrich Kelber: If the regime doesn’t open up economically, the country will barely progress, in spite of any efforts, for example, to maintain their infrastructure. Even with a little more openness, North Korea could make enormous economic gains, since both infrastructure and well-trained workers are available. The possibility of a political thaw depends both on the ability of the North Korean regime to resolve the succession issue, as well as whether or not South Korea’s hardliners keep calling the shots.


German Parliamentary delegation visits DPRK

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Here is the report (PDF).  It is in German, but Stephen Smith (who does English, German, and Romance language translations) produced an English language version for all of us:

It was without a doubt one of the strangest official visits I have ever taken, more like Cuba than anything else.  The same slogans, the same ever-present security services, and the same absurd rules on taking pictures and communicating with the outside world.  Compared to the loose Cubans, the North Koreans have an uncompromising assiduousness and iron resolve.

What I saw in North Korea lies somewhere between between what we were shown by our minders, and the one-sided Western impression of the country as the world’s poorhouse.  Many foreign observers have praised the North Koreans’ high levels of education, along with their will and discipline to see their projects though to completion.  Economic liberalization by the regime and an end to the sanctions would result in a rapid economic recovery.

Although we had little opportunity to speak to North Koreans not pre-selected by the regime, the signs of malnutrition among the rural population and even parts of the urban population of Pyongyang were unmistakable.  Here a comparison with impoverished African living standards would be completely appropriate.  With regards to its sometimes-crumbling infrastructure, however, North Korea is at least at the level of a poor emerging market.  The drive to maintain and modernize the infrastructure – the roads and housing stock, for example – is also unmistakable.

Surveillance in North Korea is all-encompassing: even for North Korean citizens, trips to other provinces are only possible with official authorization.  The landline phone networks of foreigners, the government, and ordinary North Koreans are strictly separated by technical means.  Nobody knows who’s doing the informing, who or what they’re informing on, or who they’re reporting it to.

To a European, the personality cult of the two North Korean leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, seems grotesque.  Upon each visit to factories and state enterprises, attention is called to the number of visits “by the president” or “by the general,” and what “notes and guidelines” they gave.  These can range from instruction on the proper feeding of ostriches, to the more efficient operation of machines, to the proper way to store old books.  Kim Jong-il is said to have tested new varieties of apple trees in his own garden before they were distributed across the country.  The veneration of the founder and “eternal president” of the People’s Republic, Kim Il-sung, who died in the 1990’s, is indeed quite noticeable in rare face-to-face discussions with North Koreans.

Before our trip, tensions between the two Koreas ran high, due to the dispute over the responsibility for the sinking of the South Korean warship “Cheonan” and the deaths of its 46 sailors.  The German Foreign Office didn’t want us to make the trip, but our group considered it important, especially given the circumstances, that relations are not severed.

Our group consisted of representatives of the trip’s organizers, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiffung, Frank Hantke, and Werner Kamppeter; WAZ [trans. note: a German newspaper] senior editor Richard Kiessler; WAZ journalist Jutta Lietsch; August Pradetto, professor of political science at the Helmut-Schmidt Armed Forces University; former MP and federal justice minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin; MP and speaker Johannes Pflug; and myself.

Sunday/Monday, May 23/24, 2010

Departure from Frankfurt.  Most of the other participants have already arrived, for example via China.  Flight to Beijing, arrival on Monday morning, then another trip to Pyongyang.

Upon arrival in the tiny Pyongyang airport we were met by representatives of the North Korean Workers’ Party, and spoke briefly in the main hall of the airport.  We’d like to emphasize that we considered it important to come for a dialogue during this tense time.  We took this opportunity, as well as others in the next few days, to indicate to the North Koreans that a flexible reaction, and not the immediate threat of “total war,” would strengthen their position.

We had to leave our cell phones at the entryway, though they wouldn’t have worked anyway.

We had dinner at the hotel, at the request of our hosts, and the conversation was rather diplomatic, followed by short group meetings.  Johannes Pflug, an Asia expert who has been to North Korean several times, was our spokesman.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Before we left the hotel, Mr. Tong, responsible Western European affairs within the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party, related to us the official position on the Cheonan accident as reported in North Korean newspapers.  The North Koreans indirectly threatened to use their nuclear weapons, and especially intensified their criticism of the expert panel’s findings, stressed North Korea.  Many statements were disputed in detail and they demanded that North Korean experts also be allowed access to the evidence, and that the surviving South Korean sailors be given permission to testify before international experts.

Before our first meeting we visited the house in Mangjongdä where Kim Il-sung was born, a simple peasant house for a cemetery caretaker, which was arranged as a memorial.  From a hill closeby there was an outstanding view of nearby Pyongyang.

Exchange of ideas with Mr. Ri Jong-chol, vice commander of the international division of the Korean Workers’ Party.  At our request he expounded upon his ideas of North Korean’s present situation: “We have designed a new form of synthetic fiber, which could improve our clothing supply,” “We have developed a new chemical fertilizer through anthracite gasification, to raise the level of food production” (because of the sanctions, North Korea suffers from a fertilizer shortage), “In 2009 there will first be 151 days of action during which new houses, hydroelectric dams, and orchards will be created, followed by an additional 100 days” (part of the preparations for 2012, the 100th year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung), “Reunification as our biggest wish,” “The South Koreans’ current policy towards the North is confrontational,” “We have proposed a US-North Korea peace treaty,” “American policy towards North Korea has again been put in the hands of hardliners because of the desire by American Democrats to win seats in the US Senate.”

Our questions as to why China supported the recent UN sanctions against North Korea and what, specifically, a peace treaty with the USA would include (currently there is only a ceasefire agreement) were not addressed.  In North Korea’s view the Non-Proliferation Treaty is unfair, according to Mr. Ri, for the “atomic threat by the USA still remains.”

In the early afternoon we had a discussion with the leader of the European section of the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Kim Chun-guk, followed by a visit to the monument to the Juche ideology of Kim Il-sung, which differs from Marxist ideology in that it places a strong emphasis on national autonomy.  A focus of the discussion was the tension surrounding the sinking of the Cheonan.  The North Koreans put forth the same arguments as on Monday morning, and we criticize the immediate threats of war by North Korea, and encourage a political rather than military solution.  The conversation turns to the poor relationship with Japan, North Korea being accused of never having revealed the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped in the ’70s and ’80s.  The accusation was rebuffed, notwithstanding the admissions of kidnapping in the 1990s.  The North Koreans say that they freed all the surviving abductees, and that Japan has yet to apologize for the “death, kidnapping, and forced prostitution” during the 1910-1945 colonial occupation.

Later in the afternoon we had a discussion with the chairman of the Korean-German parliamentary friendship group, Mr. Ri Jong-hyok, who studied in East Germany in the 1960s and was a classmate of Kim Jong-il.  During this discussion it was worth paying special attention to the nuances in his answers, despite his evasiveness in answering our questions.  He expressed fear that because of the tensions, the Special Economic Zone, supported jointly by North and South Korea, may no longer be tenable.  We interpreted this as suggesting that the North Korean leadership has not yet decided on a specific reaction to further South Korean sanctions.  The tensions surrounding the sinking of the Cheonan played the biggest role in our discussion, in addition to North Korea’s energy supply.  At the end we gave him a list of eleven names of German citizens who are children of North Korean exchange students in East Germany in the ’50s and ’60s, and who are seeking contact with their fathers and half-siblings.

In the evening, there was a banquet at the German embassy.  The German ambassador would soon be sent from North Korea (diplomatic relations since 2001) to Guatemala.  The German embassy lies on the ground floor of the former East German embassy, which it currently shares with the British and Norwegian embassies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In the morning we paid a visit to a glass factory constructed by the Chinese and a Yellow Sea lock built in the 1980s, which included an 8-kilometer long dam, which turned a lagoon into a freshwater lake.  The glass factory built in 2005 is of the highest technical standard.  According to the factory leadership, 50% of the production is for the domestic market, with the other 50% destined for China.  One thousand employees build not only window glass, but also stained glass, plate glass, bulletproof glass, and glass doors.  One branch builds bottles and blenders with the cooperation of the German firm Tekal.  They are especially proud of their CNC machines, with which all sorts of glass jewelry and various pre-cut parts can be built.  The introduction of CNC in North Korean firms is part of the current modernization campaign by Kim Jong-il.

On the way to the Yellow Sea lock we noticed the poor overall supply situation.  But more specifically we noticed that, after the two typhoons in the 1990s hit, peasants have cut down trees for their own private use, and have planted crops on the steep hills.  These fields yield few crops, but have totally eroded the soil.  Only 16% of North Korea’s acreage is provisioned for agriculture.

At the Yellow Sea lock we were also met by a pretty, young girl, dressed in quasi-traditional costume.  Ultimately this turned out to be standard operating procedure; young girls are trained specifically for this job.  Each enterprise has a large mural of Kim Il-sung and/or Kim Jong-il in the entryway – a large stone tablet (30 meters on one side) with laudatory verses and a room dedicated to the history of the enterprise, with special attention paid to visits by North Korean leaders.

The Yellow Sea lock was built by 30,000 workers in 1981-86 in order to prevent the encroachment of saltwater fifty kilometers up the river to Pyongyang, and thus to ensure safe drinking water for agriculture, residential use, and industry.  The enormous dam is broken into three lock chambers, allowing ships of up to 50,000 gross registered tons to pass through.  Despite the seven meter tidal range, the dam only generates enough electricity to power the lock.

There are many people out in the rice fields since the planting season is just beginning, and the office workers must regularly help.  Many soldiers can also be seen in the fields, and incidentally at road and housing construction sites as well.  In contrast, over the next few days there were barely any armed soldiers to be seen; no signs could be seen of a general mobilization, as many Westerners assumed would occur after the Cheonan incident.  In the West it is known that the North Korean army employs 1.3 million of the country’s 24 million citizens.  Not known, however, is the fact that the army must to a large extent finance itself, mostly working domestically in agriculture and building projects, and therefore is not constantly under arms.

The mobilization of North Korean troops, presumed by South Korea, is nowhere to be seen, and in addition hardly anybody among the population or in government expects a war due to the Korean crisis.

Outside of Pyongyang there are barely any cars on the enormous eight-lane arterial highways.  The traffic in Pyongyang itself has, however, definitely increased.  In terms of mass transit there is a subway, surface trams (constructed similarly to East German trams, because of the earlier COMECON bond), buses, and trolley buses (in horrible condition).  The populace, however, covers considerable distances by bicycle and by foot.  Women are apparently forbidden by Kim Jong-il from riding bicycles, as he once witnessed a woman in a bicycle accident, though there seemed to be no lack of women in the streets.

At lunchtime we had a discussion with the Swedish ambassador, which was, at his request, off the record.

After lunch we visited the Pyongyang textile factory and the ostrich farm on the airport road.  Here we heard a typical history lesson, this time including the story of why Kim Il-sung is called “father”: as he visited workers and heard from them that their fathers couldn’t visit them, Kim is supposed to have said that he would be the father to all Koreans.  Otherwise stated: those who in our country look to the Bible for metaphors, allegories, and quotes would in North Korea look to the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

Nine thousand workers (mostly women, aged 17 to 55) worked in the textile factory, which was shown to us by the party secretary in charge.  This stands in contrast to the history lesson given at the start, where it was suggested that an earlier “heroine of work” is still working at age 70.  They answered my query by stating that the female workers themselves choose when they’d like to retire, at which point free general healthcare is provided by the state.

The fabrics produced used to be exported, but the factory came to a standstill in the ’90s, and now only serves the domestic market.  Exports should resume in 2011, after further production increases.  Those looms which we could see were thoroughly modern, though the condition of the machines in other rooms remains an open question.  The party secretaries of the concern are depicted in photos as being on equal footing as the director.  A third of the seamstresses in the factory are party members, who must apply and prove their worth to be chosen.

There are very few small traders on the streets, hawking snacks, drinks, or – as we saw once – popsicles.  Refrigeration is, however, a huge problem in North Korea, due to a lack of cooling units and unreliable and inadequate power supplies.

The ostrich farm, whose animals are used for meat, has been around since 1998 and has gradually increased its population to 10,000 animals over the span of one year.  The meat was until recently exported, but now, on the advice of Kim Jong-il, serves only the domestic market.  Because of transportation and refrigeration issues, the animals are slaughtered when restaurants or businesses request them, on the order of about 20-30 per day, each animal yielding about 100 kg of meat.  It must be noted that meat is not part of the average Korean’s diet, but rather goes largely to restaurants which serve foreigners and better-off North Koreans.

Five hundred people work in the ostrich farm, the processing factory, and in feed production.  The ostriches can survive temperatures as low as -10 degrees in the harsh Korean winter, but any lower and they must be moved inside.

A side note: North Korea is a very clean country.  Not only because people barely have anything to throw away, but also because it doesn’t occur to anybody to throw away trash (not even plastic bags, which one sees everywhere in the countryside of other developing countries).

At the end of the day we visited NOSOTEK, a joint venture software firm.  Founded by the German programmer Volker Eloesser in 1970, the firm mostly develops cell phone and Flash games, but also ports video games for consoles.  The customers usually don’t want there to be any references to North Korea in the games, some of which are well known.  Thirty five people work for the firm in Pyongyang, ten are on loan from other firms, and there are ten more at the Chinese branch.

The idea came to Mr. Eloesser during a visit as a member of a delegation in 2005, and by the end of 2007 the firm was founded.  While the education of programers and graphic designers in North Korea is top rate, he had to introduce quality assurance, teamwork, and entrepreneurial thinking.

Because of North Korea’s internet restrictions, he only has access in his private home.  He must bring his business data with him to work every morning, and take it back home every night.  From his personal phone (part of the foreigner network) he cannot reach any of his Korean colleagues directly.  Since as a foreigner he is forbidden from using phones intended for Koreans, he must, in case of an emergency, go to, for example, a restaurant and ask a Korean to call his colleague and pass along the message.

Despite all of this, Mr. Eloesser is very happy with his decision to found a North Korean firm.  He works pragmatically around the everyday problems of North Korea.  He gets by okay because the the North Koreans know that he wants neither to denigrate the leadership nor start a counterrevolution, but rather just to run the company.  We agree to have dinner the following day.

In the evening we had a meeting with Kathi Zellweger from the Swiss development agency, which has been in North Korea since 1993.  They have implemented programs dealing with biological pest control, crop rotation, government control of the hillsides, rehabilitation of river power plants, and building of educational capacity.

A side anecdote: When Mrs. Zellweger was accompanied on a trip by a Hong Kong hair stylist, North Korean acquaintances of Mrs. Zellweger wanted haircuts like Angela Merkel.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The next morning we had a meeting with Mrs. Hong Son-ok, vice chairperson of the Union for Cultural Connections Abroad.  In addition to a general cultural exchange, we and the ambassador encouraged the willingness of the North Koreans to allow an exchange of North Korean cultural treasures in Germany, including the world-famous Chinese lacquered baskets found in Pyongyang in 1931.  Because they are seen as un-Korean, these lie in the museum’s storage facility and are presently not on display in Pyongyang.  We told them how proud we are of our Roman heritage.

Our suggestion of sending a scholar to Helmut-Schmidt University was received with reservations, as was our wish for more journalist visas, for example for the film festival at the end of the year.  She said that they hadn’t had good experiences with journalists.  Johannes Pflug calls attention to our different understand of media relations and suggested that the next parliamentary group issue more visas to journalists.

After this we took a trip to the Museum of National Friendship, a good 120 kilometers north of Pyongyang.  Here, among the wondrous mountainside, gifts given to Kim Il-sung (128,000) and Kim Jong-il (65,000) are on display in monumental buildings with corridors and rooms dug deep into the mountain.  At various points we guessed that there is more hidden in the mountain than just the museum.

The gifts were at times awe-inspiring, such as the 9.5 ton block of jade.  There are many gifts from the former GDR, as well as from the SED and the LDPD, which merged with the FDP.  Kim Il-sung was depicted as a wax figure in a special room with a birch tree landscape, artificial wind, and music.

There were a few things that suggested to us a parallel society.  Gifts given by small, unimportant countries and international organizations that we didn’t recognize were among the collection.  Among German newspapers, only the “Rote Fahne,” the central organ of the KPD (which has fewer than 200 members), has written positively about Kim Jong-il.

Afterwards they took us through a narrow, hilly, picturesque tributary valley, where they had a barbecue prepared.  This was followed by a visit to the 700-year-old Pohyon Temple, where 800-year-old books were on display.  The temple also has significant to the Workers’ Party of Korea: Kim Il-sung saw himself as following in the tradition of its abbot, who was the leader of the national resistance against a 1359 Japanese invasion.

We then took a detour to the Pyongyang football stadium and spoke with young footballers about their role models, hopes, and assessment for the World Cup.  Ballack and Zidane were named as role models, and the kids wanted only to play in a World Cup.  Their goal for North Korea in South Africa was eighth place.

Later came dinner, where we met once again with the German businessman Volker Eloesser, who told us about his experiences in North Korea.

The next morning we visited the Kim Won-gyun College of Music, named after the composer who wrote the national anthem and the Kim Il-sung song, among others.  Eight hundred students, more than half of whom were women, were being trained in singing, composition, western musical instruments, and traditional Korean music.  Founded in 1949, the school got a new campus of 50,000 square meters, with classrooms, demonstration rooms, music halls, and dorms.  Everything is of the highest level and is still in top shape.

Our visit is thoroughly organized, with many high quality demonstrations.  Ms. Berg, an envoy at the German embassy, told us that North Korean kindergartens place a heavy emphasis on singing and dancing.

Shortly after 10 o’clock we met with the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Mr. Choe Thae-bok, a member of the highest governing body, who studied in Germany [trans. note: doesn’t indicate East or West] at the end of the ’50s.  The discussion themes were the same as in other conversations (Cheonan, visas for journalists, exchanges by North Koreans to Germany).  Mr. Choe is more open and sophisticated in his answers – an important talk that allows for some interpretation of current debate in North Korea.

In the early afternoon we visited an orchard in bloom.  With modern cultivars, the 700 hectares produce apples for the city’s population.  The first crop was just produced last year.  Housing for all 700 workers is under construction, with some already ready.  1,200 bees are responsible for pollination, and the plantation has a drip irrigation system.  The capacity should end up yielding over 35,000 tons of apples per year.

As part of the agricultural policy there is a pig farm, a chicken farm, a fish pond, and a turtle hatchery in the neighborhood, in order to use the excrement as fertilizer.  Pests (wasps, dragonflies) are managed both biologically and with pesticides.

On our journey across the country it struck us that there were newly built houses almost everywhere along the route we took.  Whether this applies to the whole country I cannot say, though it was confirmed by other observers.

At four we visited a copper cable factory in the middle of Pyongyang, founded in 1959, with over 1300 employees.  It manufactures everything from basic wires to high-voltage submarine cables, as well as plugs for export and plastic utensils made from the PVC remains of the insulation.

Our two journalists did not accompany us because they were invited to a “press” conference for the diplomatic corps, where North Korea expresses its opinion on the Cheonan sinking for the first time.

Shortly after five we visited the last of the projects, but one which is encouraging for the future of the country: on the outskirts of Pyongyang there were fifteen vegetable greenhouses constructed by Welthungerhilfe [trans. note: an NGO funded largely by Germany, the EU, and the UN].  Thanks to Pyongyang’s good sunlight (39th degree of latitude, corresponding to Sicily), various vegetables can be harvested without heating for ten months out of the year.  The output per hectare is 200 tons of vegetables, many times that of traditional rice cultivation.

As much of the harvest will be sold as covers its cost, with the rest given free of charge to schoolchildren and kindergartners to prevent malnutrition.

The harvest can begin as early as one year after building a greenhouse, which is a good option for a country with little arable land.  The plants lay in a nutrient solution rather than in the earth.  The project leader praised the North Koreans for their knowledge and dedication.

Small greenhouses for balconies and gardens are also being developed, and at 300-800 euros they are very affordable.

In the evening we were seen off with a communal meal with our escorts, interpreters, and drivers.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Return trip to Germany, again via Beijing.


German NGO worker on the DPRK

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

According to the Times of India:

Economic sanctions by the United States and other western countries is actually strengthening the Kim Jong-il’s regime, a German social worker involved with a non-government organization told reporters here this morning. Sanctions are also affecting life in other ways like the new-found emphasis on sustainable agriculture, she said.

“The leaders are using the sanctions as a justification. People believe the country is in a bad condition because of outside forces,” Karin Janz, country director in North Korea for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, said while speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing. The official media justified its actions as efforts to fortify the nation against the onslaught of foreign forces, and the people fully believed it, she said.

The sanctions have hit the North Korean agriculture and caused fears of a worsening of the food situation, Karin said. “The North Korean agriculture is highly industrialized,” she said while explaining the country’s agriculture is heavily dependent on imported farm machines and chemical fertilizers. Most of these materials came from South Korea, which has now slammed the doors.

The government has suddenly realized the value of sustainable development and is asking agricultural cooperatives to change their focus. They are being asked to go for organic farming, grow composts and reduce their dependence on chemicals. It is a new policy on sustainable development by default, she said.

“It could be a good start in the direction of sustainable development. But it is a long way to rehabilitate the soil, which is badly damaged” she said.

The Internet is banned to ensure that local citizens do not communicate with the outside world. There is a limited form of Intranet for university students to chat among themselves. But if the ban on Internet were to be lifted, most North Koreans will use it to absorb new knowledge and grow the country with new technological inputs.

“I cannot imagine some kind of opposition rising because it is simply not possible,” she said while discussing the highly militarized nature of the society. The government controls every aspect of life in North Korea and ordinary people seem to be comfortable living in some kind of a “safety shell”, she said.

Patriotism runs high among the people and most have full faith in their leaders. The only sign of dissatisfaction Karin saw was in January when currency reforms hit a large number of people very badly. People who held old currency notes suddenly found they could not exchange them for the new Won notes the government introduced early this year.

Welthungerhilfe is one of the few foreign NGOs that are still operating in North Korea when most of the others have left either because of the challenges posed by government rules and the drying of financing from western sources. There are many Chinese NGOs but the local government does not allow they to communication with those from western countries.

In her five years travelling across nine provinces of North Korea, Karin has not come across a single case of starvation. The food situation is bad, but it is not as grave as the western media tended to show, she said. The government has also done a fairly good job of developing infrastructure and provide school education although the conditions are still a far cry from what prevails in the developed world, she said.

Here is the Welthungerlife North Korea web page (in German).  Here is the page in English (via Google Translate).

I cannot prove it, but I am willing to bet that Welthungerhilfe built these greenhouses near Kujang (via Kernbeisser).  These greenhouses are too new to be visible on Google Earth.

Read the full story here:
Economic sanctions strengthen North Korea’s dictatorship, says German NGO
The Times of India
Saibal Dasgupta


DPRK emigration data

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Josh points out this table from the UNHCR (originally published by RFA):


Click image for larger version.


Goethe Institute opens-closes library in Pyongyang

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

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, 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.”


New York Times reports on Kaesong Zone

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

Although the article did not offer much new or probing analysis, there were a few data points that I thought it was important to highlight: 

Despite its isolation and prisonlike feel, the Kaesong Industrial Park is booming with construction. The park’s operator, a South Korean developer, Hyundai Asan, hopes to expand it into a minicity over the next 12 years, with high-rise apartments and hotels, an artificial lake and three golf courses.

By that time, the company hopes there will be about 2,000 factories here employing 350,000 North Koreans and producing $20 billion worth of goods a year.

That compares with a manufacturing output of only $366 million in the first half of this year, according to South Korea’s unification ministry.

In the six months through June, the flow of goods in and out of the industrial park accounted for 42 percent of the $881 million in trade between the two Koreas, the ministry said.


[…] 72 smaller South Korean companies have already built factories here, looking to tap the North’s supply of low-cost, Korean-speaking labor. So far, only one foreign company has come [–German auto parts maker Prettl Group is building a factory. Two Chinese companies will begin operations soon[, b]ut most companies here continue to be smaller South Korean firms, producing low-tech goods, from frying pans to running shoes, largely for domestic consumption.] (NKeconWatch combined two different paragraphs here)

The piecemeal brand of change is seen in the experiences of SJ Tech, a South Korean maker of car and cellphone parts that built a $4 million factory here four years ago. The company’s first North Korean employees had never even seen a keyboard, much less a computer, said Yoo Chang-geun, SJ Tech’s president. SJ Tech has spent so much time teaching them things like machinery operation and management concepts that Mr. Yoo jokingly calls his factory “North Korea’s first business school.”

But the North Koreans were eager learners, sketching keyboards on paper to teach themselves typing. Now, SJ Tech’s 430 North Korean employees have learned enough to run the factory without South Korean supervisors.

In a telling sign, they have also changed their haircuts to look more like their South Korean colleagues.

Andrei Lankov seems optimistic on the project’s political goals, stating “When North and South Koreans can interact on a daily basis, it is a chance for the North Koreans to see with their eyes that their own propaganda doesn’t make sense.”

A few described how the South Korean-run industrial park was improving lives by paying its workers the equivalent of about $60 a month, three times the average salary in the rest of Kaesong. […]

The South Korean government, which spent more than $150 million subsidizing the park, provides low-interest loans and insurance to companies to offset the risks of investing in the unstable and still hostile North.

Mr. Yoo of SJ Tech said his North Korean employees’ monthly salaries of $75, in contrast to the $2,000 he pays South Koreans, made investing in North Korea entirely worthwhile, despite any risks.

The article seems to take worker compensation claims at face value, but in reality Kaesong workers do not take home their allotted wages.  The DPRK government keeps most of them in taxes and administrative fees.  However, other non-monetary benefits make the jobs highly envied among North Korean workers.  Rumor has it that North Korean workers pay hefty bribes to get these jobs. 

Read the full article here:
Big Dreams for North Korean Industrial Park
New York Times
Martin Fackler


East German and North Korean husband reunited

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

UPDATE 3 (2014-12-16): A documentary has been made about the Hong family reunion. You can see it here.

UPDATE 2: I added video of the family reunion to Youtube. You can see it here. 

UPDATE 1 (2008-8-5): Herald Tribune/Joong Ang have update and photo of reunion.

In February 2007 the Joong Ang Daily reported the sad story of Renate Hong, and East German citizen who married a North Korean student at Jena University named Hong Ok-geun.  Shortly after their marriage, Mr. Hong was called back to the DPRK in 1961, and the couple eventually lost touch.

Early last year, North Korea verified that Mr. Hong was still alive in Hamhung, though remarried and with a new family.   Ms. Hong, still in Germany with two children born of the short relationship, never remarried.

The couple was finally able to exchange letters with the help of German authorities. When the first arrived from Mr. Hong, it was the first time in 44 years that Renate had heard from her husband since her last letter came back with an “address unknown” stamp in 1963.

The DPRK government initially denied requests for a reunion, but this week the couple, as well as their children, were allowed to meet in Pyongyang.  According to the Hong family and diplomatic sources in Germany, Renate Hong, 71, and her two sons arrived in Pyongyang on July 25.  This will be the first time the two sons, now 47 and 48, will see their father.

Read more here:
Joong Ang Daily
Ryu Kwon-ha

North Korea allows a separated couple to reunite after 47 years
Joong Ang Daily
Ryu Kwon-Ha and Ser Myo-ja

German travels to NKorea to reunite with husband
Associated Press(Via Huffington Post)