Was I really in North Korea? Not in the way that I have been to most of the
countries I count on my ‘visited list’. Part of the itinerary for the Asia Pacific
Journalist Award did include a visit to Camp Bonifas and Panmunjom so by the
truest definition I was in the country for at least part of the day. But for me to add
a country to this list I have to spend a few days and get to know some of the locals.
I believe that travelling is more than being a tourist.
I will spare you the details (volumes have been written on these places)
except to say that Camp Bonifas straddles the line between the countries, and
Panmunjom is in North Korea where the armistice between North and South
Korea was signed in 1953. The blue buildings that were constructed in 48 hours
for the event are still in place and used for negotiations between the two countries.
Speakers mounted on poles (think M*A*S*H) still blared propaganda
messages for those that remained in the village. Looking into the country, a soldier
stood guard unmoving, half way behind a building, apparently using it as a shield.
Anywhere people have guns is not a good place to take pictures, where
people have machine guns is really not a good place to take pictures so—no pics
of this scene.
When I visited (1996), Dr. Tae Hwan Ok was Director of the Center for
Human Rights in North Korea; that was his official title. In practice he was the
man charged with bringing the two countries back together.
When I asked him what it was like to dedicate his life’s work to a job that
he would in all likelihood never see to completion, he paused before answering:
“We have been one for 4,000 years, we have been divided for 40, these are still our
brothers and sisters,” he said. “We want to unite and help in their development and
prosperity as well.” Those two sentences did so much to convey the feeling of the
people of Korea.
Our discussion turned to the situation of Quebec within Canada, and East
and West Germany. I have to say, what I learned on my travels indicated that in
about a decade, the Germans had tired of propping up former East Germany, but
that is a matter for another chapter.
Dr. Ok pointed out the large discrepancy between the two Korean countries.
At the time the population of South Korea was roughly double that of North Korea
and the power requirement was roughly 100 times greater in South Korea.
“South Korea uses as much energy in three days as North Korea does in a
year, ” said Dr. Ok. “That gives you an indication of how undeveloped it (North
Korea) is.” North Korea occupies about 55% of the Korean peninsula with an area
of 47,399 sq. miles and a population of 25 million people. South Korea has an area
of 38,623 sq. miles and a population of 47 million.
I asked if the living conditions were really like those I had seen in the
village at the border. He nodded. At the time South Korea was concerned about
rural depopulation and migration to the cities, but that was not the case with its
northerly sister. People there were still concerned about growing enough to eat,
and subsistence agriculture was a way of life for most of the population.
Experience has taught me that people who have been hungry have a greater
respect for food than those who, for generations have lived in the land of plenty.
The discussion with Dr. Ok quickly progressed to how reunification of the
country would lead to a better food supply for the people he considered his
brothers and sisters.
Food was revered in Korea, and I assume still is. The country took great
pride in being self sufficient in rice production; with an area of 38,000 sq. miles of
which 80% was mountainous, its independence in this venture was impressive
indeed. Dr. Huhn Pal Moon who headed the rice breeding program at the National
Crop Experiment Station told me that he was confident breeding programs would
allow crop production to keep pace with population growth in the foreseeable
A beef-breeding program was geared to keeping the traditional Hanwoo
breed pure. The Hanwoo breed evolved over centuries in Korea and is considered
the best for cooking traditional Korean barbecued beef. Animals from this breed
were not exported and that assured Korean producers a fair return on their
production. There were two additional levels of beef in the market, clearly
differentiated in the stores, high quality beef from Canada or the US, and a lower
priced product from Australia or New Zealand.
Production numbers in the pork industry showed Korean producers were on
par with the top producers in Canada.
The best example I found of their respect for food was Kimchi. It can best
be described as sauerkraut with jalapeno peppers, garlic, and onions, and may
include radishes and cucumbers. I loved it! In Korea this dish is honoured,
attaining a level higher than food. It was explained to me that this exalted position
was achieved because Kimchi could be stored in ceramic pots underground where,
being hidden there from invading armies, it provided salvation for the people after
an attack and the offending soldiers had moved on. Conflict is not new to the
Kimchi is respected in all areas of the country. There are as many variations
of this dish as there are families in Korea, ranging from pickled cabbage to a full-
blown three-alarm-fire. A portion of kimchi was served with every meal. (Note:
Having fermented while stored underground, the mixture functioned as an
excellent probiotic, helping Koreans maintain a healthy digestion.)
This chapter is not an attempt to provide a definitive political history of the
Korean peninsula; again, there are volumes that do that. It does help to know a bit
of history about the country’s relationship with its neighbour—and why the
feelings of animosity are still carried on.
Japan occupied Korea from 1910 -1945 and exercised a policy of
colonization similar to what Europe did with Africa or South America. The
Japanese empire viewed Korea as any other of its holdings and saw it as a resource
base for building the Japanese economy. There were some benefits to the Korean
landscape in the form of infrastructure, but this period also represented hardship
for the people.
There was a time of ‘Japanization’ when Korean place names were changed
to Japanese names. This followed a time when individuals in Korea were
forbidden to have Japanese names, and those that had taken Japanese names were
forced to go back to their Korean names, all in an attempt to keep the races pure.
As Japan’s involvement in WW2 increased, Korean men were drafted into
work camps and by the end of the war were seeing active duty in the Japanese
army. Estimates vary on the number of women drafted into the service industry of
the military but it is placed at ‘significant’.
With the end of the war in 1945, Russia and the US carved up the peninsula
to protect it from further occupation and we have the North and South of today.
During my daily travels with my guide, Ms. Oh, I was impressed by the
number of churches we passed; if Christian missionaries did their job anywhere,
Korea is a fine example. I found the number of churches overwhelming. At night
most of them seemed to have a red cross beaming from their steeple.
I wondered how the Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter fit into the
Korean calendar. Ms. Oh explained that there was an attitude of tolerance and that
the Korean population generally accepted that someone might be of a different
religion and might have different religious holidays. That did not mean you had to
observe the holiday, but you could still respect your neighbour or co-worker
worshipping on a different day or in a different way.
When it came to the weekend Ms. Oh asked what my plans were and I told
her that I had a contact from Manitoba I would like to meet and she could have
Saturday and Sunday off—I would not require baby sitting. She smiled and said
she would appreciate the Sunday off because it would allow her to attend church.
She had already told me that the church she attended had seven services on a
Sunday and each drew about 500 people. I told her that total attendance was
roughly the population of the town I lived in and we needed 20 churches to service
I seized the opportunity and said I would like to attend a church service in
Korea. She looked shocked. I explained that I was of the Christian faith and would
behave myself. Try as she might, she could not hide her discomfort and began to
explain that we could do something else.
“I would like to go to church with you and your family,” I said, having
guessed by now what the issue was.
“Oh, no that would not be possible,” she explained, suggesting some other
cultural event we could attend. I let her off the hook.
“Oh, it would not be acceptable to have man, with you and your family,” I
“People would think, the wrong thing,” she said. “Bringing a man to church
with me, would have people thinking that…”
“Don’t worry, I was only teasing.” Ms. Oh looked relieved but did not see
the humour in my remark. Missionaries had done a good job of conveying North
American values to church attendance.
So I had Saturday and Sunday on my own, much more the way I was used
to travelling, while giving me an opportunity to connect with a couple of contacts
The local paper had carried a story of my winning the Asia Pacific
Journalist Award and going to Korea. A lady had stopped by my office saying her
granddaughter was there teaching English, “She gets lonesome, could you look her
up?” There was no way I could not make at least some attempt to contact her,
because I knew Grandma would follow up when I got home. I called her, and the
response was “If Grandma gave you my number, you must be a good guy.”
Eleanor was a valuable contact and provided an on-the-street version to
balance the official visits that were part of my itinerary. It turned out that she lived
within walking distance of my hotel and we met for coffee and shared a few
stories. She had come to Korea to teach English in a school, and was now working
for the Korean government, heading up the translation of government documents
to English. She said she was going to a gathering of expats on Saturday night and
asked if I would I like to come along. I accepted the offer.
We rode the subway and I learned that indeed there are ‘pushers’ whose job
it is to cram more people into a subway car before the door closes. Eleanor told me
that when she arrived in the country, her blonde hair was so much of a novelty that
kids would reach out to touch it when she rode the subway.
We went to a part of town that had been developed to service the large
American population stationed at the US Army base, and had gained the nickname
Hookers Hill. Things had changed a lot over the years and it had fewer bars and
more shopping establishments. The expat community was just that: a community,
and it was like a big basement party of the 1970s.
I wondered how the occupation and presence of the US here, following the
war had differed from the north. Yes, capitalism had brought progress, and
communism had left hungry people—but I detected and was sure there was a
‘cultural’ feeling here. Especially with that sign posted on the door of the bar that
plainly stated “NO Koreans Allowed.”