A Warm Reception in China

Stefan Burckhardt traveled to China at the end of January with a five-person delegation from the Alternative Energy Center to visit various institutes and companies.
Half of China was still on holiday following the New Year‘s festivities, so I was not even sure whether we would be able to complete our trip as planned. The goal of this 10-day tour was to learn how Chinese institutions use energy efficient building techniques.
The tour began in Beijing with a visit to the German Association for International Cooperation where we learned about Chinese law and regulations regarding energy standards. After a presentation of the „theory“ we moved directly into a practical exercise as we visited a high-rise apartment building currently undergoing renovations to improve energy efficiency. The North Koreans and the Chinese quickly began „talking shop“ about the building methods being used.

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Could we build this type of environmentally friendly building in our country?

Although the translation of these discussions into Chinese, Korean and English – made the process rather slow, it was important for everyone to be able to understand as much as possible.

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We are grateful to our dedicated translators.

One of the largest architectural offices opened their doors to us as well. Workers from Sunlay Design explained how other factors besides energy efficiency contribute to make a building environmentally friendly. Also in this case, participants engaged in lively and lengthy discussions so that we quickly decided to skip lunch in order to continue talking together and make it to the next appointment on time. Mr. Huang, head architect of the design department of the Academy for Building Research was expecting us. This state-run facility was initially rather skeptical about receiving North Korean visitors, but Mr. Huang was able to pave the way among his colleagues so that we were welcomed warmly and with pledges of support for the North Korean Alternative Energy Center.
After this meeting, I finally found time to talk to Mr. Jang to see about getting one of our wind measurement devices – an oscilloscope – repaired.

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Talking and making calculations late into the night.

Two windmills are currently out of operation because the oscilloscope is required to repair their voltage converters. Of course, non-functioning windmills mean no electricity – so the chain of dependency becomes clear. With the help of a Chinese interpreter I was able to locate a factory-authorized repair shop the next day.
Next we took the overnight train to Harbin in the far northeastern corner of China. On that Sunday we took time to explore the tourist sites including the famous snow and ice sculpture park.

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Harbin takes advantage of frigid temperatures in a creative way.

The following day, a local holiday, we were nevertheless able to visit two different companies. We spent three hours at each location discussing larger issues and just „talking shop“. Both general managers invited our group for a delicious feast after the meetings with the explanation that „this is an important holiday for us, which we would typically celebrate at home with our families. It would not be right to leave our foreign guests out in the cold and alone.“ Such sentiment is even more touching for the North Koreans, who certainly would have liked to be at home with their families on that special day. The response of our translator said it all:

» I felt homesick this morning, but now I feel just fine. Thank you!“

In this way, we can be sure that the members of our delegation also took home some special personal memories from our trip together. The many positive encounters with Chinese show that these people too have a genuine interest in their country and their situation, and that they are ready to provide support.
I was also encouraged by the many open doors that we experienced. I look forward to more opportunities to be a bridge builder between China and North Korea!

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Whether just a snack or an abundant feast – nothing beats a shared meal!

The Day That Everything Stopped

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Mourners in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang

Last December I traveled to North Korea to make sure that the second shipment of donated baby food was being distributed to the agreed upon locations.

We were taking photographs in the pharmacy of the children‘s hospital in South Hamgoing Province when all the personnel suddenly stopped in shock. I immediately noticed the seriousness of their faces; many women had tears in their eyes. Our interpreter informed me that news the death of the Leader Kim Jong Il had just been announced on the radio! 

No one expected this to happen. Kim Jong Il had just taken a trip to China and visited a military base a few days earlier. Anyone hearing the news found it hard to believe. No one knows what will happen with our group now, only that our program has been put on hold. First, we have to return to our hotel. The faces of the hotel staff are tear-stained; no food will be served at the restaurant. We are informed that we have to drive back to Pyongyang. The mood is very heavy in the capital too.

„We do not know what will happen next!“  „I am extremely concerned!“ – These were the typical responses we heard from the North Koreans. They wanted us to stay at the hotel all day, but, fortunately, we were allowed to move to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation office during the day. We were thankful for the good relationships that made this possible! The Swiss staff gave us a place to work in their warm library, we were allowed to use the internet and the telephone and there was hot water to make instant noodle soup.
During the mandated national period of mourning, flags fly at half mast, but stores, museums and restaurants are also closed. Still, people are encouraged to go to work, which means that the city is anything but deserted.
We see small groups of people carrying white paper flowers, which they lay in front of the various pictures of Kim Il Sung throughout the city. Gigantic portraits of Kim Jong Il appear on building facades. In the first few hours, only smaller groups of people wait in line to pay their respects, later on hundreds and by the third day thousands of people waited to lay flowers at the site. The smaller groups seem to have come together spontaneously, and it is deeply moving to see them mourning.
The fact that we were only able to complete about half of our intended monitoring visits is disappointing, but the opportunity to be part of such a historical event was also very special.

On the one hand, I long for a peaceful future for the region, yet I am also intrigued by the possibility of new opportunities.
I hope that the government and the official successor, Kim Jong Un – only twenty-eight years old – rise to meet the challenge and exercise their power wisely!

Greetings from Zangzong

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Hopeful offspring on the run …

One day before we had to stop our visits because of the mandated period of mourning, I was invited to visit the village of Zangzong. Years ago, this was the site of one of our cheese-making facilities. The local day-care center is designated to receive baby food for 75 children. The delivery of the baby food has been delayed somewhere in the mountains due to energy shortages, but I received a warm welcome just the same.
The brilliant sunshine could not mask the frigid temperatures. As we got out of our vehicle with feet stiff from the cold, we were happy to be able to move again. Curious children observed from afar, as news of our arrival had spread quickly. We are greeted warmly and welcomed. As soon as all the day-care workers were present, I introduced the baby food and explained how it should be prepared.
Afterward, we ate lunch in a comfortable warm room. What a treat! I just love baked sweet potatoes. The cabbage soup was also very tasty. We ate our meal together with various village leaders, two of which had also been in Switzerland on one of our internship programs and still spoke fondly of their guest families, sending special greetings back to them. Because the goats are all pregnant during the winter, there is no milk available for making cheese. In summer, however, they regularly produce yoghurt as well as cheese. Since most of the work in the fields is still done by hand instead of with tractors, as a result of fuel shortages, they intend to invest in livestock breeding in the future. The cattle and oxen are prized for their peaceful temperament and usefulness in agricultural work.