The Land of the Morning Calm

Do we really know Korea?

Daniel first travelled to North Korea with Agape international in 2001. Since then he has lived and worked in this country for the majority of the time, most recently as the director of a fruit tree project of the German Agro Action. We have asked Daniel to write about his view of this country for us.

Western knowledge about Korea is continually growing and influencing our image of the country and its people. Ten years ago hardly anything was known about this country. Today it is very prevalent and maybe even better known than South Korea. Who even knows the name of South Korea’s president? It is good that we know more about the country. But the image that we have is rigid and very one-sided; isolation, corruption, nuclear weapons, prison camps. In the west, we have so often been presented with negative reports that no one wants to believe that there is more. We know more about Korea, but do we really know Korea?

Korea is changing but not everyone believes it

Still today Korea (North Korea) is ‘a place of work under most difficult conditions’ for the UN. Justified or not – it entails the privilege of a higher salary for UN employees. True, ten years ago there were only a few restaurants. Shops were stocked rather randomly. Still, the packaged Swiss Rösti (hashbrowns) from “Hero” was always available, even if well past the sell-by date.

In the past years the situation has improved continually, for Koreans as well as for foreigners. There are many restaurants not just in Pyongyang. The selection of food has grown considerably as has the availability of mostly imported household goods. Lindt chocolate, Heineken beer, Coke and even raclette sets with the corresponding cheese are sold. Not necessities but also available besides everything useful.

The streets are only half empty on Sundays – when most of the vehicles are not allowed to drive – decreed for quiet and gas economy measures. You see people using mobile phones, young couples walking hand in hand along the riverbank. A water park and new apartment buildings were built, and the amusement park in the center with daredevil rides is a popular place to hang out, as it is open till midnight. All of this was hard to imagine ten years ago.

The country has adopted a course of compromise. In theory, every person receives basic food from the state. Health care is free of charge, public transportation is not reliable but cheap. In return, you work in a collective, do community work and attend mass events. This is all part of daily life. Just like pursuing private interests next to all of this. Buying and selling. Playing computer games when no one is standing at the counter. Skating over the large Kim II Sung square with bright blinking roller blades.

There are certainly two sides to the picture. But what speaks against looking at the positive side? As for me, I want to be a positive ambassador, all the while remembering the other side. It’s not about how something changed or should change. In the end, it’s about people – simply people – and they live even in Korea. Mostly, I experience them as polite, hospitable, kind, charming and positive, even in the daily challenges of working together.

I never experienced Korea as ‘a place of extreme conditions’. But even I had difficulties understanding the people and culture at the beginning. The country with its history did not appeal to me. Today, after twelve years Kim-Chi or rice and soup have not become my staple foods, but Korea has become part of me. Every negative or sarcastic remark about the country hits me hard. Korea is much more than the place I work. It has become my second home, connecting me with many people and moments that have enriched my life, which is a privilege that only a few enjoy. Something I hope to always appreciate and never lose.

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