Monday, 3 December 2012

Article - Volunteering in Siem Reap Cambodia

Locked in a tiny room with over 20 children in 35 degree heat, they speak little English, I speak no Khmer.   Like all children, they require a lot of entertainment or their attention wanders and they start irritating each other.    This would be many people’s worst nightmare.  

Not only did I survive two weeks of this, but I loved it so much, I am already investigating the possibility of repeating the experience.   And once again paying for the privilege of being exhausted every day, being fed mediocre food, and living in very average accommodation!

The volunteer/tourism industry can be controversial.    I did some research before choosing my ‘volunteer organisation’.    I asked friends about their experiences, and found that most preferred their ‘charity experience’ to be limited to donating funds.   But I wanted to be more involved than just writing out a cheque.  I wanted the benefit to go both ways.

So without personal references I relied on the internet for my investigations.   In preparation I listed out my non-negotiable requirements:
  • ·         An organization that said it was ethical
  • ·         Close enough to home to minimise travel expenses
  • ·         Reasonable accommodation (I am way past backpacking!!)
  • ·         Allowed stays of two weeks
  • ·         Contributed to the local economy

I ended up with two candidates and I approached both.   One was super-organised and efficient, the other chaotic and disorganised.    The super-organised was too efficient for me.   I felt slightly uncomfortable and concerned that my contribution would go into the efficient infra-structure rather than improving the well-being of the local community.  

So I went with disorganised.   And yes, it remained chaotic throughout my stay.  Lack of communication was the biggest problem.   This was a small family affair, run by Dad who was the entrepreneur and wanted to expand into multiple locations, Mum who was actually trying to separate herself from the business and make her own life, and daughter, who definitely wanted to make her own life and was moving countries in an effort to do so!   The family dynamics were fascinating.
There were a few downsides.  Like when they almost forgot to pick me up from the bus station.   And there was the morning we woke up to find that there was no milk or bread for breakfast, and we returned from an exhausting day at the school to find that not only was there still no milk or bread,  but we were out of drinking water as well!!   Although this could be resolved easily at the local shop, it highlighted the lack of communication.  Everyone thought someone else was doing the shopping!

The upside was that in such a small organization,  I felt closely involved in what was happening.  My suggestions were listened to.   I didn’t feel like an outsider, some-one who was only there for the short-term.  I could make a difference and I believe that I did.  This wasn’t a super-organisation that had a set way of doing things.   Volunteers were an essential and vital part. 

We worked in a village the government had recently relocated from the banks of the Mekong River to a newly built development on the outskirts of town.   I really loved working with the village children.   We had two classes a day, made up of children aged from 14 to 2 years.   It was a challenge to keep them all engaged and attentive.  Those who were already keen to learn were easier to reach, but I didn’t want to lose sight of those who just occupied the chair.   We wanted them to come each day and we wanted to them to benefit from our efforts.

Our school house was one room on stilts, with no windows.   We had a back door to no-where for ventilation.  Unfortunately it let in more sun than breeze.   We had a leaky roof and a very rickety floor.   No electricity and no desks.    So the challenge was to find activities that made learning fun, but didn’t include computers and did include sitting quietly on a chair!  I am tone deaf with little sense of rhythm, so usually avoid singing in public.   But when you are desperate, you will do anything!   At least I made the children laugh, and my fellow volunteers nearly fell through the rickety floor boards!

My two weeks came to an end all too quickly.   I think three weeks is the optimum time for volunteering.   One week to settle in, one week of enjoyment, and one week were exhaustion sets in!  I’m looking forward to next time.   I’m going to my second choice ‘super-organised’ for comparison purposes!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Article - The unburied dead

Is it okay to treat dead bodies as curiosities?   

I can't make up my mind.  On a recent trip to Copenhagen, I ventured into the National Museum.   A really good place to visit on a rainy day.   I found the displays on the history of man fascinating.   Denmark has a number of large bogs from which a substantial cache of ancient artifacts have been uncovered.    However, there were two exhibits in particular that started me thinking.  Both were females: a bog lady and a mermaid.

The bog lady was a Egtved girl who had apparently died violently.  She is in a glass exhibit box, lying on her side and clothed in a woolen cloak.   Her face still has flesh and you can see her features.  Yes, they are wizened and monkey like, but definitely human.

Is it ethical to display dead bodies in this manner?    I definitely feel uneasy about viewing someone’s body.   It’s like watching someone when they think they are alone.   But I’m not sure if this is logical or just an emotional reaction.   The bog lady started my feeling of unease – this wasn’t just a collection of bones, but a person with skin, and hair, and clothing.  I felt like I was peering into a grave.  Obviously the essential spirit of the person wasn’t there anymore, but it was a lot more personal than a skeleton.    I don’t want people 3,000 years younger than me staring at my body.  How do we know what this lady thinks about the situation?

And then the mermaid skeleton.  This  was the partial  bones of a female skeleton which had been manipulated with a shark’s tail fin to resemble a mermaid. If a museum is going to display a dead person,  it is an accepted fact that the remains should always be displayed with dignity and respect.   I was startled to see the skeleton of a mermaid, and slightly embarrassed to say that I double checked all the literature in the room to verify if it was real.  It definitely gave me a jolt.   I know mermaids don’t exist, so where did they find a skeleton?  It was a while before I accepted the museum was playing a trick.  This is not how we expect museums to behave,  and yes, I think the idea was novel, and yes, it woke me up.  But is it acceptable to play with the bones of someone’s ancestor?   I’m not so sure.

Then I started to do some research on the unburied dead.  And discovered that there are some amazing places displaying dead bodies.   Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo Sicily heads the list.   There are over 8,000 mummies who were interred approximately 350 years ago.   Now apparently these people wanted to be mummified and are dressed in their Sunday best ready for resurrection.  But did they expect to be viewed by thousands of tourists?  I suspect that if they knew this the queue to be mummified would have been even longer.  The human quest for 5 minutes of fame is not necessarily new.

If the person gave permission or authorized display of their remains, then it is totally different.  I think it very weird to want to have your body on display, but if that’s what you want, then go ahead.   Jeremy Bentham died in 1832 and requested in his will that he be preserved and displayed, and indeed to this day Jeremy is dead and well in a display case at the University College London.

There should be consideration for religious beliefs.   Perhaps they had no regard for their human remains, believing like Buddhists that there is no value in skin and bone once the spirit has departed.  Or perhaps they believed in eternal damnation if their bones are not laid to rest.    I did read that Danes think it is acceptable to display these bodies because they were not Christians.   I find it hard to believe that anyone would hold such a view.

 What would you think if a relative of yours was on display in a glass case?

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Article - My impressions of the DPRK

The guide leaned towards me: 'Do you know why our ginseng is the best in the world?'  I shook my head.  'It is just a little bit radio active!'   I could only be in North Korea, the DPRK.   Was he joking?   I don't know and I didn't ask.   Being in North Korea was like being in the pages of a fairy tale.  Perhaps Alice in Wonderland?   I had already spent the previous night feeling like the princess and the pea, on top of 10 duvets trying to soften the hard mattress on the floor.

When you land in the DPRK you land in another world.   It's the same, but slightly different.  The edges are just a bit blurry, just a little bit off.  A parallel universe.  There's only one point of view here, well, actually there is only one point of view allowed here.   It was even difficult to explain a different point of view.   North Koreans have been indoctrinated since birth.  They have no knowledge of anything different.  What would I achieve by sowing confusion in the mind of an everyday citizen?

Everything is bigger and better than anywhere else in the world.  Aside from the radioactive ginseng, (apparently a little bit of radioactivity is good for you), their farming methods are better, the education system is better, their healthcare is better.   North Koreans invented gunpowder and were the first to use it in battle, they invented spoons and chopsticks, they invented a form of the printing press.  Their Leader devised a new  economic philosophy, which combines the best of communism, socialism and capitalism, but including his own individual touches, the Juche Ideology.

There is no doubt that life is tough in the DPRK.  But the average citizen seems content with their lot.  After all, this is all they know.  Of course, I am making these statements based one somewhat limited information:  what I saw, the few people I spoke to and the newspapers and articles I read whilst there and subsequently.

Everything is so controlled.  Even though the Juche philosophy states 'man is master of his own destiny', man had better not take this too literally.  It only applies if he is also working towards the betterment of the DPRK and his fellow citizens.  It is about the right thing for the right person at the right time.  Of course, we never saw, talked about or even mentioned what happened to the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are layers and layers of bureaucracy.  And each individual joins that bureaucracy at birth.  Every step along the way is documented and reported.  Each request for a job, a place to live or elective healthcare is accompanied by recommendations by superiors, reports on personality, evidence of compliance with the system, and willingness to perform above and beyond the call of duty.

It is a country of contradictions.  People are encouraged to learn and improve their education,  but have very little knowledge of what is really happening in the world around them. They are encouraged to be innovative to solve the difficulties caused by the policy of self-reliance, but are required to blindly follow 'Kim religion'.  They are encouraged to be intellectuals, but there appears to be little opportunity for intellectual debate.   They are encouraged to provide for their own retirement, but not given the means to do so.   It's a country that wants to be left alone, but doesn't want to be ignored.   Its citizens learn to hate and fear the rest of the world, but to love and honour their own regime.  And yet, although they were shy, they appeared friendly and interested in the 'foreigners.'

The country is unbelievably inwardly focused,  presumably a result of its isolation.  Its people believe they are the centre of the universe, and they project this belief onto the rest of the world.  In their minds, North Korea features prominently in all our decisions!  It makes for a very unbalanced and perverse point of view. And makes us appear irrational!  They also project their fear and distrust onto the rest of the world, so every humanitarian gesture is seen as weakness.

They live in the past, at the time of the Cold War, not realising that the world has changed.  China, Russia and the United States no longer need them as a buffer zone.  There is no understanding that these countries are now trading partners and need each other.  Russia is treated with contempt, 'the lazy bear', after it withdrew funding in 1990.  But China, who continues to provide support, is also treated with contempt.   There was no evidence of recognition, gratitude or even acknowledgement for the assistance China gave them in the Korean War, or for the aid that continues to flow across the border.  

Re-unification is their greatest ambition and a driving force. But as they won't make any concessions, re-unification looks as unlikely today as it did 50 years ago.  

These are people caught in a trap.  It doesn't matter who made this trap or why.  But it does matter that it should be released, with as little pain as possible, so that these people can rejoin the rest of the world and live their own lives.

Article - Everyday life in North Korea

This is a recap of some of the information I managed to gather during my recent trip to the DPRK on the basics of life: accommodation, work and food.

Most people live in housing estates.  There is a person in charge of each floor, a person in charge of each building, and a committee in charge of the whole estate.  Accommodation is allocated by the Worker's Committee.   People can relocate to any town, but need a good reason for doing so.   A person cannot apply for accommodation in an area until permanent employment is secured.

I asked whether everyone worked for the government, and was told that this was definitely not the case: some people did work for the government, but others worked for the State, and most farmers worked on co-operatives, and then of course there was the military!   The majority of people are paid a wage and  required to pay for food and accommodation.  Wages differ according to the responsibility and seniority of their position.   Farmers on co-operatives are paid with produce, according to how many hours they worked and their productivity.    This produce is sold at farmer's markets, and we did see people selling produce by the side of the road.   Co-operatives are being phased out in favour of state owned farms where the farmer will earn a wage.   Everyone in North Korea has to help with harvesting and planting in the autumn and spring.  There are very few exceptions to this rule.   

There is no unemployment in North Korea and there are no jobs unfilled.  On completion of their education or military service, then each person applies to the Worker's Committee for a job.  The Committee allocates what it deems to be an appropriate job after assessing qualifications and accompanying reports.   Factories, farms and other organisations notify the Worker's Committee of vacancies.

Women are not encouraged to stay at home and look after the children.   Child care is provided free of charge, and women should return to work to repay their education.  However, working hours are reduced for women with larger families, and physical labour is reduced for mothers with children under 2 years.   Mothers receive 5 months paid maternity leave, 2 months before the birth and 3 months afterwards.   Babies are usually born in hospitals and not at home.

Healthcare has been free since 1953.   The emphasis is on preventative medicine.  General practitioners located in district clinics are responsible for the health of the people in that district.  A health card is made up at birth and the doctor will check regularly to ensure that everyone on his/her patient list remains healthy.  Of course, a daily dose of kimchi is better than an apple a day to prevent any illnesses.  We were told that kimchi is a known cure for everything from HIV to SARS.  Anyway, there are no infectious diseases in the DPRK as a result of strict quarantine laws!   Doctors often combine Western and Korean medicine, although these are taught at separate faculties.   The doctors refer patients onto specialists as and when needed, but if a person wants elective surgery, then an application has to be made to the Worker's Committee.

They are proud of the fact that there is gender equality in the DPRK,  But scratch the surface and it seems that there are still sexist attitudes.   80% of the men smoke, but women don't smoke.   The legal drinking age for men is 18 and is 17 for women, but women don't drink.   This is because it is socially unacceptable for women to either drink or smoke.   There might be legal equality, but obviously the social norms point to something rather different.  Divorce is extremely rare and socially unacceptable.

When children turn 14, they can join the Youth league and wear a lapel pin with a portrait of Kim Il Sung.  These pins are not for sale and are highly treasured.  There is always an organisation to belong to - no-one is left out.  There is a federation of workers, a federation of peasants, etc.  The most prestigious is the Worker's Party of Korea, but not everyone can join.  Three references are required that provide evidence of past commitment and dedication.  It is apparent that there is enormous pressure on people to conform, both subtle and more obvious.

In the past, marriages were arranged by parents when the children were aged between 8 to 15.   This, apparently,  is no longer the case. Although the parents do fix the engagement date and the date for the wedding, and the bride's family have the first wedding party at their house, and the second wedding party is at the groom's house, so it seems fairly unlikely that any wedding will take place without the parents' agreement.   There is no celebrant required at the wedding.  It needs to be registered within one month of the event with two witnesses.  One for the bride and one for the groom.  Each witness is usually a member of the committee who can verify identity and residency.  More subtle control!

Very few people have pets.  Apparently Korean people don't like pets.  I think in their circumstances, a pet would be a real luxury.  We did see very few dogs running around in the countryside and heard a couple barking at night in Pyongyang.  I asked about birds, but the idea of keeping birds as pets seemed strange to them.  They obviously liked flowers, as there quite a few pots of flowering plants on balconies. They looked like geraniums - I don't think they were flowering vegetables!

Water and electricity struck me as two big issues facing ordinary North Koreans.  I saw groups of people collecting water in buckets and containers from storm water drains in Pyongyang.  It wasn't clear what they were going to do with the water and it may have been for watering the plants, bushes and grasses they were busily planting along the roadsides.   In other cities and towns outside Pyongyang, however,  people were washing their clothes and themselves in the rivers and canals. The power outages that we experienced were obviously quite normal, and we were shown a propaganda movie promoting the building of more dams to provide electricity.

Food - well this was a more difficult issue to address directly.   There were local shops in Pyongyang that looked well stocked.  Refrigeration was obviously a problem so most food in the shops was dried.  The fridges were reserved for drinks and we were always able to get cold water.  I was told that people ate three meals a day, with meat at least three times a week.  People ate out regularly at restaurants and there seemed to be plenty of these.   We were told that food cards were issued, but not to everyone.  Under what circumstances a person qualified for a food card was unclear.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Journal - Grand Study House, Middle School and Bowling 29 June 2012

We survived the long drive back.  The road was long, bad and boring, but generally it was thought worth it.   We had seen a very different part of the DPRK.   Although we had been disappointed that the Children's Summer Camp was deserted, we had enjoyed the farm and the beach.  The waterfalls weren't that great, but provided a welcome break and a chance to stretch our legs.

Back in Pyongyang we headed off to the Grand People's Study House.   Visitors are greeted by an enormous mosaic mural and an imposing statue of Kim Il Sung, looking rather like Abraham Lincoln.

This is a very impressive national library.  It opened in 1982 and is 100,000 square meters, with 600 rooms.  Anyone over the age of 17 is allowed in.  There are 30 million books, and yes, you guessed it, it's the largest in the world!  25 million of the books are stored and have to be requested.  We were told that these are the books published prior to 1990, but my guess it's mainly the foreign language books  (about 60% of the total books held).  They want to convert the hard copy books to electronic format, and there is a team of over 100 typists typing in the books. There is a team of 100 professors readily available to research answers to any questions you may have.  This is all part of the drive to make the DPRK a country of intellectuals and they estimate they already have 2 million! I wonder how that's measured?

The lecture halls are used mainly for re-training.   Courses are decided after consultation with the government and other organisations bearing in mind current government policies and objectives.  People can apply to attend any course and applicants are taken on a first come first served basis.  However, they have to apply for time off from their normal employment.  And there is always a waiting list.

The normal lending period for books is 20 to 30 days.  We asked whether students ever return books late and what is the penalty.  Our guide chuckled quietly and advised that the first time a student is late, his whole class is banned from the Study House for 1 to 2 months.   If there is more than one student who dares to misbehave so badly, then the whole college will be banned from the Study House.  I guess there's no need to impose fines then!

Our guide was the head of the Study House.  He had worked there for over 15 years. His first job had been in the army, which he left after 10 years to go to university, and then on completion of his studies, he started work at the Study House. He took us to a balcony right near the top of the Study House, so he could enjoy a cigarette, and we could enjoy the views.   I managed to get some good shots of bridal couples in the park below.

Next stop the middle school.   We were invited in to sit with students in their English class.  I sat with two fifteen year old girls and had a very stilted conversation for 15 minutes, running through the usual questions: what is your favourite subject, what is your favourite sport?  Do you have any brothers and sisters?  And they would ask me the same questions back again.   I think we were all relieved when it was time for us to go and watch the obligatory performance!

Then we really had a trip into the past!  Visiting a bowling alley. Apparently this is very popular with local Koreans.  It might have been the time of day, late afternoon, but the place was generally deserted with only a few people playing, and I think they were staff.  Anyway, we had fun, and it was a welcome change just to relax.  Until the power went off.   We waited about 30 minutes for it to come back on.  But when we got back to the hotel after dinner, the power was off there as well, and it didn't come back on for about an hour. We were trapped in the lobby with our suitcases! And our rooms were on the 7th floor!    It wasn't the best way to end our trip, but it was another demonstration that this holiday was definitely different!!  

Journal - Farming Co-op & Wonsan Harbour 28 June 2012

Up early again and heading out to Wonsan Harbour a port on the East Sea (also known as the Japan Sea) about 3 and a half hours of bad road from Pyongyang, but it definitely had its scenic moments. We had a stop on the way at the Ullim waterfalls, which was interesting because the falls were only discovered in 2001.   I think this was when the main highway was upgraded and some workers found the waterfall. Even though it seems odd in a country the size of North Korea that a substantial waterfall could be unknown.  Perhaps it is an indication of how accepting and unadventurous they are?

I found the whole area around the falls far too organised and neat, it was all concrete paths and bridges.   There were lots of soldiers around, so we had to be careful when taking photos.  And there was a building on the right that we weren't allowed to photograph.   Why would I be photographing this non-descript boring looking building anyway?  It's unlikely that it's some sort of mission control in the middle of no-where next to a tourist attraction?

One advantage of the long drive was that our guides kept us entertained by talking about Korean customs.   I've tried to cover most of these in my blog post on 'Everyday life for North Koreans'.  It was a struggle to get them off the subject of the war with the US Imperialists and sometimes making conversation was hard work.  Their lives just seemed so far removed from ours.

Next stop was the Chonsam Co-operative Farm.   Not the most prestigious farm in the DPRK, but one of the best.  This farm has 800 farmers and a total of 1700 residents.   Farmers are divided up into work teams, which is sub-divided again into smaller units, until the smallest grouping: teams of 10 to 15 farmers.  We asked whether young adults were still interested in being farmers, or did they prefer to move to the cities?  This was one of those questions that caused blank looks.  It appears that there is no choice.  Farmers are required and so people will be farmers whether they want to or not.   The photo is of a tally board, showing individual production levels, and also the production of other co-operatives.

Farming is by the Juche method - the right crop, at the right time, on the right land.  There are only 2 million hectares of arable land in the DPRK, so they rely heavily on fertiliser and sowing double and triple crops.  The farming methods are fixed centrally and everyone is required to follow these set procedures. The field size was being standarised to assist mechanisation.  We saw tobacco spread out to dry and was told that they make their own cigars (for the men only, I'm sure!)

We stopped in at the Sungdowon Children's Summer Camp, but there were no children.  Or rather just one group who were about to leave for the train station.  We were shown a dormitory with four beds and two portraits of the Leaders!

And at the end of the day we were promised a special treat, a walk on the beach!  This was a big deal, not usually allowed.  We had already seen the beach from our hotel room.  It was really scenic with pine trees lining the board walk.  We could see people relaxing, chatting and generally enjoying themselves along the water front and on the pier.  We didn't make it onto the beach, only the board walk and without our cameras, but we had a pleasant stroll and felt like the Pied Piper as we were followed by locals and children, all staring at us, but most were too shy to make conversation.   The water was extremely clear, but we were told that it was quite cold.   The East sea has no tides and so no waves.

At one time this was a popular destination for Japanese tourists and we saw an old cruise ship still tied up in the harbour.  But the DPRK managed to upset their neighbour.  I read that Kim Jong Il apologised in 2002 for abducting 13 Japanese people.  Until then not everyone in Japan had believed in the tales of abductions.   Of course, this wasn't the reason for the disharmony given to us - all the blame was placed on the cunning, evil Japanese.  Surely they can't believe that everything is so one-sided!!

 People remained on the beach and the pier until late at night, even though there were no street lights!  

Our hotel was by far the best we stayed in during our whole trip - electrical plugs worked, there was hot water, lights worked, the bed was comfortable, it was clean, in fact it was just like heaven!!  And there was this most amusing sign in the elevator! 

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Journal - Films, artists and orphans 27 June 2012

I was not looking forward to visiting the war museum.  I generally find them sad and depressing.  War seems so pointless and horrific, and I didn't think that the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum was going to be any different.   It started with a long and involved explanation about who started the war, whose fault it was, etc, etc.   If you ask any two schoolboys in a school yard, who started the fight, the answer will always be: 'He did!'   We were told that the North Koreans had fought valiantly against enormous odds, and had defeated the whole of the US armed forces on their own (maybe with just a little help from the Chinese, but not much really).  Everyone has their own version of history - it's all just a different point of view depending on which side you are listening to.   The display of equipment was interesting.   The Korean equipment appeared to be Russian, left behind from the Second World War, and was all in very good condition.   The UN equipment was battle scarred and weary.

The highlight was the 360 degree panorama of battle scenes.   It is the biggest in the world (of course) and was created by 10 soldier artists in just 40 days.  It is 132m long, 15m high and the back wall is 1.3 m away.  It is difficult to tell where the models stop and the painting begins.  We rotated around in the middle  It was extremely well done and very effective.

There was also another display created by soldier artists, only this time the models moved.  It was all very exciting with North Korean women and children transporting weapons and bombs in the back of trucks in the dead of night whilst being attacked by the US imperialist enemy with search lights piercing the dark, and air raid sirens, etc.  Great theatre!

Then most appropriately we headed off to see the film studios.   They produce an average of 30 films a year and I think you would be hard pushed to recognise one from the other.   We walked amongst the permanent film sets, Japan in the 1950's, South Korean in the 1950's and 1960's, and a European house that was hard to place.

Next stop the Mansudae Art Studio.   It is most probably the largest art production centre in the world (are you surprised?) with over 1,000 artists.   We were disappointed that our visit was restricted to a couple of artists who specialised in landscapes.  Although I spotted this sketch on the wall that I really liked.

The Tower of the Juche Idea, another memorial to Kim Il Sung.   The view over the city was worth the ride in the tiny elevator, and then it was back in the bus for a drive out to the West Sea Barrage.   Another amazing feat completed by the North Koreans.   They started in May 1981 and finished in June 1986.   It was an incredible feat, although in those days they were still receiving Russian funding.  Anyway it was a good thing they did it, because they desperately need the water now for irrigation.  We weren't told how many people died during the construction, but Kim Il Sung visited the site a few times, usually when there was an insolvable problem, which he would promptly solve!

The only time we felt that we were being 'watched' was during our visit to an orphanage.   There were 190 children with 60 teachers and workers.   The children looked happy and healthy, and put on a little show for us.  I took photos and tried to show them their pictures, but they seemed to have no comprehension of what they looked like!   Other Korean children we had encountered knew exactly what a camera was, but these little guys had no idea!  And they were so adorable, I could have easily taken a couple home!!   It seemed that most of the parents had died in industrial accidents.  I wanted to suggest that perhaps Chollima had a bit to do with it, but didn't think that this view would be acceptable!

When they are six years old, they leave the orphanage for the revolutionary school (specifically for orphans) and live in dormitories.  Fostering and adoption doesn't seem to happen very often.  I was met with blank looks when I asked whether uncles and aunts were willing to look after the orphans.  Obviously it is difficult enough to bring up your own children, without taking on any extras!  The orphanage also had 3 lots of triplets.  The government welcomes triplets and they seem to be a source of national pride, but it is decided that parents can't cope with three at once.  So off to the orphanage they go, but they are allowed home at the weekends.

After our hot pot dinner, we visited the Kaeson Youth Park.   It had been visited by Kim Jung Un in May and as a result was extremely popular.  There were very long queues to get into the park.  Everything was so controlled.   People  queued in groups to get in, and you had to stay with your group for each ride.  We enjoyed special status as visitors, jumping every queue, but we decided it was a step too far when they started pulling people off the ride so that we could get on!!  We didn't want to start a riot!   It was enjoyable mixing with people who were out having a good time with their families.     When we left the park, fairly late in the evening, there were still long queues of people waiting to get in.

Journal - DMZ & Pyongyang 26 June 2012

I was up early again in time for an early morning chat with one of our guides.   We talked about what we had seen yesterday, and then he leaned a little closer and asked: 'Do you know why Korean ginseng is the best in the world?'  I encouraged him to explain and he did: 'It is radioactive! Just a little bit is good for you.'  Was this a Kimjungilism? Was he serious?  I didn't take it further.

After another delicious breakfast of kimchi, we went to visit the oldest university in the world.   Yes, it is in North Korea.   Originally it was a Confucian university and now it is a museum celebrating the achievements of Korean ancestors.  Koreans were the first to invent gunpowder and to use it in battle.  They also invented chopsticks and spoons.   And the printing press using individual characters.   It did occur to me that Korea might have been part of China during the periods in question, or do Koreans just accept that they share ancestors with China?  Or maybe all Chinese descend from Koreans?   I didn't ask.   The people in this photo were being read articles from the newspaper.

Our next stop was the DMZ.   You will have seen this area numerous times on the news so I'm not going to add any photos.  We went through five check-points on the road.  We had to get out of our bus for the final check-point and walk in single file through the entrance point, and then back on the bus to the actual border.  It was tense.  We were told that unlike the tourists on the Southern side, we could wave and smile across the border.   No-one felt like doing so.  We weren't that sure about the North Korean sense of humour.  We were told that the North Koreans built the Signature Hall in 5 days.  The Americans thought it was a pre-fab building and tried to push it over.  There was a very faded UN flag on display which had been left behind after the signing ceremony.  We were told that the colour of the flag had changed over the years, but the feelings had not changed at all.  In the North Korean version of the axe murder incident soldiers were injured as a result of the provocation by US troops, but no-one died.   It seemed rather pointless and depressing, and so I was pleased to be back on the road to Pyongyang where we were due to visit the School children's Palace.   Not that I was pleased to be on the road again.  The roads are in a really bad way.  They have impressive looking 4 and 10 lane highways, and you bounce around like a ride on a roller-coaster.  Our coach driver was really little, and I often thought that he would bounce right out of his seat!!

In 1975 legislation was passed making it compulsory to complete 11 years of schooling.   There are nurseries and kindergartens in every district.  Children are collected daily or weekly, as some children live in dormitories during the week.  Education is free, but children are required to purchase books which are available at a discount. All schools are co-ed.   Everyone can go to university, provided they pass the entrance exam, or they go to the army.   We were told that joining the army is voluntary!  But my impression was more that the timing of joining the army was voluntary, not the actual going itself.   Some go the army before university and some go afterwards.  The factories and farms also have colleges, and there are correspondence courses available.  This is to ensure that everyone at all levels has the same opportunities to progress, but also highlights the pressure to continue with education.

There were a number of School Children's Palaces in Pyongyang, but I'm pleased we visited this one, as the building was more fun.    We were hustled from class room to class room, spending a maximum of 5 minutes in each room, watching children study industriously, draw furiously, or play musical instruments frantically.  The grand finale was a performance by the children.   We weren't allowed to talk to the children, and they obviously weren't allowed to talk to us.   One of our group attempted to speak to a small boy practising his calligraphy, and he was nearly reduced to tears!   The Palaces are for children who show skill or expertise in a particular field, usually arts although we also saw martial arts being practised.    There were a lot more girls than boys - and our guide was interested when I told him that  research had highlighted that the traditional teaching methods favoured girls.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Journal - Sinchon Massacre & the non-existent border wall 25 June 2012

There was still no water in the morning.  But we had a long day ahead of us and much to do.  So after more wet wipes and another kimchi breakfast, we headed out.

First stop was the museum dedicated to the Sinchon massacre.   We had to be early because today was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and there were many celebrations planned at the museum.  We needed to be in and out before they started.   There was no real evidence as to who committed the atrocities that are remembered here, but I don't think the fact that they occurred is disputed.

We had a group discussion later as I was interested in what the younger members of our group thought about the museum.  There was a general consensus that these museums are helpful in ensuring that the atrocities of war are not forgotten.  My own feeling of unease came from the fact that this museum didn't seem to be about a healing process, it was more about maintaining the rage. 

The statement below is representative what was told to us:   

'The atrocities committed by the US imperialists in Korea far surpassed those committed by Hitler Nazis.  The US imperialist cutthroats resorted to the brutal methods of murder through long torments, sawing, burning and dismembering people.  No vicious human killers like Yankees are in the world.' 

Again it is like it happened yesterday, or last week.   The amount of detail and the graphic images are designed to shock, and it had the desired effect, as there were many messages pledging revenge scrawled on the walls outside. 

On a lighter note we were told that although Koreans are not anti-Christianity, they are against missionaries.  This is because most missionaries are American spies, sent to trick the people into the American way of life.  These missionaries/spies were very cunning and quickly learnt to disguise themselves as Koreans, as evidenced by the photo on display showing how 4 missionaries transformed themselves.  Luckily the Koreans were awake to their tricks and quickly expelled them!  

It was explained to us later that there is freedom of religion on the DPRK.   It just so happens that the people have seen the evidence for themselves that the one true way is the Juche Ideology and so this is the path they choose.   We frequently asked for explanations of this Ideology and the short version was: Man is the master of his own destiny and for building his own fortune.  One is weak, but 20 million is strong.  The individual must work for the good of his community not for himself.
The fact that you might see contradictions between these statements is evidence that you don't fully understand the ideology!!

Anyway, soldiers started pouring into the museum grounds and the celebrations were about to start.  It was time for us to head off before we caused an international incident!!

We were off for a view of the non-existent wall between North and South Korea.  Apparently the US and South Korea are still firm in their belief that the wall doesn't exist.   Is it a wall?   I'm not sure.   The information given by the North Koreans is that the wall is 240 km long, 5 to 8 meters high, 3 to 7 meters wide at the top and 10 - 19 meters wide at the bottom and it is used to store weapons, bombs and land mines.  It slopes up from the south side, which is why it can't be seen, but drops away steeply on the northern side, rather like a ha-ha.  

We spent the night in a traditional folk-lore village.   It was very pretty, but sleeping on the floor on a mat is not something one likes to do every night!   Luckily there was an excess of duvets, and by doubling them up and piling them on the floor, I managed to pass a reasonable night.  And there was water!

Journal - Sunday Kimchi and Dancing 24 June 2012

I was up bright and early as the curtains didn't block out any light, and I decided a stroll around the hotel before breakfast would be a good idea.  I could see a river nearby, and I am sure our guide said it was okay to walk in the hotel grounds.   There wasn't many people about this early, but as I started to walk into the car park, I felt as though everyone who was there was staring at me.  I remembered the story of the South Korean lady who was shot after rising early to watch the sunrise over the lake.   I hastily returned to the hotel lobby, and could almost feel the sense of relief from the hotel staff!  Breakfast was kimchi, with two fried eggs and two huge slabs of toast.   And instant coffee with creamer.  I never saw fresh milk during our stay.   My only 'decent' coffee, a cappuccino was made with UHT milk.

Our first stop was the MTR where we were allowed to travel for six stations, going much further than the normally allowed two (Puhung and Yongwang) stations at the end of the line.   This meant we travelled with ordinary Koreans going about their business on a Sunday and I can vouch for the fact that 400,000 people ride on that MTR every day.  In fact there were nearly 300,000 in our carriage, holding themselves very upright and breathing in, to avoid touching the foreigners.  We were jammed in as tight as any London rush hour!

The lines are 110 meters underground.  And yes, you guessed it, they are the deepest in the world.   They  can be used as bomb shelters, and students like to study in the stations, as the temperature is regulated.  I couldn't quite work out where they would sit though.  The stations that we saw were highly decorated with chandeliers and large murals.  Whilst waiting for their train, people read the newspapers that were available on stands on the platforms.  There are four national papers, including those issued by the Youth League and the Workers Party of Korea.

Next stop the Revolutionary Martyr's Cemetery - 150 revolutionaries are remembered here, each one with their own bronze bust with an uninterrupted view of Kim Il Sung's palace.  Each statute looks too perfect, an idealistic version of a hero.  

The Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945, but it could have been only yesterday from the passion and fervour expressed by our guides.   Korean adults and children regularly visit this impressive memorial to commemorate their heroes, which is admirable, but there is a subtle undercurrent.  They are being taught that Japan's occupation of Korea should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

 Mansudae Grand Monument, where the enormous statue to Kim Il Sung has now been joined by Kim Jong Il, both of them grinning from ear to ear.   All visitors are required to pay their respects by laying flowers and bowing before these enormous statues.   You can't help but wonder how such an impoverished country can afford these type of displays?

Then off to Moranbong Park to join Pyongyanites on their day off!  Sunday is the only day that they are released from their duties, and many of them head to the park for a picnic and relaxation with family and friends.   The most popular activity was dancing and the dancers welcomed us with open arms!  I got away with prancing around and twirling my arms, much to the amusement of watching Koreans!  Although they could speak reasonable English, they were very shy and reluctant to engage in conversation.

I would have liked to spend more time in the park, but we were off to see the only United States ship that is currently held captive.    The USS Pueblo is tied up at Taedong River next to a floating restaurant.  The Koreans are very proud of their trophy.  We were required to watch a 'documentary' before exploring the boat.   It's not a big boat and all the equipment and facilities look so dated now.   I found it hard to believe that 83 crew lived on board.  I did a bit of research on the USS Pueblo when I got back home.  Although the crew were treated badly by the Koreans, the way they were treated by the US Government/Armed Forces when they got back home was, in my opinion, much worse!!

When we got back to our hotel, there was no water at all.   We were hot and dusty from the days activities, so it was bad enough that I had to bathe with wet wipes, but not being able to flush the toilet was even worse.   It reminded me that despite the fact that it looked so neat, clean and organised, this still was a third world country.