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Interview: Eyewitness north Korea

By staff

Sun Hyung Lee traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (north Korea) as part of a peace delegation of eight Korean Americans from Oakland, Los Angeles and New York in June of 2004. At a time when the Bush administration is carrying out war preparations against north Korea, the interview provides some important insights into developments on the Korean peninsula.

Fight Back!: In June 2004, you traveled to north Korea. What were your impressions? How do people live?

Sun Hyung Lee: As you know, it’s impossible to fully understand an entire society in just twelve days. But I will offer some of the impressions I had about north Korean society based on my short visit. Our delegation visited a wide range of places including a women’s garment factory, cooperative farm, health clinic, courthouse and teachers’ college.

Education is highly valued in north Korea. Education at all levels is free for all citizens. We toured the Grand People’s Study Hall, a huge seven-story library, open to all people. Not only do they let you borrow books and music and use the computer, you can hear lectures on all different topics. Then there was the Grand Children’s Palace where children come after school for activities like dancing, singing, artwork and sports. There are eight floors, more than 100 rooms and over 100 teaching staff. Places like this exist in each province, although this is the largest one in the country.

History is very important to the north Korean people. Our hosts took us to many monuments showing the Korean people’s struggle against Japanese occupation and U.S. imperialists during the Korean War. The war is referred to as the “war for the liberation of the motherland,” not a civil war as Americans and most south Koreans view it.

Reunification is a very alive and strong wish of the people. It’s in the songs, the movies, in the artwork. For those of you who are artists, the artwork in north Korea is beautiful, statues lifelike, and everywhere. Culture, art, singing and dancing are a big part of life there.

A big treat was our trip to Mount Baekdu, the most important mountain for all Koreans. Luckily, because of the rain, we got ‘stuck’ there for one night, along with a large group of overseas Koreans from Japan and China. Unlike the fancy hotel we were staying at in Pyongyang, the hotel at Mount Baekdu had low lights and no running water. It was a good experience for us to see what most of the country’s people are going through. The continued U.S. embargo and U.S.’s failure to deliver on the 1994 Agreed Framework to provide light water reactors in exchange for the north Korean’s stopping their nuclear program keeps the country in an energy crisis, with frequent blackouts throughout the country. There were hardly any cars and public transportation didn’t seem to come very often. On the farms, most everything was done by hand. We barely saw any tractors running. While this might be good for the air – there’s no pollution – it definitely must take its toll on people’s lives.

North Korea is slowly coming out of a very severe famine. The famine has taken its toll. Children who told us they were thirteen years old looked about eight. Many looked malnourished. In fact, we were told that north Koreans are, on average, only eating half the calories they need daily. The period since 1995 is called the Arduous March. Floods and droughts caused a serious famine, aggravating the economic crisis that was created by the fall of the Soviet Bloc.

Fight Back!: The U.S. government provoked a war and invaded Korea in the 1950s, settling in for a long occupation. 33,500 U.S. troops continue to occupy and divide Korea. How does this affect Koreans?

Sun Hyung Lee: The war killed over four million Korean people, separated ten million families on both sides of the DMZ [the line dividing north and south], and left the land destroyed by bombs and napalm. The U.S. government continues to be a threat to peace on the Korean peninsula and has been a constant block in the reunification process. The U.S. troops are a bitter reminder that U.S. imperialism is still very much alive on the Korean peninsula.

In June 2002, U.S. military officials sped through a village in a tank and ran over and killed two south Korean schoolgirls, but were cleared of any wrongdoing. This sparked huge anti-U.S. protests by south Koreans over the lawlessness of the U.S. military and the lack of sovereignty in domestic affairs. The south Korean government also sent troops to Iraq although most Koreans are opposed to it. Despite President Roh Moo-hyun’s original anti-war stance, it appears preserving the U.S.-south Korea alliance is more important than the will of the people. South Korea is the U.S.’ sixth largest export market and number one investment destination.

In some ways, you could say the division of our country is responsible for the famine in north Korea. Before the division, the southern part of Korea was the bread basket, the northern part the industrial center. 80% of north Korean land is mountainous and not good for growing food. The division keeps the north and south from sharing resources in times of need.

Fight Back!: You helped deliver $80,000 worth of medical supplies to a hospital. Could you tell us about the project and what you hope to accomplish?

Sun Hyung Lee: As part of our trip, our group raised money to purchase much needed medical supplies for north Korea. With generous support from other Korean Americans and allies, we were able to deliver six large boxes of antibiotics and vitamins to Pyongyang People’s Hospital #3.

Basic items like medicine, food and fertilizer are difficult for the north Korean government to access because of the existing U.S. embargo against the DPRK. Our efforts allowed us to do our small part in supporting the people’s immediate needs. Food and health care are basic human rights and should not be used as a political tool. Due to the famine’s long lasting effects and a huge train accident earlier this year, there was a great need for medicine. North Korea has free health care for all its citizens but the system can only provide what it has. But our donations are only one-time deals. An end to the embargo would allow north Koreans to have regular access and not rely on these kinds of one-time donations for their basic needs.

Fight Back!: The health care system in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is designed to serve workers and farmers. What are your observations about the health care system?

Sun Hyung Lee: We were able to visit one health clinic located on a cooperative farm. That clinic serves one farm, one factory and one small state institution. Two doctors, one midwife and one dentist work in the clinic. One doctor is responsible for the health of about 1000 citizens, from routine check-ups to making sure people get their shots. They do both clinic and home visits. One doctor treats about eight patients per day and spends about 30 to 40 minutes with each patient. Traditional and western medicine is used. The doctor sees patients, gives health education advice and prescribes medicines. If a problem needs higher level of treatment, the person gets transferred to the provincial or county level hospitals. Women come to the clinic for prenatal care within twelve weeks of pregnancy. After delivery, a woman will stay for about two or three days and then she is moved to an upper district hospital. Before the arduous march, everyone had their own medicine box at home for basic needs, but now because of the lack of medicines, people have to come to the clinic for everything.

Fight Back!: The Bush administration has often threatened the DPRK. What is the attitude of the people of north Korea towards these threats and war preparations?

Sun Hyung Lee: The north Koreans have lived with U.S. threats and embargo for over 50 years. This threat is a daily reality for them. But they believe they will persevere. They do not want war, but they are ready to defend their land, their people and their way of life. In all of history, Koreans have never invaded another country.

North Korea wants normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. but they will only do it on equal terms. They will not sell out their sovereignty for relations with the U.S. They will not have the U.S. telling them what they should and should not do on their own land. They ask that the U.S. respect their self-determination and stop its isolating and hostile policies towards the DPRK.

To understand this attitude, you have to understand that north Koreans as a people have a strong sense of history, the history of colonization and imperialism. They remember very clearly what U.S. imperialism did to our country. They see how U.S. interferes with south Korean sovereignty. They also see what happened to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan that did not have the ability to defend themselves from U.S. attack. Because of this, they carry a very strong sentiment against U.S. imperialism. However, we were repeatedly told that this is a hatred of imperialism, its lackeys and what it has done to our country, not towards the American people. They also know their history of struggle and revolution. The north Koreans are a fiercely proud people. This is a country that rose from the ashes of colonization and war, and continues to exist despite all the odds against it. The philosophy of juche, doing it for ourselves without bowing down to any power, is the central ideology that leads the nation. The juche philosophy stresses independence in politics, self-sufficiency in economy and self-reliance in defense.

As the U.S. continues its pro-war policies and vilification of the DPRK, there’s urgency to humanizing north Koreans to the general American public as well as to the Korean American community. We cannot allow the U.S. government to continue its isolating and hostile policies toward the DPRK. Especially, we cannot allow the U.S. to interfere in the process of reunification and reconciliation between the two Koreas. This is essential, since outside forces led to the division of our country in the first place. I hope that your readers will support policies that move the U.S. government towards engaging with north Korea, ending the embargo and stopping the use of food and energy as a political tool. The U.S. needs to stop making its threats of war and sign a non-aggression treaty with north Korea so north Koreans can focus on rebuilding the country instead of protecting themselves against unnecessary war with the U.S.

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