BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS AND SAMANTHA KERN
PYONGYANG, Korea - Between July 18 and July 25 we were part of an international fact-finding delegation that visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). It was initiated by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) and hosted by the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League.
The purpose was to get the facts about the Korean people's struggle to reunify their country and the ongoing campaign by Washington and Tokyo to deny Korea the right to national sovereignty. The delegation's goal was to find out and spread the truth about Korea around the world, broadening support for the demand to get the Yankee troops out and for peaceful unification of the country.
Korea's division was instigated by Washington as it emerged victorious over its imperialist rival in Tokyo at the end of World War II. It has been maintained by force through the presence of some 40,000 U.S. troops equipped with nuclear weapons in south Korea and the seventh fleet of the U.S. Navy constantly near Korea's coast. It remains the most important, explosive, unresolved national division in the world today.
The delegation also had a chance to find out firsthand how the people and government in the DPRK have confronted food shortages and other hardships. These are due mostly to a string of natural disasters in the last four years, the effects of worsening depression conditions in the surrounding capitalist countries, and relentless economic and other sanctions by Washington.
The 13-member delegation adopted as its banner "Tear down the wall!" A major part of the trip was visiting the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which cuts across the middle of the country along the 38th parallel, and the 150-mile-long concrete wall that divides the Korean peninsula from sea to sea. This heavily fortified structure was built by the south Korean regime, with the aid of its U.S. protectors, on the south side of the DMZ. As a number of Koreans put it, "The wall is an inhuman physical barrier to reunification."
The visit was organized by WFDY as part of activities during the period from June 25 to July 27, designated by the youth federation as the month of international solidarity with Korea. June 25 marks the anniversary of the opening of the 1950-53 Korean War, and July 27 is the date of the signing of an armistice agreement between the DPRK and Washington. U.S. troops first invaded Korea under the cover of the blue flag of the United Nations barely three weeks after Korean patriots won independence from Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, and proclaimed a People's Republic in Seoul that called for land reform, nationalization of the country's patrimony, and broad democratic rights.
In an article published in the August 24 Militant, titled "Tear down the wall dividing Korea," we reported extensively on the aspects of the trip related to Korea's colonial subjugation by Japanese imperialism between 1910 and 1945, the anticolonial movement, the overturn of capitalism in the northern part of the country, the Korean War, and the tenacious resistance by the Korean people to U.S. imperialism for the last half century. This compilation of reporters' notes describes several other observations from the visit.
Since 1994, a series of floods and coastal tidal waves have destroyed much of the country's agricultural production and caused severe food shortages. On top of that, an energy shortage has adversely affected industrial production and living conditions. Last winter, central heating was cut off in Pyongyang for several days per week, we were told. This is due to lower production of coal and hydroelectric power - the two main sources of energy in the country - because of flood damage to coal mines and dams. In addition, oil imports now have to be paid for in hard currency at world market prices. Until the opening of the 1990s, most oil was imported from the Soviet Union, often through barter trade and at preferential prices. After the break-up of the USSR, such trade relations came to an abrupt end, diminishing available supplies of fuel for transportation and other needs. Most of the oil today is imported from China. But even Beijing has reportedly slowed down some oil shipments on credit because of Pyongyang's difficulties in meeting payment schedules.
Washington's economic sanctions, which make getting loans from foreign banks very difficult, and the U.S. government's campaign to isolate the DPRK and brand it as a "terrorist" and "totalitarian" state, add to the economic squeeze.
Many basic necessities - including cooking oil, soap, and canned foods - are in short supply and are imported in limited quantities, mainly from China and Japan. These are available at hotel and other stores that sell only in hard currency or in the "convertible" won, a version of the DPRK's currency that can be exchanged for foreign currency but is valid only inside the country. This situation has increased social inequalities, in a country where the gap is small between the lowest wages for workers and the monthly pay of professionals and others with higher income. Doctors and engineers receive about twice the average monthly wage for workers of 250 won. Free education through the university level and health care as a right for all provide a social wage for the entire population that has also diminished inequalities.
Today only narrow social layers, such as company administrators and managers, have access to hard currency and to goods available at the foreign currency stores. Those who get remittances from relatives abroad also have an easier time.
The areas we saw northwest and south of Pyongyang have not been affected much by the floods of the last years. The rice, corn, and soybean fields were in good shape, overwhelmingly free of weeds and with healthy-looking crops. Everyone told us the most damage from the natural disasters, including huge tidal waves last year, is on the western coast and in the northern part of the country. In those areas, flood waters dumped sand and stones from riverbanks on agricultural land. This will take years to clean up, given shortages of fuel and spare parts for machinery. Near the coastal areas, the tidal waves flooded rice paddies and wheat fields with salt water, destroying crops.
According to the figures we were able to collect, last year's grain production was between 2.5 and 3 million tons - down from about 6 million tons per year in the early 1990s. At that time the DPRK also imported another 3-4 million tons of grains from the Soviet Union at favorable prices.
"This year we expect a substantial improvement in production," said Cho Il Sun, manager of the Chil Gol cooperative farm in a Pyongyang suburb, during an interview there July 23. This was a common view among many Koreans, but no one was willing to make concrete projections until the rainy season of July-August was over. That's when most floods have occurred. The weather has remained fairly mild so far.
Most people told us the food shortages have eased, but remain severe. However, the claims in the big-business press in the United States and other imperialist countries that the DPRK faces famine and starvation conditions are not true. Observations from our visit and accounts, not only by Koreans but others who have visited much of the country, confirmed that. "The U.S. claims of starvation have nothing to do with reality," said Nirsia Castro Guevara, political consul at the Cuban embassy in Pyongyang, who has traveled throughout the countryside. "They are part of the propaganda by the U.S. government to use food as a weapon to isolate and pressure the DPRK into submission. There are hardships, but not a famine."
The diet of many people has been reduced to the minimum of the traditional staples of rice and soup with greens - which is what most people we saw collect in the fields, not regular grass as the capitalist media claim. Shipments of rice and other grains mostly from China, much in the form of humanitarian aid, have supplemented the lack from domestic production.
Two leaders of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League told us that soybeans, soy milk, and certain varieties of grass are being widely used as food substitutes in coping with the shortages. Soy products are a traditional part of the diet. At the farm we visited, for example, we were offered "ice cake" - that is ice cream made from soy milk - that has been produced for decades. The use of grass is fairly new.
In addition, the number of families raising chickens, rabbits, and pigs in city apartment balconies, terraces, and yards has expanded tremendously, we were told. Authorities have stopped enforcing laws against raising pigs inside city dwellings. On the outskirts of Pyongyang we saw one apartment where a family of four was raising a hog in a little second- floor balcony, for example. Raising of animals in and around apartments in the cities is not new. Nearly half of the DPRK's population of 24 million is rural, and much of the immigration to the cities has been in the last few decades, so many workers have recent ties to the land and are accustomed to habits of peasant life. The food shortages, however, have propelled such practices.
Land cultivation has also slightly increased, mainly on the bottom of hills and mountains. Cultivation of virtually every possible parcel of fertile land, including gardens between city apartment buildings and riverbanks, has always been government policy, though, as north Korea is very mountainous.
Two of the main measures the government has implemented to boost food production are allowing deregulated prices at farmers markets and reorganizing cooperative farms to give individual farm families incentives to produce more. All of the country's agriculture is organized in cooperative or state farms. The land is nationalized and cannot be bought or sold on the market. In the last three years much of the land on cooperative farms has been apportioned to individual families, or groups of families, and their income is tied to the level of production. No figures were available on the extent of this reorganization, but we were told that is rapidly becoming widespread throughout the countryside. After fulfilling the agreed-upon quota with the state, farmers can sell produce at farmers markets where prices are determined by supply and demand, though the government imposes a cap on prices.
Shortages of food had created social tensions and the beginnings of a black market, we were told. These measures have alleviated some of these tensions and decreased hoarding of food.
Raising productivity is part of the effort to end the shortages. Ryong Chun U, who along with his wife Kim Pok Suk has grown rice and vegetables at the Chil Gol collective farm for 20 years, said, "Our goal is to increase productivity from about six tons of rice per chongbo last year to eight this year, which was the 1993 level" (1 chongbo = 2.4 acres). Using manure and other organic fertilizers and weed killers developed at the farm is part of this effort. "The natural disasters also affected industry and we've lacked chemical fertilizers and pesticides."
Ryong said the farm uses 41 tractors and 16 trucks - which are owned by state machine pools that loan them indefinitely to the cooperatives - and grows rice, corn, soybeans, vegetables, and a variety of fruits. But much of the labor is manual. About 1,500 people live on the farm, in small but comfortable apartments in three-story buildings, and cultivate its 415 chongbos (nearly 1,000 acres). Two-thirds of them are farmers. We were told that this was a typical farm in terms of land and labor force.
Manual labor is also extensively used in construction. We saw thousands of Korean People's Army soldiers building highways by transporting rocks from river banks and dirt with carriers fastened to their backs.
The most impressive achievement of Korea's farmers since 1953 is the construction of a vast system of irrigation canals, ditches, ponds, and reservoirs. This has made possible the production of rice and other crops in areas that were previously uncultivable. It also resulted in a significant increase in output per acre on lands that were already under cultivation.
Much of this system was undoubtedly dug by hand, and from our observation there's no question that it is maintained by manual labor. We saw a number of farmers in the fields with shovels repairing ditches and digging out canals clogged with mud.
We were repeatedly told that transplanting rice seedlings, traditionally the most arduous agricultural job, is now virtually all mechanized. Since this process takes place in late April and May, we were not able to see the rice planting machines used or to verify the level of mechanization.
In addition to the vast irrigation network, the government has taken steps to increase the water available for agriculture and to reclaim land for production. One such project is the West Sea Barrage. Built along the mouth of Taedong River, which drains into the West Sea, it stores billions of cubic yards of water to irrigate about 250,000 acres of reclaimed soil. The barrage maintains the river level higher than the sea level and prevents the tides from bringing salt water up the stream. This is no small question for a country where arable land is scarce.
The barrage also supplies drinking water to several major towns and villages. A railway, motorway, and sidewalks on top of it make travel in the region qualitatively easier. The barrage is a huge structure, consisting of three locks and 36 sluices. The locks open to enable large ships to sail up the river. Construction of the barrage was started in 1981 and was completed in five years by the Korean People's Army.
The West Sea barrage is a concrete illustration of the desire of the people of the DPRK for peaceful reunification of Korea. It's hard to imagine dedicating the human and material resources that it took to build this extremely vulnerable structure, and other large public works, only to start another war - a claim often promoted by the U.S. government - which would result in their destruction. No antiaircraft weapons or other defensive military equipment is installed on the barrage. There's plenty of evidence, though, that the drive toward confrontation and war comes from Washington and its client regime in south Korea.
The most recent are joint military exercises between U.S. and south Korean troops that began August 17, coined RIMPAC. About 13,000 U.S. soldiers, some of them based outside Korea, and 57,000 south Korean troops are involved in the two-week- long war games, the first this year. The exercises include simulations of war conditions, including chemical weapons attacks.
The same day the war games began, the New York Times and other big-business dailies gave front-page coverage to U.S. government allegations that its spy agencies have "discovered" an underground site in north Korea where Pyongyang is supposedly building a nuclear bomb plant.
The report may lead to scuttling a 1994 agreement under which the Clinton administration is to provide $35 million worth of heavy fuel oil to north Korea. Under this accord, Tokyo and Seoul are supposed to shoulder the main financial responsibility for building two nuclear reactors for electricity production in the DPRK, in exchange for the government there allowing international inspections of its nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
"North Korea is a dangerous, unpredictable country," declared an editorial in the August 17 New York Times, stating the DPRK "seems to have been caught preparing to betray its 1994 commitment to trade in its nuclear weapons ambitions for $6 billion in international assistance." Neither the south Korean nor the Japanese nor the U.S. governments have fulfilled their part of the agreement. And the only accusation leveled against the DPRK now is that the alleged large underground structure may be used in the future for nuclear weapons production.
"These measures were announced by the new government in Seoul to simply mask the old policy of dependence on Washington," said Ju Ho Chol of the international relations department of the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League. "This is important at a time of labor unrest in south Korea, as the capitalist `miraclé has collapsed, and as it is clearer than ever that support for reunification without foreign interference is a majority sentiment in the south."
Ju and many others cited the continued repression of Hanchongryon, a student federation in the south that supports normalization of relations with the DPRK, and workers fighting against austerity measures in the south; the announcement in July by Kim Dae Jung that U.S. troops should remain in south Korea even after unification; and Seoul's refusal to allow students to leave the south Korean capital and join compatriots from the north for a common rally at Panmunjom to celebrate independence day on August 15 and demand reunification.
"Many of the prisoners who have been released simply go to a larger prison," Ju said. "A number of them continue to face a form of house arrest and other restrictions." He was also dubious that the political prisoners Kim Dae Jung said he would release would be let go unconditionally.
Indeed, when 103 "prisoners of conscience" were released in south Korea on August 15 it became clear that they had to first sign a pledge to abide by south Korean laws, including the notorious National Security Law, which deems any contacts with the north to be treason. Sixty-nine-year-old Woo Yong Gak, who has led a movement in jail for 40 years against signing such loyalty oaths, and at least 20 other political prisoners are still incarcerated. The big-business press had speculated in June that Woo would be among those released.
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