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A letter from Simon Park in Korea

December 24, 2011

We are back safely!

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Five weeks in North Korea! Actually only on the campus of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).  We returned from Pyongyang only yesterday (December 23, 2011) after a month of teaching, sightseeing, shopping and getting to know some people at a personal level.  All of this happened within the context tightly drawn by the North Korean authorities, and always with a minder or two with us.  Nonetheless, the encounters were real and we were able to overcome the caricature image of North Koreans and their society. 

Frozen pheasants at Botong-gang store.

Two days before our departure the death of Kim Jong Il became public.  We were in town until around 11 a.m. and saw many university students marching with flags.  We knew there was going to be an important announcement at noon, but we had no idea as to the content of the announcement.  It was only after the formal announcement that most people on campus, like most North Koreans, became aware of his death.  As one can imagine, the students and the staff of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea) were in shock and in deep sorrow.  We maintained our respectful postures and offered condolences.  We have no insight into what is ahead for this country and the people—probably neither do the people of DPRK.  We pray and hope for peaceful developments of more abundant life in the country.  Our final two days is worth a separate letter, so we return to the subject of this letter.

Some poverty situations are beyond our imagination, but we were able to talk about family members and our common history before the Korean War.  With some we shared stories, meals and personal opinions, but not comments about politics and religion.  The closest we got to those subjects was when one minder said that “while we differ on politics and religion, that should not preclude us from working on the unifying of our motherland.”  Even that was quoting Great Leader Kim Il Sung, whose name must always be in bold letters (so is the name Kim Jong Il since December 19, and their sayings are printed in red).

While we had to obtain permission whenever we left the campus and had to be with minders, we managed to visit the cities of Kaesung (110 miles from Pyongyang) and Nampo (60 miles) and numerous sites near Pyongyang.  We also had weekly grocery shopping trips and were able to eat out at restaurants, mostly combined with other outings.

As said before, the greatest reward of this visit was the opportunity to relate to students, staff and people in the shops and markets as fellow Koreans, unlike the impersonal interactions at the airport security check and the immigration kiosk.

There is so much to tell, we can’t do it all in one letter.  We will send a series of letters in the near future.  Let us do only the shopping experiences this time.

Bottle of yogurt from the diplomat store.

Every Saturday morning we went shopping in a group of 15 or so.  We would go to several stores in the morning.  Generally the first store is the Botong-gang department store, where North Korean currency is used.  It has three floors and the first floor carried household goods while the third floor displayed electric goods such as refrigerators and air conditioners.  We went only to the second floor, which carried food items.  One can buy some fruits, bread, and packaged goods, but few fresh vegetables. Since we did not have cooking facilities at the guest apartment, we did not look carefully at the green groceries, but rather searched for locally made items that could serve as gifts, more like souvenirs.  We bought candies, cookies and teas for friends back home.  One item that caught Simon’s interest was whole pheasants frozen in a freezer.  During the final visit Simon found courage to ask for permission to take a picture.  The clerk sought out a supervisor who granted permission for one shot after quizzing me as to the reason for wanting to take the picture.  The minders went to the money change office for us, as we were not allowed to go to the moneychangers, to change Euro or U.S. dollars or Chinese RMB into Chosun won. The exchange rate in November was 3,800 won to a dollar, compared to 2,500 won in July.  Rumor had it that the black market rate was over 5,000 won to a dollar—imagine the inflation in local currency.

We then continued on to two hard-currency shops, where mostly imported goods were sold but only for hard currency.  It did not seem to limit the North Koreans as long as they had the requisite money.  One store had mostly Japanese food items and no fresh groceries, but boxed ones.  When we paid in dollars the changes less than a dollar were paid in small packets of cookies.  Another store was called an “Argentina store,” where they had some refrigerated food items in addition to canned and boxed goods.  We were told that the store names come from the source of investments in the store rather than the products, though no one knew for sure.  Then we went to the final stop—the diplomat store with the formal name Pyongyang Shop.  It is located in the diplomatic enclave, complete with guards who collected our minder's ID when we entered the zone.  The store is located in a small compound that housed a spa, restaurant and other general goods store in addition to the grocery store.  We got bottled water, fresh dairy products, cheese and crackers.  They sold fresh vegetables and fruits but we did not buy them there. At the sole checkout counter one person adds up the charges and another collects the money in three different currencies and often returns the change in a combination of different currencies.  This store also accepts debit cards (also a new development since September), which helps speed up the checkout process, but only when the electricity is on.

We returned to the PUST campus for lunch and at 2:30 in the afternoon a different mix of shoppers left for Tongil Market in the middle of housing complex.  This is a large one-story warehouse, a building where they sell everything from building materials and tools to clothing and fresh meat.  It is also the only market where foreigners are allowed to shop with the local citizens.  We never passed up the opportunity to go to Tongil Market, at first out of curiosity but later on to buy fruits and nuts and for encounters with ordinary citizens working for their daily living.  Surprisingly, they never stared at us or other colleagues but only wanted to sell their goods, at good prices.  Well, one child stared at us but would not accept our offer to share some roasted pumpkin seeds.

The market is arranged in long columns of tables, some tables with shelves behind them. Sellers in each section wore different colored vests.  The purpose of the vests was not explained to us, but Simon suspected it was to keep unauthorized people from doing business in the market.  Many vendors wrote down their transactions in a notebook and there were many people roaming about, also in some sort of uniforms.  There were often three or four vendors for each table, each vendor having no more than one and a half feet of counter space. Even when we bought from the same table we had to make separate payments. We also saw people in the aisles and in the parking lot with things to sell, obviously people without a license but overlooked.  Some also had goods under the counter that may have been homegrown.  We tried to buy as many things in this market as possible since some portion of the payments would go to the vendors directly.  When we haggled with a price it was more for the opportunity to carry on conversation than to save money.  After a few weeks they remembered our faces and we were able to share good-natured laughs, and they even remembered our favorite fruits.  The parking lot was filled with buses like ours, cars with diplomat plates, and taxis—yes, taxis.  Too bad we were not allowed to take pictures.

Beyond the students, we got to know the minders as friends with whom to share our joys and concerns, more than givers and keepers of rules of conduct.  We will share the life at PUST in our next letter.

It is good to be back. The YAVs are glad to have us back also.  Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.

Haejung & Simon

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196

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