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  Marilyn Langlois on Peaceful North Korea
September 11, 2017

If you enjoyed my previous history of Marilyn Langlois, you will also appreciate this article she wrote for Transcend Media Service about her visit to North Korea. In a Jane Fonda-like moment, she recalled:

The most moving moment for me occurred outside the Korean War museum (known in NK as the Fatherland Liberation War), where I was able to shake hands and pose for a photo with a retired army officer who had helped intercept the US spy ship USS Pueblo off the coast of DPRK in 1968. I tried to convey to him with my eyes and attitude an apology for my country’s relentless bombing of his in the year of my birth (1950), and we both shared an unspoken intention of building a more peaceful future.

Letter from the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea: Who Is the Real Aggressor? (Part 1)
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 September 2015
Marilyn Langlois – TRANSCEND Media Service

Marilyn Langlois

Verdant hills laced with waterfalls; crashing surf on rocky coastline; every valley filled with rice paddies and vegetable plots; clean city full of high rise apartments interspersed with grandiose public buildings, monuments and parks; hard-working, proud, friendly people, unified in purpose. Hardly the embodiment of unpredictable aggression that comes to mind when reading mainstream US media coverage of North Korea, known by its citizens as Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea or DPRK. But these are the lasting images I took away from a 10 day tourist visit there earlier this month.

The DPRK population is fiercely resilient.   Forty years of brutal Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the last century were followed by popular liberation and independence in the North, but lingering US military presence and political influence in the South.  During the Korean War of 1950-53, the US relentlessly bombed the entire DPRK, killing over 3 million civilians, devastating whole cities and infrastructure.   As a result, DPRK’s military developed a two-pronged and unequivocal mission: firstly, to defend the nation’s sovereignty from outside aggressors at all costs—yes they will fight back if you mess with them!–and secondly, to channel abundant energy via soldiers’ labor into productive peaceful efforts: re-construction, public works, disaster relief and harvesting crops.

Photo of the Reunification Arch at the southern entrance to Pyongyang (Marilyn Langlois)
Photo of the Reunification Arch at the southern entrance to Pyongyang (Marilyn Langlois)

Socialist values of unity and solidarity are evident in both the city and countryside. Though DPRK is not rich, resources are stretched to meet everyone’s basic needs as much as possible. The economic crisis and famine of the late 1990’s, called the Arduous March, posed the greatest challenge to this aspiration. People in DPRK receive free public education from kindergarten through trade school or university (with an emphasis on musical training at early ages), free health care (following modern medical practices to the extent available supplemented by traditional Korean remedies), free housing and basic foodstuffs. There is full employment and pensions for the disabled and elderly. A variety of civic amenities are available at little or no cost, including public transportation (Pyongyang’s subway is adorned with extensive mosaic murals), health spas and public baths, parks, arts and culture offerings and massive sports complexes. Away from the city, well-maintained trails and picnic areas in the mountains and on the coastline as well as numerous restored historic sites offer Sunday and holiday destinations for working families.

As an advocate for bicycle and pedestrian activities in my home town in California, it was gratifying to see so many people in DPRK getting around by walking and cycling, in both cities and countryside. Even more striking was what I did not see in contrast to US realities. Very few cars or other motor vehicles.   No profusion of superfluous consumer goods and no garish advertising urging us to buy, buy, buy! While some differences in living standards were apparent, I saw neither forsaken homeless people begging on the streets nor evidence of billionaires flaunting opulent personal wealth.

The Tower of the Juche Idea is Pyongyang’s hallmark monument. Introduced by DPRK’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, Juche is a driving force, and much of the theory behind it—independence, self-determination, people defining their own destiny through the will of the popular masses—is familiar to me from other liberation struggles I’ve studied in Haiti, El Salvador, and Cuba. It was intriguing to learn that there are institutes and organizations devoted to the study of the Juche idea in many countries throughout the world. A question remains, however: Since the inner workings of the DPRK government are inscrutable to me, how does the will of the popular masses from the bottom up make itself known to decision-makers, following the Juche principle?

Naysayers might view DPRK leadership as a succession of autocratic despots imposing their will from top down, with the people little more than brainwashed automatons who reflexively worship their ubiquitous images. This cynical interpretation rings hollow to me, since the people I encountered displayed genuine intelligence, dignity and a cooperative attitude. Besides, the facts on the ground suggest a prioritization–coming from somewhere–of the collective well-being of the population.

Another approach would be to consider the mindset of people in their current context. Given their past experience with outside aggression from Japan and the US, and the substantial US military presence in South Korea (known to its citizens as Republic of Korea or ROK) over the last 65 years–including numerous US bases, 30,000 – 75,000 troops since the Korean War armistice, dozens of US nuclear weapons deployed in ROK during the Cold War–is it surprising the population of DPRK feels continually under siege and is loyal to strong leaders who encourage them in their determination to protect their borders? Imagine, if southern states in the US had hostile foreign military bases with foreign nuclear weapons deployed there pointing north, I suspect people in northern states might band together and speak with one voice.

Allegations in US media about inhumane prison camps were not touched on at all during my tour of DPRK, but before criticizing this lapse, may he who is without sin cast the first stone. There are widely documented abuses in the US criminal justice system, with rampant police shootings of unarmed people, huge detention centers for undocumented immigrants and frequent mistreatment of prison inmates. What we are told in the US about DPRK prisons needs to be evaluated judiciously, coming mostly from ambiguous satellite images (reminiscent of Colin Powell’s bogus WMD claims in Iraq in February 2003) and occasional defector testimony which may well involve persuasion to exaggerate, given how eager the US is to portray DPRK as “the bad guy.”

Why does the US persist in demonizing DPRK (former President Bush placed North Korea on the “Axis of Evil”) and singling it out for enemy status when the US has such a long track record of propping up and supporting dictatorships with terrible human rights records all over the world? Perhaps it is to justify and expand US military presence in ROK, Okinawa and Japan, while cautiously watching China flex its economic and military muscle. Or are ruling US capitalists so intent on controlling ever more resources that they cannot leave even tiny little countries like DPRK and Cuba alone to pursue their socialist programs?

North Koreans, proud of the cultural heritage, artistic legacies and common language they share with fellow Koreans in the south, long for reunification of the peninsula. DPRK proposals for reunification are based on three principles: Independence (negotiated by Koreans without foreign interference), Federation (limited powers of central government with both north and south retaining autonomy in many areas), and Peaceful Means (mutual commitment to resolving issues nonviolently).

Numerous attempts at constructive engagement between DPRK and ROK have occurred in recent decades, with a few positive outcomes, like the establishment of a special economic zone we drove through just north of the DMZ where the DPRK-ROK joint venture “Peace Car” is manufactured. Failed attempts at broader rapprochement between north and south have invariably led to a he-said, she-said situation: US media claims DPRK is to blame and DPRK claims belligerent US influence is to blame. Before pointing fingers, consider where each side is coming from: on the one hand a small, poor, besieged country defending its sovereignty, and on the other the world’s richest nation and greatest military power with over 7,000 nuclear weapons and hundreds of bases throughout the globe. Who is the real aggressor?

I appreciate the warm hospitality extended to me and fellow tourists visiting DPRK and didn’t mind restrictions placed on us (“always stay with the guided group, don’t walk off on your own, get permission for taking photos”), since I felt we as guests were obliged to respect the rules and norms of our hosts–unlike European colonizers who rarely did so when interacting with indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere over the last 500 years. I told my Korean guides that I join others in the US who advocate for a shift in my country’s policies from strong-arm dominance to cooperation with a little humility. Peace researcher Johan Galtung often states, “I love the US republic, but hate the US empire”, which reflects my experience in DPRK. People from the US or anywhere else are whole-heartedly welcome to come without guns, but US imperialists, please go home!

Snapshots from the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea (Part 2)

BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 28 September 2015
Marilyn Langlois – TRANSCEND Media Service

Marilyn Langlois

28 Sep 2015 –
Last week TMS published my first account of a recent visit to North Korea (known by its citizens as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK), with general impressions and global context, highlighting the US role in tensions in that region. This week I will try to put a more personal and human face to this country, which received us so graciously.

Since the media of my home country, the US, routinely paints a rather frightening picture of North Korea (the US State Department “strongly recommends against all travel by US citizens to there”), I promised our local guides that I would go home and tell everyone about the wonderful people I met there. People-to-people engagement throughout the world is a powerful peacemaking tool, and there was certainly much common humanity that we shared in DPRK.

My primary points of contact were our group’s Korean tour guides, a woman (who was in charge) and a man, both fluent in English, congenial and open to our many questions. Along with additional guides at specific sites, they generously shared their knowledge, bridging cultural gaps with good humor, insight and sensitivity.

I managed to master only two expressions in Korean while there, hello and thank you, but these were appreciated and helped break the ice. Leaving restaurants, I would thank the hostesses for the good food, “kamsahamnida!” which usually drew a surprised, pleased look on their faces. Walking from the site of the secret camp of anti-Japanese guerilla fighters near Mt. Paektu, a group of giggly, uniformed school children followed us, and when I greeted them with “annyonghassimnigah”, at first they didn’t understand. Our guide urged me to repeat the greeting and on the third try their faces lit up and they laughed with recognition. Encouraged by our guide to greet back in our language, a gleeful chorus of “hello” rang out from the more attentive ones.

Spontaneous friendly gestures from local people spiced up our daily activities. Towards the end of our waterfall hike near Mt. Myohyang on a Sunday, as we greeted a group of local women just starting the hike, one of them smiled and danced towards us, swinging a woman from our tour group in a circle before letting go and continuing on her way.   While trailing a northeast coastal path near Chongjin, two from our group approached an extended local family huddled in a jovial circle barbecuing meat and mushrooms on the beach. Members of the family playfully thrust chopsticks into our hands and offered us a taste (the mushrooms were delicious!).

Other interactions were more scripted but enjoyable nonetheless. On the national holiday (September 9) mass dancing is the custom, and we got to experience it in Chongjjn’s main square, where thousands of young people—men in shirts and slacks and women in brightly colored and decorated traditional Korean dresses—sashayed in circles to the music, while pre-arranged volunteers invited us to join them, taking us as dance partners and showing us the steps with gusto.

Mass dancing in Chongjin on the national holiday.

Mass dancing in Chongjin on the national holiday.

On another day we visited an English language class being held in the “Grand People’s Study House” (a.k.a. main library) in Pyongyang; the shy student sitting next to me perked up when prompted and asked haltingly where I was from and what I thought of his country.

Once, after visiting a particularly beautiful scenic spot, our male Korean guide took me by surprise saying hesitantly and with a questioning look, “That was dope, wasn’t it?”, practicing some US slang he had picked up. He was also open to discussing more serious topics with me, such as the Juche concept of people defining their own destiny. When I told him I personally oppose US policies of imperial aggression, he asked if there were any well-known US leaders who felt similarly, and I told him about Martin Luther King, Jr, whom he hadn’t heard of and was very interested in learning about.

The most moving moment for me occurred outside the Korean War museum (known in NK as the Fatherland Liberation War), where I was able to shake hands and pose for a photo with a retired army officer who had helped intercept the US spy ship USS Pueblo off the coast of DPRK in 1968. I tried to convey to him with my eyes and attitude an apology for my country’s relentless bombing of his in the year of my birth (1950), and we both shared an unspoken intention of building a more peaceful future.

Retired officer who helped intercept US spy ship in 1968, with the author.

Retired officer who helped intercept US spy ship in 1968, with the author.

Eagerly soaking up the scene around us wherever we went, I collected many glimpses of daily life that helped to further demystify North Korea and its people for me.

Having persevered through the “Arduous March” period of extreme food shortages in the 1990’s brought on by catastrophic flooding and abrupt end to Soviet fuel subsidies, access to food appears to be highly valued and not taken for granted even today. Every house we passed in country villages had a cabbage patch in front and squash vines growing up the walls. We were told the basic diet includes rice, kim-chi (spicy fermented cabbage), bean paste soup, and whatever else is available. Being vegan, I can only rave about the deliciously seasoned and freshly prepared vegetable dishes we were served, though meat and fish were also common. Highly processed foods and sugary sweets were notably absent.

One local guide on the northeast coast told us,

DPRK is not a rich country, it’s a poor country, but the government still provides everyone with free housing, education and health care, because it’s valued and needed.”

Every city we visited appeared to have abundant housing in the form of tall apartment buildings, often with potted plants on the balconies and the surroundings always neatly swept, as it is the residents’ responsibility to keep the area around their building clean and litter-free. We were told most apartments have floor heating in winter, but no running hot water. Our female guide said it’s no problem using cold water in summer, and in winter there are public baths and saunas in each neighborhood. While our hotel in Pyongyang had all the comforts one might want, our lodgings for two nights in the far north were more rustic, without running water, so I relished the chance to have a hot shower in such a public facility while there.

Personal car ownership appears to be extremely rare in North Korea—we were told that exceptionally talented artists, scientists and athletes are given cars by the government—so people rely on public transportation and their own steam. Buses and big open trucks take groups of all ages on Sunday outings and visits to relatives in other parts of the country. Pyongyang also has a few electric streetcars and two elegant subway lines. I marveled at the beautiful chandeliers and decorative mosaics on the subway platforms, as we rode from “Prosperity” station via “Glory” station to “Triumphant” station, at one point packed inside a train with a crush of teenagers on their way home from school.

Many people, especially during rush hour, are out walking and riding bicycles, sometimes ferrying a child or large bundles on the rear rack. To prove that not all North Koreans blindly follow the rules, I snapped a photo of a man riding his bicycle the wrong way on a one-way bike lane. An avid cyclist myself, I watched longingly each time we drove past the well-used bicycle trail along the scenic banks of the Taedong River in Pyongyang (no time in our full schedule for us to try it out). And when we headed out of town in our tour bus, the broad, nearly empty, flower-lined highway stretched out before us like another great big bike path!

Highway leading out of Pyongyang towards the airport.

Highway leading out of Pyongyang towards the airport.

One measure of a society is how it treats its children. A highlight of our trip was a visit to one of many “children’s palaces”, or after school centers, in Pyongyang. A precocious 10-year old girl gave us a tour of the elegant, sprawling facility where young people were engaged in a variety of classes, including calligraphy, embroidery, singing, accordion, traditional Korean instruments, violin, and Tae Kwan Do, a martial art. At a kindergarten in Chongjin, we observed a class where some of the children eagerly answered the teacher’s questions, others held back, and all applauded supportively those who did answer. In both the kindergarten and the children’s palace, we were treated to magnificent, highly polished performances of music and dance.

I saw kids being kids and having fun in more informal settings too, splashing and swimming in rivers in the countryside and at the seacoast, playing volleyball at a Pyongyang park, playing in a band on the street in front of their high school, playing soccer at a summer camp. We were told most families have no more than 2-3 children, and those children are clearly cherished.

Korea has a deep and rich heritage of Buddhist and Confucian traditions that we encountered at numerous well-preserved historic sites. The most breathtaking sacred site for me was the summit of Paektu-san, Korea’s highest mountain far in the north, a volcano whose gigantic crater is filled with a deep turquoise lake ringed by a steep perimeter of jagged rocky ridges. According to ancient folklore, this site is the origin of the Korean people.

No matter what our origins or cultures, ultimately we are all sisters and brothers in the human family, equally deserving of respect and support. Like people everywhere, those I encountered in DPRK displayed genuine intelligence, dignity and a cooperative attitude. I am grateful our paths crossed.
Marilyn Langlois, TRANSCEND USA-West Coast.