by DAPHNE LIDDLE
A New Communist Party Study Tour of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, took place last month. The delegation was headed by National Chair Alex Kempshall and included Central Committee members Ray Jones and Daphne Liddle, and included Yvonne Wilkin.
During their stay they travelled extensively throughout the country and held talks with Korean communists. DAPHNE LIDDLE writes about her impressions of life in socialist Korea today. Further reports will follow.
OUR FIRST view of the Democratic Republic of Korea, as our Air Koryo flight descended at Pyongyang airport, was of a very lush, green countryside with crops growing in every possible scrap of land in and around the airport.
We had come at the beginning of the rainy season and this year the rains have not disappointed. So long as they dont become too heavy and cause flooding, all bodes well for the DPRK on the food front this year.
We were met at the airport by comrades from the Workers Party of Korea, presented with flowers and then driven to our hotel in the centre of Pyongyang.
Our Korean comrades had worked out a heavy schedule of visits and sightseeing for us, there was so much they were proud of and wanted us to see and so little time.
Our first visit was to the Kumsusan Memorial Palacea Mausoleum for the great leader comrade Kim Il Sungto pay our respects to one of the giants of communism, a man who led the people in a war of liberation from Japanese occupation which was won in 1945 and then defended that victory against invasion by the United States and its allies, using the fledgling United Nations as a puppet.
He then went on to lead his country in building its own, independent socialism, steering a careful path during the period of Sino-Soviet ideological conflict and managing to remain on good terms with both parties.
And after the demise of the Soviet Union and the loss of the eastern European socialist countries, an enormous setback for communism globally, when parties were becoming demoralised and failing around the world, Kim Il Sung stopped the rot by summoning a global conference of communist and workers parties in Pyongyang in 1993.
At the end of the conference the parties, including the NCP, signed the Pyongyang Agreement and went back to their homes with renewed determination to fight on and confidence in the justice of the socialist cause. Since then, many other parties have also added their signatures to the agreement.
After that we visited dozens of museums, memorials and splendid public buildings, as well as a school, the metro, a maternity hospital, a circus theatre, a farm, a school for party cadres, the Grand Peoples Study House and the Schoolchildrens Palace.
Most of these buildings involve a lot of highly-polished marble which provided coolness and shade in the hot, humid weather. Just about the only exception to this was the party cadre school, which is constructed of the usual building materials.
From the top of the Juche Tower, a monument to the Korean socialist philosophy of independence and self-reliance, we could see the whole panorama of the city of Pyongyang below us.
There are very few old buildings. The city was totally levelled at the end of the 1951-53 war against the US invaders and had to be rebuilt fastthousands were homeless. Many Soviet-style blocks of flats were erected quickly. Korean weather has not treated them kindly (frozen winters and hot summers with very heavy rain) and those that remain are not looking as good as they once did.
A large rebuilding campaign was embarked on in the 70s to replace them with better quality flats and that process is still continuing today, with large areas to the north and west of the city earmarked for expansion.
But there are no slums of the kind that would be expected in most other Asian countries and there are certainly no homeless people on the streets.
One of the most striking elements of a view of the whole city is the vast amount of space given over to parks and gardens, many alongside the river Taedong and the wide streets. Many of the main routes are bordered by grassy strips with flowers. These are constantly being tended and weeded.
We were told that housewives often do this voluntarily and so do groups of children during school holidays.
There is no litter, graffiti or vandalism. The people of Pyongyang are proud of their city.
There are very few cars on the wide roads of Pyongyang but plenty of pedestrians and cyclists. The climate is not kind to road surfaces so driving takes a special kind of concentration.
There are plenty of buses and trams in town, usually packed. These services are in the process of being improved. We also saw many work groups and school outings groups (our visit coincided with the last few days of term) travelling in the backs of high-wheeled lorries.
The noise of what traffic there was, was constantly drowned by the sound of the cicadas in the parks and streetside trees.
There is also a magnificent underground railway system in the capital with palatial, marble halls and chandeliers designed to resemble a static firework display. The light fittings of Pyongyang are worth a visit in their own right, with thousands of coloured dangling glass prisms arranged in floral patterns.
The rush-hour in Pyongyang does not really get going before seven in the morning. Then hundreds of workers are walking and cycling about, waiting for buses and trains. We were told most work an eight-hour day beginning at eight, nine or ten according to the job and a 48-hour week. Shift and round-the-clock working happens when it is necessary as in healthcare, power or production work.
We saw no over or under weight people. The only uniform aspect to the appearance of Pyongyang people is that they all look formidably fit and healthy. They do an awful lot of walking compared to Londoners. And in recent years natural disasters have caused food shortages that have led to rationing.
The United Nations relief agency praised the way in which the DPRK
administered its food aid so that it reached all who needed it fairly.
The clothes worn by the people were mostly light cottonsnothing else was bearable in the heat and humidityin as varied colours and styles as you would find in any western high street, though a significant minority of women still choose to wear the gorgeous national costume. It was hard to believe this is technically a Third World country.
A visit to Kim Il Sungs birthplace at Mangyongdae, just outside Pyongyang, showed us an example of a poor Korean peasant home of a style that has prevailed for centuries. It contains original farming and cooking implements.
Friday July 27 coincided with commemorations and celebrations of the defeat of the Americans in the 1951-53 war and was a national holiday. We visited the huge Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War and delegation leader Alex Kempshall laid flowers of behalf of the NCP shortly after big ceremonies involving veterans and currently serving members of the armed forces and their families.
The DPRK now operates an "army first" policy. In a capitalist country this would be alarming but in the DPRK the army is so closely integrated with the people that it could not be used against them. There is no conscriptionarmy service is entirely voluntarybut most young people see it as their responsibility to the safety of their country to put in some service, ranging from six months to several years. Those who wish to make it a career can go to a military academy and become officers.
The army does not merely defend the country. It is involved, giving a lead in all major civil construction work and wherever hard work is needed in farming.
Soldiers, young men and women, are very visible everywhere, building flats and roads. They played the major role in constructing the giant West Sea Barrage, a major undertaking that closed a wide river mouth allowing vast acres of salt marsh to be drained for arable use and creating a big fresh water lake for fishing, with locks through the barrage for shipping and channels for natural fish migration. The army has also pioneered fish farming in the DPRK.
Those who leave the army remain on the reserve list and take part in occasional retraining. One way and another, most of the population are
involved with the army and are ready to take up arms if need be to defend their country.
The Koreans are a generous, friendly people with no hostility to anyone. They boast that in 6,000 years of history they have never so much as thrown a stone at any other nation. But they are aware that US imperialism has described their country as a "rogue nation" and would dearly like to impose the will of the global markets to enslave them.
The Koreans say that if the Americans approach them in peace and friendship they will be happy to respond likewise. But if they make a hard, hostile approach, the Koreans will meet them with three times the hardness in response.
One of our trips was to the Pueblo, a US spy ship captured in Korean waters in the early 60s and now a tourist attraction.
On the afternoon of 27 July we visited the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery on a hill just outside the city with magnificent views. Again, Alex laid flowers on behalf of the NCP.
In the evening we were taken to Kim Il Sung Square for a massive open-air dance and pushed into the melee. Our hands were taken immediately by young Koreans and, as gestures overcame the language barrier, we were taught traditional Korean dancing. A number of other foreign visitors were also impressed into the dance including a young African family who were plainly enjoying themselves enormously.
The dance finished early by our standards at just past nine but we were assured that young Korean girls and boys seem to take an awfully long time to wander home in each others company.
The Grand Peoples Study House is a huge building with a traditional style pagoda-type roof, dominating the square. It is not merely a vast national library with access to books from all around the worldand, of course, the internetit also runs open lecture courses with recorded tapes available for those who miss a lecture.
And it has a unique feature. It has a large academic staff who are at the bidding of the people of Korea. Anyone who has any query on any subject whatever can make all appointment with a leading academic specialist to have their question answered and explained. This is a free service.
The Schoolchildrens Palace is another remarkable institution. It provides free after-school tuition in any hobby children may want to take up: music, singing, dance, acting, photography, computing, swimming and so on.
We were treated to a full professional variety of song, dance and comedy performances that would be hard to match in Londons West End.
The school we saw was an elite one with entrance by selection at three different ages. It concentrated heavily on sciences, engineering and computing. The DPRK is determined to turn out enough well qualified young people to meet whatever challenges face the country. Other schools are being brought up to the same level. Boys and girls are treated absolutely equally and class size is limited to 24.
The maternity hospital has won a Unicef award giving them maximum points as a "baby-friendly" hospitalan award that puts many a Western hospital into the shade. Pregnant women are monitored not only for weight, blood pressure and signs of diabetes but also for liver and kidney functionas well as the usual scanning.
Visitors to new mums have to communicate via closed-circuit TV links and the walls are tiled rather than the sort of pastel shades we expect in western hospitals.
But the new mums are two to a room, with babies cots at the ends of the beds. They have en-suite facilities and televisions in the rooms. Air conditioning and the usual nurse-call buttons. There are plenty of nurses everywhere.
We had three trips outside the capital. One was to the West Sea Barrage. Another was to Mount Myohyang, a mountain resort where we stayed overnight in a large hotel in the midst of the most spectacular scenery imaginable.
The view from our balconies was jawdropping.
Heavy rain curtailed our mountain climbing to just one day, walking along well-kept paths (we saw several people at work maintaining them), across bridges over a tumbling mountain river up a valley that got steeper and steeper as we went higher. Near the top we came across a small Buddhist temple. We asked if there was any conflict between the state and religion in the DPRK and were told no, religion is regarded as a cultural matter and nothing to do with politics.
Close to the mountain hotel was a large, ancient Buddhist temple, now carefully maintained by the state containing many ancient treasures including a building filled with ancient Buddhist printed texts, some of the oldest printed works the world.
Unfortunately, many historic treasures were lost during the Japanese occupation as the Japanese tried to destroy all evidence of the 6,000-year-old unbroken civilisation and culture of Korea.
Also near the mountain hotel is the International Friendship Exhibition a display of all the gifts given to Presidents Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il by foreign governments, world leaders, parties and businesses. Most countries exchange such gifts on a diplomatic basis but the DPRK is the only country where they are put on display for the public.
The rain absolutely tipped down on our trip to the border with the American occupied south Korea at Panmunjom, turning steep hill and mountainsides into waterfalls, washing debris onto the road surface and reducing visibility.
But it did stop for half an hour or so for us to see the de-militarised zone and peer across the border at tourists in south Korea who were peering back. Also peering back were many south Korean soldiers in very US-style uniforms and plenty of cameras. The Americans themselves kept out of sight.
We were allowed into a small hut with a negotiating table in the middle which is the only place that the two Koreas can meet legally. The two sides must take it in turns to allow visitors in. Ordinary people from the north and south are not allowed to meet, even in this hut.
We went in with a group from Pyongyang and sat around the table with them, pretending to be negotiators. Nobody wanted to be the imperialists.
As we did so, armed south Korean soldiers peered in at the windows menacingly. We were rather glad we had been assigned two DPRK soldiers to protect us.
We were also shown the hut where the armistice was signed in 1953. The Americans had wanted the signing to be in the open air so there would be no historic building afterwards to mark their military humiliation. But the Koreans put the shed up overnight in any case.
They pointed out to us that the armistice was signed between the DPRK and the Americans, not the south Koreans, so the reunification of the country has to be negotiated with the Americans. The south Koreans have no sovereignty over their own country at the moment.
In Pyongyang, the Three Revolutions Exhibition displayed the products of north Korean industry, the power stations existing and yet to be built.
There is certainly plenty of scope for hydro-electric schemes. The country has great mineral wealth, with coal, iron, copper, magnesium, lead, gold and silver. No wonder world capitalism wants to get its hands on these treasures.
Food production is rising though the country is not yet fully independent in this respect, it is well on the way. A system of double cropping is now in operation with both wheat and rice grown to harvest in the same fields each year.
Orchards and vegetable patches often double up with beans growing among the fruit trees and other vegetables. The bean plants, as well as providing extra food, fix nitrogen in the soil, adding to its fertility. Every possible inch of the land is cultivated but much of the land is too rocky and mountainous for anything but sheep and goats. Korean cattle are large and sandy-coloured and do a lot of work.
Extra food is now coming from fish farming and potato crops.
But the DPRKs greatest resource is its people. Socialism and the leadership of Kim Il Sung and his successor Kim Jong Il have given the country a staggeringly high level of social cohesion and commitment. The people have humour and intelligence without cynicism, egotism or selfishness.
Their country has made amazing strides in improving living standards and built magnificent roads and cities without borrowing on global financial markets or putting itself in thrall to the worlds bankers. That is what capitalism cannot forgive.
This has been possible because the Workers Party of Korea concentrates not only on economic advancement but also on ideological advancement. The people have every reason to be proud of what they have created and they know it.
17th August 2001