Note: Our diplomatic and humanitarian experience with Pyongyang, North Korea over the years has been an unusual saga of intrigue and fulfillment. The involvement has been highly applauded by our own Department of State as well as the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). I would like to share with you some of the saga by letting you read excerpts from my actual Journal entries and photo albums. The Journal segments cover the eight trips where I was involved, my meetings in New York and Los Angeles with my DPRK contacts, and the different incidents where we brought the North Korean leaders to our home in Colorado. More recently, Dr. Douglas Jackson, our current President and CEO of Project C.U.R.E. recently returned from Pyongyang.
Pyongyang, North Korea: September, 1995: The next morning, Jay (my second son) and I ate breakfast at the Radisson and caught the bus to the Tokyo airport at 7:30 a.m. for the three-hour flight to Beijing.
I had told Jay that DPRK’s Mr. Hyun Hak Bong from the United Nations office in New York had assured me that they had notified their Beijing embassy, and someone would be there to give us any needed assistance we might require during our stay in Beijing. But no one was there to meet us.
After about an hour of fretting, we grabbed a taxi to the Holiday Inn, Central Plaza on Wangfujing Avenue, near the heart of Beijing. The next morning Jay and I worked out quite strenuously in the hotel’s exercise room and then cleaned up, ate breakfast, and prepared for the task of the day: heading to the North Korean embassy. After a bit of an ordeal we received our visas and airplane tickets. Our flight leaving Beijing for Pyongyang was scheduled to depart at 3:00 p.m. The agent at Air Koryo had told us to check in by 1:30 p.m.
The plane’s flight course was low and sustained, which gave us a great opportunity to view the beautiful mountains, rolling hills, and cultivated farmland of North Korea. That’s as close to a firsthand view of the DPRK as any Americans have gotten since 1953. I had not heard of any American being granted permission to travel the countryside of the DPRK. All were confined to the limits of Pyongyang city.
I watched closely out the window and tried to imagine what one of the rural health clinics would look like that served the communities of the communal farm areas. My mind wandered, wondering whether Mr. Chun and Mrs. Rim, our micromanagers on the previous trip, would again meet us at the airport.
Jay and I deplaned and cleared the passport and immigration authorities. We loaded our boxes and bags on carts when they arrived on the conveyor belts and headed for customs. The officers began to give me a hard time about the contents of the hand-carried boxes of sample medical supplies and the suitcase containing all the gifts. At the next booth the official was giving Jay an equally bad time and was rummaging through his carry-on bag. The official pulled out a large firefighters training textbook that Jay had been studying, and it looked like the official had the full intention of confiscating it. Fortunately, just at that moment a short man in his late forties stuck his head around the security barrier and hollered out “Jackson” to me. When I responded, he pushed his way past security and came up to the customs officials. He took Jay’s book out of the official’s hand, put it back in the bag, zipped it up, said something to that official, and sent Jay out the door. He then came over to my booth, put my boxes and bags back on my cart, spoke to the official, and sent me out the door.
Once outside the terminal, it was time for introductions. My curiosity was answered—no, Mr. Chun and Mrs. Rim would not be there. Mrs. Rim no longer worked for the service, and Mr. Chun was now a very important member of the powerful Disarmament Committee dealing with issues like nuclear treaties and reunification. However, the short man who came to our rescue was named Mr. Rim Tong Won, so that would be easy to remember. The deputy vice minister of the health ministry, Mr. Ri Su Kil, was there, and Jong Won Son was also there as an official of the ministry of foreign affairs.
They had two older black Mercedes waiting for us, and as was their tradition, they took our passports and separated us into two different cars. If I hadn’t already gone through that routine before, I would have been spooked, especially since it was my son they were separating from me.
It was dusk, and the sun had set before we left the airport. The road into Pyongyang from the airport was a beautiful drive. North Korea is very mountainous and green. The long, wide highway was dotted with workers still along the roadsides sweeping leaves off the freeway with their homemade branch brooms. The workers were not in danger from traffic, because you hardly ever see a car in DPRK. Occasionally you might see a farm truck or a government vehicle carrying troops, but very few cars.
It was almost dark when we rounded a corner on one of the city’s main streets, and I recognized one of the beautiful performing-arts theaters, where I had visited on the previous trip. Just across the street from the theater was the Pyongyang Hotel, an older, large marble hotel built within a convenient walking distance to the river parks and many of the important buildings. We pulled into the entry, and I was ushered out of my car, and Jay out of his.
The next morning we were scheduled to view and perform a needs assessment on the Kim Man Yu Hospital. A man born in Korea but displaced to Japan at a very early age had become a very wealthy businessman in Japan. Before he died he wanted to do something for his mother country, so he agreed to build and furnish a totally modern hospital facility for Pyongyang. That he did, and it was completed in 1986. When I visited the hospital in 1993, I thought it strange to see the finest and newest equipment available there in Pyongyang. It was used as a showpiece, and the propaganda message to visitors was that the DPRK had the finest medical-care plan for its people and was totally free to all citizens from cradle to grave, and this was the quality of health care that was provided.
I remembered asking to see one of the rural or village clinics when I was there before. No way. In fact, it was my understanding that fewer than two hundred Americans had been allowed into the DPRK in the past, and none were allowed outside Pyongyang.
The hallways of Kim Man Yu were empty and dark. We were taken to the room where the CAT-scan machine was installed. They turned on the lights and uncovered the control board and then explained that the machine was used in the mornings. Sorry, we couldn’t see it work. The same process was repeated for the ultrasound machine, the angiographic machine, the EKG machines, and so on. But it was apparent that the machines were not used but were just there for show and tell.
The sad thing was that now those state-of-the-art machines are not the latest equipment available. In the years since the hospital was built, several generations of new technology have become available. Soon show and tell wouldn’t even be a featured attraction.
We left Kim Man Yu Hospital and returned to the hotel, where we were scheduled to have a meeting with one of the most influential members of the Disarmament Committee. There was also such a committee in South Korea, and I had previously met with them while I was in Seoul. The committees were organized to work out the details of reunification possibilities, and in the north to also oversee such issues as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. I was eager to meet with the committee members.
They seated Jay and me on one side of the conference area, when to my great surprise the man they ushered in to sit on the other side and represent the Disarmament Committee was none other than my good friend Mr. Chun.
Mr. Chun had been our interpreter, along with Mrs. Rim, for the nearly two weeks I was in the DPRK in 1993. He attended almost all of my meetings with the ministry heads and ambassadors, and the last time I had seen him was in the U.S. in January 1995.
You can only imagine the thrill and excitement when we saw each other in the conference room. We stepped across the room and hugged each other like brothers. The looks on all the other dignitaries’ faces in the room would have been worth a picture. The whole trip turned on that moment.
At formal meetings like that, each side opens with introductory remarks with the assistance of government interpreters. Then, following the opening remarks, the dialogue goes back and forth, taking turns in formal procedure. After expressing several pleasantries regarding our previous meetings, and after sending his respects and affection to Anna Marie and saying nice words of greeting to Jay, Mr. Chun began to unload to all those in the conference room.
“Since 1993, when Mr. Jackson was here before and to this date, many things have taken place. We of the DPRK find ourselves and the government of the United States in better relations than at any time in the past forty-five years. I want to say for the official record that Mr. Jackson and his great efforts are greatly responsible for those improved relations. He has done a lot for our cause. Mr. Jackson is the first to ever bring from the United States any gift of such significance. Others have talked and made promises. Mr. Jackson has not talked but has rather acted. This government sees Mr. Jackson as a friend and a true man of his word.
“Since this is the first of such an action, his efforts shall be recorded in the book of Korean history and will never be lost or forgotten. Mr. Jackson is expected to bring contacts and other aid with him; therefore, we see him as our ambassador. Yes, relations have progressed greatly, and Mr. James Jackson had a lot to do with that.”
Mr. Chun went on to say how much the government appreciated and was impressed by my sending the official letters of condolence to His Excellency, Kim Jong Il, at the time of the death of his father, Great Leader Kim Il-Sung.
I said that it had taken great effort and focus to bring about the shipping of the gift of medical supplies, and in essence we were the first to receive an official license to ship and had successfully shipped the supplies, thus actually breaking through the long-standing embargo.
I presented my case, then, to Mr. Chun about needing to view some rural or village clinics and have meetings with health-ministry officials and local doctors to discover the most appropriate items for future shipments. He assured me that I would have the meetings and would also receive lists that would help me make decisions for the future.
Next Week: Frank and Open Discussions
© Dr. James W. Jackson
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