(continued) Pyongyang, North Korea: September 8, 1995: Mr. Ri Su Kil, the deputy vice minister of the ministry of health had been with us every minute since we had arrived. He was ultimately in charge of all four thousand clinics. So we had no problem with full access when he gave the word to let us inspect them. The facilities were all very clean, orderly, and well organized, and the staff members all wore whites and even “chef hats,” as Jay called them. Yes, the facilities were tidy … but, wow, were they ever third-world. In all my travels, I had not seen more outdated equipment. I guessed that most of the equipment was reclaimed pieces from the Korean War in the 1950s. That included the diagnostic equipment, operating-room equipment … everything.
I didn’t know if their pride could handle it, but Project C.U.R.E. would probably have to bring doctors and technicians over to train some of their people to go out and train the rest of the medical staff in the four thousand clinics how to use instruments we take for granted. The process would have to be slow and gentle, because these folks had believed the Juche idea for so long that they really thought they had the best health-care system in the world right now. The borders had been so tightly closed and information kept out so successfully that it was not going to be easy for them to adjust to reality. There were two or three informational generations totally missing. My heart really hurt for the people and their future. How would they handle it?
When we pulled away from the facility, it started to dawn on me how unusually rare this trip had been. Jay’s and my eyes had already seen more than could have been expected, and I was reminded of the Bible verse, “To whom much has been given, much will be required” (NRSV). There was a scary amount of responsibility that accompanied that privilege of being the first.
Back out through the town we went once again … back up the beautiful canyon, back over the road washed out by the high floodwaters, back past the Buddhist monastery, back past the Palace of Gifts, right on up the winding road that grew narrower and steeper with each mile. We pulled off the road where there were a few houses clustered and a stone building with the ever-smiling face of Great Leader Kim Il-Sung plastered on the front. The driver honked the car’s horn, and a girl in her early twenties popped out of nowhere and got into the second car. The girl was to be our guide, and we were headed to Manpoktong Mountain. The girl had grown up in the mountains, there along the river, had passed the entrance tests and gone to the university, and was assigned to go back to her home and act as guide for people privileged enough to be able to climb the mountain.
Manpoktong means “ten thousand waterfalls.” The mountain was gorgeous, with white and light-gray granite, and where there was topsoil, it was covered with heavy undergrowth and trees.
After pushing our way up a very narrow and steep concrete road, our driver brought the car to a halt in a small, paved cul-de-sac. It had just started to rain lightly, so each of us was given an umbrella and a walking stick, and our guide told us, through Mr. Rim, that it was going to be very slippery and especially muddy and slick where the rains had washed away the trail.
The mountain rose 9,909 meters, nearly straight up. Our first trek would take us more than 500 meters up in rapid elevation. The girl had to take us on several detours but always got us back to the trail. I asked her when she had first climbed the mountain. She said she was too young to remember.
All the time we were climbing, we could hear the crashing of the waterfalls. Our first stop delivered to us an astounding site. She told us that if we thought that was great … just wait. Kim Jong Il had visited the site and had instructed the workers to carve steps in the granite face in some places and install chain handrails to make it easier and safer for the people to climb.
When we reached the concrete pavilion about two hundred meters from the top, it had really set in to rain. The heavy clouds moved in, and we were enshrouded by rain and fog. We decided to wait there for it to clear so we could take some pictures.
I eagerly admit that I had seen few sights that rivaled the ten thousand waterfalls of Manpoktong. When the clouds passed and the sun came out, the view was the best of all possible dreams. I had seen Niagara Falls and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but for rare beauty of an undisturbed nature, this was special. Of course, as a disrespectful entrepreneurial American, my first statement to Jay was, “Man, if we could relocate this thing between Denver and Colorado Springs or Denver and Idaho Springs and develop the twenty thousand acres around it, we would be set!”
There was one more steep climb above the pavilion of some one hundred meters to a footbridge that went across the falls just below the primary cascade. Our trip down the mountain was more precarious than the one up. When we reached the cul-de-sac, the cars were there and so were a couple of other people. They were the waiter and waitress from the hotel dining room. Mr. Jong had arranged for a picnic lunch to be brought to us at the foot of the mountain. However, it was again raining hard enough that they all made the decision to go back down toward the river and see if we could find a dry spot.
They picked a spot under a high bridge, where previously they had a docking spot for riverboats. All of that was washed away, but there still was a sandy, dry area with the high bridge as a roof.
I need to tell you … that was no ordinary holiday picnic. They had brought along two charcoal burners and all the trimmings. Soon the chosen spot was transformed into a beautiful linen banquet setting. White tablecloths were spread on the sand. Dishes, cups, glasses, and even sterling-silver chopsticks. When the fires were ready, we all gathered and sat on marble slabs they had rounded up. I had no idea of the names of all the different oriental dishes that were prepared for us. I was afraid to even ask about the meat dishes, but I did recognize several types of fish, beef, and calamari.
Mr. Jong said that the head minister of foreign affairs had already called him a couple of times since we had arrived there by train, making sure everything was going all right and that the Jacksons were happy. He said that it seemed that word had gotten around the Pyongyang officials regarding the gift and the Jacksons’ work for reunification, and they were declaring Mr. Jackson an “honored patriot.”
One of the most personally significant things that happened on the whole trip took place around those charcoal pots at that picnic setting. Mr. Ri Su Kil began to relax and unload his emotional basket. He kept saying, maybe four or five different times, how when he heard that the Americans were coming to Pyongyang, and since he was representing the health ministry, he would have to be with us and just didn’t know if he could personally handle it.
Then, as if he couldn’t keep the emotion bottled up anymore, he said through Mr. Rim, the interpreter, “I just didn’t know if I could be with Americans, because the Americans are my enemies. I am now fifty-three years old, and the Americans killed my father and all my family in 1952. It is the Americans who have their troops in South Korea today, and that is the only thing that is keeping the two halves of my country from coming back together. The Americans have been my enemy all my life. And now Mr. Jackson comes and spends these days with us, and I like him. Today he has become a brother to me, and he is an American. Please, Mr. James W. Jackson, do not only bring to us the greatly needed medical supplies but also bring something more important to us. Please talk to someone about taking the American army out of South Korea so that we can be one country again.”
I assured Mr. Ri that I would continue to do all I could to bring that dream to pass, because indeed he was my brother and my friend. I proposed a toast to our friendship and told Mr. Ri that when the day of reunification came, I wanted to have him come to my home in the mountains of Colorado and meet a lot more wonderful Americans. I toasted him with a glass of mineral water, and he told me jokingly that he would not even consider it if all I offered to him when he got there was mineral water.
Well, the US State Department had wanted me to build bridges of friendship between the USA and North Korea. It was my humble opinion that we were making headway.
© Dr. James W. Jackson
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