Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #5 from September 1995

(cont: North Korea)  On our way to breakfast, they informed us that as soon as we finished, the cars would be waiting for us to go to Nampho. Again, I could hardly believe my ears. Nampho was their strategic port city, and for reasons of security and defense, I don’t believe any other American had ever been allowed to visit the spot.

We headed west through Pyongyang and a little south toward Nampho. Nampho is about sixty-five or seventy miles out of Pyongyang. We passed the tight security checkpoint line that encircled the city, about ten miles out. The checkpoint ensured that no one would wander outside the city, but more important, if you were just a worker, you could not have access into the city. You could only go into the great city if you were requested, and then only with an official pass. You had to be the best little street sweeper, or the best crew worker before you were privileged to go into the city. Travel, even across town, was never encouraged, and if for some reason you needed to meet with other family members who lived in the city, those members would, more than likely, have to travel outside the great city to meet with you. (And they say that Socialism is classless!)

The farther we got from the city, the more we saw the ox carts carrying loads and the oxen pulling the plows in the field. In preparation for winter, the villagers were spreading their kernels of corn on the concrete road to dry them in the September sun. The display reminded me of a huge yellow quilt bedspread.

We passed the famed North Korean iron-ore mountains and steel mills. I was shocked at the deferred maintenance everywhere. They had the plants operating with bellowing smoke, but the metal buildings and structures were badly rusting, the machinery was out of the 1950s, and the crawler tractors were probably left over from the Korean War. And everywhere I looked, things were old and unpainted and in bad disrepair.

Driving through Nampho, I saw the docks where our cargo container of medical goods would be unloaded. It would have been fun to be there the day of its arrival. 

We drove on west and out of Nampho along the Taedong River toward the sea. As we approached the sea, there were several miles of partitioned salt fields between the road and the sea where they were processing their own salt. As we came around a small mountain and past an old, rusted-out concrete batch plant, there loomed two more giant marble gateways that formed an arch effect across the road. The huge statues that faced each other were of workers being led by Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, depicting the conquering of the sea and the victory of the Worker’s Army. 

In 1981 the government decided to build a sea barrage some eight miles long to span the mouth of the Taedong River. The idea was to not only make a land bridge to connect the northern province to the southern province and eliminate the long trip inland around the wide mouth of the river, but also to separate the seawater from the fresh river water. High tides on the sea would send damaging waves back up river and wash out crops and dwellings. By building the sea barrage, it also allowed the separated freshwater to be stored at a designated level and pumped back up the river as far as needed for irrigation. But the sea barrage did not allow the ships to move up and down the wide river, so a series of four sets of locks was designed to handle the boat traffic. The sea barrage was wide enough to accommodate not only a highway but also a rail line. Estimates were that it would take a minimum of ten years to accomplish the construction. But one advantage of being a dictator was the option Kim Il-Sung would have to throw as many of his twenty-seven million workers as possible at any project he might choose. Thirty thousand workers and five years later, the job was completed. It had become one of the strategic developments of the recent past. However, one of the weaknesses of the Socialist’s division of labor was that when you take rice farmers and have them build huge concrete structures, you may have a problem with quality control. The structure in just this short time already showed signs of flaws and was in need of repair.

We got lots of good pictures of the project and were even shown a chronicled video of the process. (It was surprising, but this time our overseers had not been so fussy about our picture taking. Last time they hadn’t wanted me to take pictures of buildings, common people, or vehicles, and especially not anything that had to do with the military or the Korean People’s Army.)

On the return trip to Pyongyang, I had time to do some reflecting. I had now been in so many of the developing countries, which for the past fifty years had tried every variation of Socialism imaginable—Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Romania, Russia, Mexico, Cuba, China, Germany, Austria, Israel, Denmark, Belgium, India, and others, and even in some measure Ireland, Canada, England, and the USA—and all had gotten caught up in social projects, wealth redistribution, reversal agendas, and welfare markets. In their feverish pitch to create a brand-new world of absolute dreams, they had all neglected one thing: the power and basic principles of economics. And now, once the wealth of previously created establishments had all been redistributed and they had discovered that you couldn’t keep dividing up nothing, the grand and glorious revolutionary dreams were coming unraveled, and to greater or lesser degrees, the experiments were now falling apart while the drivers tried to double their futile efforts to keep the ungreased wagon wheels from falling off the wagons. 

I watched hundreds of North Koreans on my way back to Pyongyang walking along the roads or sitting along sides of the fields, or in groups under trees—not a car or a bus in sight, not a shovel or a hoe in their hands, no place to go, and absolutely no motivation to get there if they could go. And really, why should they be motivated? Their group leaders gave them food, government clothes, a house, parades and dances, signs with slogans of hope, and the assurance that they had it better than anyone else in the world. It is true, in one sense, that there is no unemployment. But the other side is equally true: There is no employment either. 

Pyongyang is a gorgeous propaganda city with no graffiti and very little crime, but outside the city, it’s ox carts, candles, and cholera. Oops! Sorry for the musing … back to work! 

When we returned to the hotel, my good friend Chun Song Gap, the senior man at the Department of Disarmament and Peace, was there. It was so good to talk with him. He had already received the transcripts of the Los Angeles summit I had attended, and we talked in detail about the positions taken by the DPRK as well as the US State Department. We talked about the embargo and the need for Project C.U.R.E. to continue to ship the terribly needed medical supplies. He related to me some incidents indicating that his government was now very serious about getting the liaison offices set up in Pyongyang for the US, and Washington, D.C., for the DPRK as the next step for lifting the embargo. 

He said, “We are very much looking to you to help build those bridges of friendship.”  

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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