North Korea

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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Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #4 September 1995

(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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Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #3 DPRK from September 1995

(continued) Pyongyang, North Korea: September 8, 1995: At 4:15 a.m., the lights in my room came on. That was the North Korean version of a wake-up call. It seemed like it was awfully early, since I had stayed up past midnight trying to keep up with my journal writing. No hot water had been turned into the pipes, again, so the ice-cold shampoo and shower helped to wake me up quite completely. 

At a little after 5:00 a.m., a knock came on the door, and Mr. Rim said they were ready to take us to the train station. As I indicated before, no American to my knowledge had been allowed to go outside Pyongyang city. But we had found favor enough now for them to invite us to go on a train for a nearly four-hour trip north to the Mount Myohyang area in the county of Hyangsan. I was thrilled beyond belief. I had seen trains pull out of the downtown station when I had visited Pyongyang before and wondered what it would be like to ride on one of them. In fact, on that trip I had inquired if anywhere in their country they still might have steam locomotives in operation, and Mr. Chun had said that there were steam trains up in the northern part of the country. But at that time I never even dreamed I would ever leave Pyongyang, except by air to Beijing. 

The station was very neat and clean and mostly directed by military women in the station and out on the platform. We passed up the general open-seating cars and were directed to board the last passenger car, which was old but a nicely complemented wooden coach with private compartments. It was still dark outside, but the first rays of sunshine were beginning to crack through in the east. There were four berths in each compartment of the passenger car, two upper and two lower, with a small table set for tea located under the window and between the two lower berths. The beds were made up for sleeping, but at that hour we chose to sit. 

It was really strange. Jay and I had come to the station in separate Mercedes cars, and we were shown to two separate compartments. There was no effort to keep us apart once we were on the train, but it just kept pushing my paranoia when it was not clear whether the gesture was for their safety or for our comfort and as a compliment to us.

The train pulled out of the station on time, of course, and my eyes were kept busy drinking in the sights seen by so very few in the past fifty years. The sunrise was beautiful, but Jay and I had picked up the feeling that it would be frowned upon if we were observed taking a lot of pictures. We passed the port at Nampho, where the container would arrive, and about one hour into the trip. I looked out the train window and then turned to Jay and pointed to him and quietly told him to quickly grab the camera. About a half mile from the train tracks was a whole hilltop covered with antiaircraft guns, missile launchers, and other weapons. The missiles were in a defensive position pointed south, and I presumed they were protecting something on ahead to the north. Sure enough, up the track about five miles was a large chemical plant and refinery. It made sense that they would be defending the installation in case of an attack from the south. 

Having personally owned a real live steam locomotive and consist (all the passenger cars, the Pullman cars, the caboose cars, and additional rolling stock) that we used to lease to Hollywood movie makers, and still owning a small narrow-gauge steam train that today is on loan to the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, I had a great interest in locations where steam locomotives were still used. I was keeping my eyes and ears wide open in hope that I might catch a glimpse of some live steam power or the shrill sound of a steam whistle. 

Jackson on MGM movie set with Jackson Brother’s steam train, staring William Holden, Vince Edwards, Cliff Robertson and pictured here with actor Claude Akins. Train was featured in movies such as Cat Ballou, The Professionals, and The Devil’s Brigade.

 I kept moving from my compartment window out into the narrow-windowed hallway of the coach looking for telltale signs of steam power. As the train slowed, approaching one of the village stops, I thought I spotted an overhead water facility with a pipe and spigot about four inches in diameter. That has to be for filling a boiler, I thought. I couldn’t spot any live steam, but as the train slowed down, what I did see burned a hole in my memory. There on a siding was a passenger train that had pulled off onto the siding to let our fast train past. It consisted of about ten very old-style wooden coaches. The windows and doors were all open, and the people who were aboard were headed into Pyongyang for the national holiday celebrations. Most were clutching small colorful flower arrangements, which they were taking to place before the huge bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung situated in the city square. 

The people were so packed on that train that literally they were hanging out the windows and sitting on the steps of the coach entrance, hanging on to the handrails so as not to fall out. But what was so riveting was the looks on their faces—the sadness, the emptiness, almost as though they were confused or abandoned; no smiles, no chatter. As we slowly passed the many windows and doorways of the coaches and I studied the eyes and body language of the passengers, I myself felt drained. Then the train, once past the siding, picked up speed and raced on north. 

Just before we entered the next village, I spotted them! Yes, indeed, there they were … two old locomotives under a full head of steam sitting on sidings attached to a consist of freight cars. Steam was coming from the turbine generators on the top and hissing from around the main driver pistons in the front. It appeared to me that they were hand-stoked coal engines of either a 2-8-0 or 2-6-0 configuration. By the time I grabbed my camera to capture them on film, we were past them. 

Jay came out of his compartment and excitedly hollered, “Did you see that?”
I said, “Yeah … rats … I didn’t get a picture!”

Later he told me that he spotted another in a switching yard while I was out talking to Mr. Ri Su Kil and Mr. Rim Tong Won. Actually, Mr. Rim had asked me where I was born, and I told him Idaho. And he said, “Oh yes, I rike berry mush the story of Idenhoe; good story.” I didn’t have the heart to correct him, so I just smiled.

Next Week: North Korea (continued)

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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