By Derek Ford
Returning to Pyongyang from a few long days travelling around Panmunjom, Sinchon, Sariwon, and Kaesong, I asked my friend Ryong-Il if we could stop at a pharmacy for something for my stomach. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I told him another traveler and I were just having some minor digestive problems, which are fairly common for distant travels. Kim insisted on taking me to the hospital.
When we got to the Friendship Hospital, two doctors and four nurses tended to us. We insisted we just needed some rest and Imodium, but to no avail. “We have a moral obligation to help you feel as good as possible,” they told us. We left the hospital a few hours later, fully recovered and none the poorer.
This one experience encapsulates so much of the time I spent with the people of the DPRK. It was in mid-August of 2017, and I was there as an organizer with the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) Coalition, having organized a group of five people traveling on U.S. passports. I was there while Trump threatened the country with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” yet the people there treated me with a hospitality and warmth I’d never before seen.
There’s a reason why the U.S. is preventing its citizens from travelling to the DPRK, and it isn’t to protect us. Rather, it’s to further tighten and restrict the narrative about the country we have access to, a narrative that falls apart as soon as you interact with the North Korean people.
Defeated in the Korean War, the U.S. refused to sign a peace treaty with the DPRK in July 1953. Since that time, there has been an ironclad consensus in Washington that the socialist revolution there, as in Cuba, has to be overthrown. In addition to hostile policies, military encirclement, and trade embargos, a virulent propaganda campaign of demonization has been crucial to maintaining this consensus, and spreading it to most people in the U.S. Unfortunately, the left hasn’t spoken truth to these lies, and in many cases has parroted, line by line, the imperialists’ smug, racist caricatures of the country, its leadership, and its people.
During my time there I was able to meet with a range of people. I had lunch with co-operative farmers, discussions with researchers, scientists, soldiers, war survivors, teachers, and students, and spontaneous chats with people while walking on the street or in the park, eating in restaurants, waiting in line at amusement parks, and hiking one of the country’s many beautiful mountains. Everyone was highly informed and keen to know about life in the U.S. They knew about racist police murders, the epidemic of gender-based violence and harassment, and the homeless crisis. “Is it true? Is it really that bad?” they would ask. They could understand in the abstract, but not in a grounded way.
As a collective society, there is little to no crime in the DPRK. Women and children walk alone at any hour of the night. There are very few police, even in Pyongyang. You do see soldiers, but they are picking up trash, building houses, or tending to the crops. When people pass by soldiers on the street, they don’t cower or cross to the other side. People hitchhike everywhere, and you can count on someone to stop and pick you up when you need to get to work or to a friend’s home.
This collective was forged in the most difficult of circumstances. Everyone lost family members in the U.S. war. People still die picking up mines left by U.S. troops. Another friend I met there, Hyung-Chul lost his 3 year-old daughter during the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union (a primary trading partner), the country endured severe draughts and floods. The U.S. blocked aid and tightened sanctions. Recalling his daughter, he looked at me, and said, “What have we ever done to anyone?”
A tiny country with no air force up against the world’s largest superpower, North Koreans beat the U.S. in the 1950-1953 war, and since then no foreign army has occupied their country. They survived the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the implosion of the socialist bloc, and China’s right-wing turn.
Despite the harshest sanctions, the country is thriving, sending their own satellites into space and becoming 100 percent food self-sufficient. The World Health Organization called their health care system “the envy of the developing world” in 2010.
They are still defeating the U.S.
The Korean struggle has been a lonely one, and it’s time for peace and justice-loving people in the U.S. to stand with them as they seek to develop on their own terms.