Where a "no" means let's talk

Karin Janz with the farm manager of an agricultural cooperative in North Korea.

By Hao Ying

The North Korean farmers working with German agricultural expert Karin Janz were excited. They had ordered a tractor from a local foreign trade magazine, the first new model in 30 years. They needed all the help they could get, because their land, not fertile to begin with, had been depleted by decades of industrialized farming. Fertilizer was scarce since the alleged nuclear test in 2008, and the pump-driven irrigation systems had been falling apart since the 80s, when North Korea's biggest ally, the former Soviet Union, stopped sending aid.

The electricity required to run the irrigation pumps was wildly unreliable, with power outages sometimes destroying crops.

When the tractor arrived, the farmers were furious. It was the same old model.

"Industry is deteriorating," Janz concluded, adding that the tractor was just one example.

Janz recently finished a five-year tenure as the head of the German NGO Welthungerhilfe, with an annual budget of 5 million euros ($6 million) and a staff of about 10 foreigners and 30 North Koreans.

Typical Asian compromise

"From early childhood, it was my wish to work with farmers in Asia," she says. Before taking the post in North Korea, she had spent 20 years working in rural China, including planting rice side-by-side with farmers in Hebei Province.

Janz almost didn't get to stay in North Korea. Not long after she arrived, the North Korean government unilaterally booted all NGOs and some UN organizations out of the country, because they wanted government-to-government aid. The groups had no choice but to leave, even though they felt they were doing valuable work.

Janz shipped all her things home. But the police told her, "'you can stay here as long as possible to pack your things.'"

She took this as a sign that they wanted to negotiate, so she delayed. After months of negotiation, both sides reached what she called "a typical Asian compromise." Her NGO did not use its own name, but worked under the EU. "Everybody seems to be happy about it," she says.

Janz, speaking in Beijing on her way home, described present day North Korea as a "completely different world," and compared it to the China of 30 years ago.

Farmhouses in North Korea look better than those in some poor parts of China where she worked, she says. In one of several references to the preoc-cupation with their appearance, she says, "This might be due to the fact that Koreans put more emphasis on clothing and housing, less on food," she says. "Chinese people put more emphasis on food."

She notes that fashionable clothes are available in the capital. Cosmetics were always a welcome gift. One North Korean friend, when given some South Korean makeup, told Janz with delight: "That's from our country."

Not a charade

This concern with appearances, however, does not extend to the point where life in the capital is a kind of charade for the sake of appearances, an impression some visitors have left with.

"I never had the impression that everything was put to scene. I was free to travel, drive my own car. I could almost eat at any house, go to any restaurant." The church she attended "was not theater," she says; it went on whether she attended or not.

However, communication in the country was at times, difficult.

"There are many different telephone systems. Foreigners cannot call the North Koreans in their homes," she says. Until the introduction of mobile phones a year ago, it was impossible to get in touch with a farm cooperative. But even now, there are two or three different mobile phone systems, so North Koreans can only call themselves.

Ordinary people, including scientists, don't have direct access to the Internet. However, university students can chat online with a kind of intranet that is not hooked up to the worldwide system, she said.

Janz said she couldn't even get in touch with the Chinese aid groups. Foreign movies are strictly banned.

Once, a 15-year-old girl wanted to meet Janz, but was not allowed. They discreetly arranged to go swimming. "The first question she asked me was, 'Who do you prefer, Brad Pitt or Keanu Reeves?'" Janz recalls. Her teachers were using American movies to teach her class English.

Love and relationships are very important to North Koreans, Janz says. "Very often we ended up talking about this, maybe more than in other countries, because this was not political," she says. "Very, very private and intimate things were shared, maybe even more than as Westerners we'd think was appropriate."

North Koreans unanimously expressed support for their leadership, and she never pressed them on the subject. But she says North Koreans are highly educated and clever, and not marionettes of the government by any means. Many ran businesses on the side, like making dumplings or giving private music lessons in exchange for US dollars.

Patient negotiation

Her group helped farmers use sustainable farming methods that prevented erosion on the private plots of farmland on the sides of hills, where officially farming was not taking place.

She boasts that the project came to fruition after years of patient negotiation. The land is now registered, something she considers to be a breakthrough step on the path to private land ownership. Her group also develops greenhouses near cities, and sanitation and water systems for some municipalities.

Food supplies are not plentiful but not as serious a problem as portrayed in the Western media, she says. On the other hand, heat and electricity supplies were intermittent, even in Pyongyang.

The currency reforms of late last year were a disaster, she says, leading to food shortages, hoarding, and resentment - the government was hard-pressed to use its usual excuse of blaming the rest of the world for the debacle.

"…I think almost all believe that the country is in such a bad position because of outside forces," she says.

This year, her staff for the first time marked the birthday of Kim Jong-un, the third son of leader Kim Jong-il and possible successor.

"They left the office at 2 o'clock and said they had to go to a celebration."

Although speculation has been rife as to what may happen to North Korea in the coming few years, Janz notes, "The system has been stable for 60 years. It might be more stable than you think."

She says she's looking forward to going back to Germany and doing simple things such as reading a same-day newspaper, instead of waiting three weeks for it to be delivered.

However, it is taking time for her to get used to the more direct ways of communication.

"In East Asia, when somebody says, 'No', it's an invitation for further negotiation. 'Would you like some tea?' 'Oh no, thanks', 'Please, drink', 'No, no', 'Please here is your tea!' 'Thanks a lot, I am enjoying it'. Now, in Germany, I have to say 'Yes' immediately when somebody offers me a cup of tea."


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