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Northeast Asia Peace Initiative

S.N. Cho: Sowing Seeds in the Spring

My first visit to North Korea was in January 1994. I have been to North Korea on various occasions since the establishment of Pyonghwa Motors, working for economic cooperation between North and South Korea.

Walking on the North Korean soil in 2002, I felt anything but indifferent. My first impression of Pyongyang this time was that the atmosphere was a whole lot brighter than before. While I was going through the entry formalities at Soon An Airport, the electricity suddenly went off. I never experienced something like that. I did not know the actual cause, but I do not believe that it was the result of a general lack of electrical power in North Korea. As an old Korean saying goes, "A girl gets an abscess on her back on her wedding day." I just felt sorry that something like that had to happen on this special day for North Korea.

On the way to Pyongyang from the airport, I looked carefully at the propaganda billboards. They have changed quite a bit. They used to have horrible slogans such as "Peel the skin off of the Americans." This time, though, I could not see that kind of thing. During the more recent process of negotiations with America and Japan, such slogans seemed to have quietly disappeared. Instead, I could see far more slogans supporting the status quo such as "The Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il- sung is with us forever" or "Mansei for the Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il-sung, the sun of the 21st century." For the first time in the North, I saw the slogan "Let's love trees." When I was young, in the 1960s, I used to plant acacia trees or alders on the bare hills of South Korea during the campaign to "make the mountains green." I assumed that North Korea has entered such a phase.

We arrived at the Potonggang Hotel, where we were to stay. When I entered the hotel lobby, my mouth dropped open. Since we took over the hotel ten years ago, I know very well the complicated procedures people have had to go through to get repairs and maintenance work done,  improve the lobby lighting and modernize the coffee shop. Looking at the place, I was totally speechless. Inside the brilliant show window — the like of which you never see in North Korea — gorgeous-looking imported clothes were displayed. At a glance, I could tell they were very expensive. The gift shop next to it looked very neat and clean. What was more surprising was that the convenience store, full of expensive imported goods, was lit like daylight with many fluorescent lights.

Thanks to such repair work, when I entered my room the bathroom looked a lot cleaner than on previous occasions. The soap, shampoo and towels looked much nicer, too. When I used the elevator, I did not have to worry about whether or not I would get stuck between floors because of the power situation. Although the changes may not have been very noticeable at first glance, there were obvious changes if one looked at things closely. The expressions on the faces of people walking on the street looked so much brighter and more relaxed. I believe that they must have done maintenance work on a grand scale in Pyongyang in time for the spring festival and Sun Day celebration on April 15 (Kim Il-sung's birthday). It was obvious to me that North Korea is changing gradually. I felt the genuine possibility of reunification of North and South through economic cooperation.

North Korean leaders think that they can establish a strong and prosperous nation and that they can unify Korea if North Korea maintains its status quo. They may not notice that they themselves are changing gradually. I believe that herein lies a very good window of opportunity for us. I believe that Rev. Moon sees that, and that is why the investments in North Korea are growing slowly but steadily.

I believe that we can eliminate any possibility of war if we help the North Korean economy through economic cooperation with the South. In addition, I think we can hasten the moment of unification if we can solve the problems of food, clothing and housing by supporting the exhausted North Korean economy in ways permitted by law. We may well have to face difficulties and problems at the outset, but with wisdom we should be able to overcome them.

If we can put our heads together and maintain a common goal -- the mutual prosperity of South and North Korea -- we should be able to unify the economy of the two Koreas. As economic exchanges build trust between South and North and their synergy contributes to the prosperity of both Koreas, the opportunities for unifying other aspects of society improve. If we can reach that point, unified elections between South and North can take place, leading to complete reunification. I cannot stress enough the importance of programs promoting economic cooperation between the Koreas. In the beginning, South Korea's unilateral investment is necessary, but I am sure it will develop into something beneficial for both South and North in the end. What is important is that the Koreas build mutual trust through these kinds of program. Without trust, development as I have described will not be possible.

In going to the opening of the Pyonghwa plant, we used a recently-completed ten-lane highway between Pyongyang and Nampo, where the plant is located. It took us only 30 minutes. On previous trips, the road had not been thoroughly paved, causing inconvenience and longer travel time. In the back of my mind I felt compassion for the North Korean laborers who must have worked hard to build the road in heat that would have easily dried their sweat.

As soon as we reached the end of the highway, Pyonghwa Motors, in all its dignity, appeared before us. Two years ago, in the snow, at the time of the groundbreaking ceremony, it was just barren land. I could not believe my eyes that such a wonderful-looking plant now stood there. Although it was a rainy day, an orderly crowd of about 3,000 North Koreans were waiting for the ceremony to begin.

The Secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party, who is also the chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, Kim Yong-sun [now deceased], was there, as was his vice chairman, Son Ho-kyung; Cabinet Counselor Joo Il-churl; Cho Sun company president Lee Jung-churl; our North Korean business partner, Shin Kyung-rin; and other prominent individuals. This turnout demonstrated North Korea's great interest in Pyonghwa Motors.

Many of those who were at the groundbreaking two years ago were on hand to celebrate the completion of the construction, April 6, 2002. The only difference was the weather: then it snowed, now it rained. In two years, something great was created out of nothing. Where once there was only deserted land now stands a beautiful, grand factory with the most advanced facilities and equipment. It was really a moving moment.

In many respects, the opening of the Pyonghwa Motors assembly plant was a successful event. More importantly, it will become a clear milestone on our way to the unification of Korea. Until now, the Hyundai's Mt. Kumgang tourist business was the model for joint business endeavors between the Koreas, but it has run into serious trouble.

I have analyzed this and I find that first, they failed to notice that South-North economic cooperation was at the beginning stage of economic integration. Second, they were too hasty, without having worked things out on a long-term basis. Third, they even went against public opinion in paying such a high price.

It is a big mystery to me that in this 21st century, the most advanced scientific age, such a feudalistic nation as North Korea exists. People can travel around the entire globe in a day; the world is becoming a global community. Only North Korea resists taking its place in that community. I do not understand how they have the nerve to say that they can live in their own way, by themselves. It is an enigma to me.

They do not seem to hide, however, the fact that it is very hard to make what they are trying to achieve a reality. They acknowledge it, but at the same time they try to appeal to people to overcome the present difficulties. They have slogans such as, "We should smile even if things are rough" and "We will see who is smiling in the end!" I cannot figure out why it is so, but they seem very certain of a successful future.

I could describe North Koreans as people who have a religious fanaticism toward their leader, Kim II-sung. From my several visits there, I have concluded that it is a feudalistic country with a national religion I would call "Kim II-sungism." Without understanding this aspect of the North, it is impossible for anyone to understand what is going on there. The Keum Soo mountain palace, where Kim II-sung's body lies, is always busy with visitors 365 days a year. Kim Jong-il holds onto political power by maintaining the image of a filial son who is absolutely following his father's will. Chairman Kim Jong-il uses the method traditionally employed by his predecessor of giving on-the-spot guidance. In that way, he appeases the laborers and those from neglected areas and social classes by showing them that their leader is interested in them. Sometimes, this method is shrewdly used to convince laborers working on assembly lines that they have a lot in common with the top leader of the country. They also dig out "heroes" from all walks of life, such as a simple factory worker, a woman farmer or an athlete, in order to maximize the effectiveness and reach the goal of all organizations. This is in line with a planning program they call "learning from heroes." I think that we could learn something from their organizational skills, since we have the ultimate goal of the liberation of our homeland.

North Koreans are very ideologically oriented, strong in morals and ethics. But the problem is they do not have a lot to eat and wear. Once they solve these basic needs they will gain self confidence. When you are hungry you can still say that you are full, but ultimately you cannot hide your suffering face. For this reason, the North Korean authorities do not really look forward to the family reunions that are from time to time being arranged between families separated between North and South, because of the difference in appearance between the North and South Koreans.

When basic needs are fulfilled, however, they will regain confidence. And so too when they interact more socially and politically. The final fruit of such confident political exchanges would be general elections embracing both South and North.

Needless to say, we should take Pyonghwa Motors seriously, since it is our first step on a thousand-mile journey. I am not directly involved with the company now, but I would like to contribute to it as much as I can. I offer my deepest wishes for the Pyonghwa Motor Company's success.

Source: Today's World, April 2002. Cho Sung-nak was instrumental in helping establish to Pyonghwa Motors in the early stages and visited North Korea more than almost any other South Korean during that time.

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