North Korea regularly makes headlines for its controversial nuclear programme. The country is largely isolated from the outside world. Time and again, however, reports leak out about the poor living conditions in the country. Katrin Werdermann, the German Ambassador’s deputy in Pyongyang, tells us about her visit to a rural project site. German money is being spent there to improve people’s situation in a very concrete way.
North Korea is chronically short of almost everything, especially outside the “showcase” city of Pyongyang. This is also true of clean drinking water. In many villages, water must be carried long distances to people’s homes, usually by women and children. Hygienic conditions are bad. Many diseases are transmitted through dirty water, making the already difficult daily lives of the rural population even harder.
German support on the ground
With both international support and German taxpayers’ money, the Red Cross is helping people by equipping villages with easy-to-handle, clean water supply and water treatment systems. Before the start of the project, the German Embassy helped obtain permits from the North Korean authorities and advised the German Government on whether taxpayers’ money could be spent here in meaningful ways. On selected monitoring trips we subsequently supported the Red Cross by getting a first-hand impression on the ground of whether the money was being spent meaningfully and actually helping improve people’s living conditions.
Our Embassy’s team is small: it consists of eight Germans. As the Ambassador’s deputy in Pyongyang, I had the opportunity in the autumn of 2012 to visit some of these projects in South Hamgyong Province, approximately 200 km east of Pyongyang, together with the Red Cross’s hydraulic engineer and the Embassy’s interpreter.
Red tape and breakneck car rides
Driving a car in rural North Korea is always an adventure, starting with the red tape to be dealt with ahead of the trip. You cannot move around freely in this totalitarian country. Even diplomats need a permit from the Foreign Ministry and a North Korean escort when travelling outside of the capital city. Once on the trip, the mostly unsurfaced back country roads are a challenge for both motorist and car. Our car did a great job carrying us safely over rough ground and even through some riverbeds.
Such journeys in the hinterland show you how poor the country really is. While nobody actually starves in North Korea, children, pregnant women and the elderly and infirm are threatened by malnutrition. Given the lack of fuel and machinery, farm work is often still done by oxcart or by hand. The simple farmhouses are poorly insulated, insufficiently heated and ice cold in winter.
We visited several facilities, some of them operated by hydraulic pumps, some by gravity by distributing water from a reservoir on top of a hill to individual households by water pipes. A simple but efficient method that truly improves the quality of lives for rural communities. It was gratifying to hear from the inhabitants themselves that they now have free running water in their houses. Moreover, the head of the village nursery school told us that children are now much less prone to illnesses.
At the end: transfer of responsibility to North Korea
In a ceremony wrapping up the project, the deed of transfer was signed. This means that responsibility is now being handed over to the North Koreans – something that they will not give up again lightly. Their smiling faces showed the international helpers how happy they really were