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An on-the-ground perspective of North Korean society

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Katharina Zellweger, 2011-12 Pantech Fellow, holds a drawing she has been presented with by a child at a North Korean school.
Photo credit: 
Courtesy Katharina Zellweger

Returning to her office in Pyongyang from a site visit to an agricultural development project one day last year, Katharina Zellweger had a revelation to share with her colleagues:

“I saw trees, bushes, upland rice, maize, berries, and all kinds of other crops planted on the hillsides!” she said.

Life in North Korea today is much more vibrant than the stark slopes and muted grey concrete buildings Zellweger encountered when she began traveling to North Korea in the mid-1990s. Day-to-day existence is still a struggle for many people, especially in the countryside, but Zellweger, who is the 2011–12 Pantech Fellow with Stanford’s Korean Studies Program, has watched positive change slowly ripple throughout the country for 17 years.

“If you have the patience and perseverance, and try to understand the country as well as you can, it is possible to do work there that is meaningful for the survival of the people and for the future of the country,” she said during a recent interview. 

Zellweger’s projects in North Korea began in 1995 while she worked for the Hong Kong office of Caritas Internationalis, a Catholic network of humanitarian organizations, and continued when she moved to Pyongyang to lead the efforts of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, a part of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. She lived in Pyongyang and interacted with North Koreans on a daily basis for five years until coming to Stanford in October 2011.

Since her earliest visits to North Korea, Zellweger has introduced ways to help alleviate the formidable problem of food scarcity and hunger. North Korea has always been a country of urban dwellers, she said, and the 60 percent of North Koreans who live in cities drain the countryside of its crops. In an effort to carve out new places to grow food during the toughest years, farmers have resorted to stripping hillsides of their trees. The solution is short-term and unsustainable, though, as the denuded slopes can only be planted for a few years, and it leads to soil erosion and flooding.

“If you do not have enough to eat and you are hungry, that is what people do,” Zellweger said. 

She and her team tackled the problem in one province with a simple solution. They taught rural housewives to plant bands of deep-root vegetation every 10 meters along cleared hillsides. The slopes are a “no man’s land” outside of the commune system, and the women have official permission to either keep what they harvest or sell it in the market for extra income. The environment also reaps big benefits from this sustainable agricultural method, which is catching on in more provinces.

“The last time I visited the project, the women told me that they now grow about 15 species of crops, whereas previously they only had one or two,” Zellweger said. “It has brought biodiversity back to those areas.”

Along with receptiveness to new farming techniques, North Koreans have also embraced certain technological developments. Even though the city and countryside are relatively cut off from one another, for example, cell phone tower transmissions now crisscross most of North Korea. Already one million of North Korea’s 24 million citizens own cell phones, and can find coverage in 75 percent of the country.

“Mobile telephones are not just in the big cities—even farm managers have them,” Zellweger said. “With that, communication has improved a lot among the North Korean people.” 

Some ripples of change have also penetrated North Korea’s educational system. English replaced Russian a few years ago as the main foreign language taught in school, Zellweger said, who smiled as she described the warbling greetings of school children who would sometimes approach her to test out their language skills.

“Years ago, I would not even have eye contact with people,” she said. “People would simply look down, and I would feel like thin air, as if I did not exist. That has gone—there is now a certain amount of natural curiosity.”

When she first began visiting North Korea, the Pyongyang Business School, a professional development project close to Zellweger’s heart, did not exist yet. Under her leadership, several groups of 30 to 35 mid-level managers and government officials had the opportunity to participate in a special diploma program. During each 12-month program cycle, lecturers from the Hong Kong Management Association flew monthly to Pyongyang to teach an intensive three-day seminar on subjects ranging from finance to management.

“The Hong Kong lecturers would say, ‘We could not have more diligent students,’” Zellweger said. “The feedback from the students was also very, very positive.”  

As Zellweger experienced during her 17 years working in North Korea, change may unfold gradually there but it does come. And for the positive development to grow even more transformative, she said, the basic needs of everyday North Koreans must be met. 

“When basic needs like food and medical care are covered, I believe things will start moving forward at a different pace,” Zellweger said. “There are 24 million people in North Korea who just want to lead a decent life, and who have the same dreams and hopes as we all have. That goes beyond any political issue.” 

Zellweger will give a talk on May 11 about her work and the change she witnessed in North Korea.

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