North Korea read­ies grand show; ru­ral life still a strug­gle


While North Korea pre­pares a big show to mark the 70th an­niver­sary of the rul­ing Work­ers’ Party, the daily strug­gles of life out­side the cap­i­tal — such as find­ing clean run­ning wa­ter and putting nu­tri­tious food on the ta­ble year-round — pose a harsh, but largely un­seen, con­trast to the grand cel­e­bra­tions the world will see Oct. 10.

North Korea’s an­niver­sary spec­ta­cle prom­ises to be world-class. Masses of cit­i­zens will be mo­bi­lized to march, chant and hold up plac­ards on cue to cre­ate huge im­ages prais­ing the party and leader Kim Jong Un. To make sure Py­ongyang looks its best, ex­ten­sive con­struc­tion projects have con­sid­er­ably pret­tied up the cap­i­tal, which is far and away the most de­vel­oped city in North Korea and is even rel­a­tively com­fort­able for the in­creas­ingly af­flu­ent seg­ment of its pop­u­lace.

But life in the prov­inces, and par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral ar­eas, is quite a dif­fer­ent story.

Ahead of the ar­rival of the hordes of visi­tors, dig­ni­taries and for­eign jour­nal­ists who are now be­gin­ning to de­scend on Py­ongyang for the cel­e­bra­tions, an As­so­ci­ated Press Tele­vi­sion News crew was al­lowed to join the Red Cross on a visit to one of those com­mu­ni­ties in Sinyang County, which is just 150 kilo­me­ters (100 miles) from Py­ongyang but takes three hours to reach by car on mostly un­paved roads.

In­stead of the new high-rise apart­ments and bi­cy­cle lanes that have been put up in Py­ongyang for the party an­niver­sary, the peo­ple there are now just be­gin­ning to en­joy a far more fun­da­men­tal im­prove­ment in their lives — dis­ease­free run­ning wa­ter.

The area is still re­cov­er­ing from se­ri­ous flood­ing and land­slides from 2006 to 2013 that caused many deaths and de­stroyed homes and ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture — roads, bridges and the wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem.

See­ing a dire need, the Red Cross got in­volved in 2013 with projects to re-es­tab­lish a clean wa­ter sys­tem for 10,000 peo­ple in Sinyang and small-scale food pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties, which help peo­ple to make the most of what they can grow and re­duce the amount of time and la­bor they used to have put in to get the food to the ta­ble.

Sim­ple green­houses set up with Red Cross sup­port mean the lo­cal com­mu­nity can now pro­duce veg­eta­bles all year round. Though hunger is un­com­mon in Py­ongyang, where the pop­u­la­tion is far bet­ter off than else­where, the only veg­etable avail­able in win­ter to many peo­ple in the coun­try’s hard­scrab­ble ru­ral ar­eas is pick­led kim­chi.

“Peo­ple’s hy­giene and aware­ness has im­proved and the most im­por­tant thing is that wa­ter-borne dis­ease has been re­duced,” said lo­cal Red Cross chair­man Ri Won U. “Be­fore it used be 35 per­cent of dis­ease cases, now it’s less than 5 per­cent.”

Chris Staines, the head of the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross in Py­ongyang, said Red Cross projects aim to help peo­ple in the sim­plest and most ef­fec­tive ways — which he said is cru­cial in places like Sinyang be­cause of the area’s cold and harsh win­ters.

But even with the Red Cross sup­port, a great deal of work re­mains to be done. The pop­u­la­tion of Sinyang County is 58,000, but just 15,000 have ben­e­fited from the Red Cross ef­forts so far.

At the end of the trip to Sinyang, the Red Cross — which is hop­ing to ex­pand its projects fur­ther — vis­ited one of the ar­eas where its help has not yet ar­rived. There, an old woman sat out­side her home scrap­ing corn off re­cently har­vested cobs. The dry corn will be ground into flour to make food.

In the North Korean coun­try­side, this is a com­mon sight. Ev­ery­thing must be done by hand, from the fields to the home.

In Py­ongyang, mean­while, res­i­dents have been spend­ing much of their time over the past few months prac­tic­ing their mass rou­tines, which will likely cul­mi­nate in a torch­light event on Py­ongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square.

And though the city was lit brightly Tues­day night, Py­ongyang’s res­i­dents have also had to make some sac­ri­fices. In the run-up to the an­niver­sary, power for civil­ian use, al­ways a scarce com­mod­ity in the North, had been di­verted to pri­or­ity, an­niver­sary-re­lated projects.

Fur­ther hint­ing at what’s in store come Satur­day — and at North Korea’s po­lit­i­cal pri­or­i­ties — fighter jets blazed through the skies of the cap­i­tal Tues­day in prepa­ra­tion for what is ex­pected to be a ma­jor mil­i­tary pa­rade on the morn­ing of the an­niver­sary day.

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