Ecumenical Accompaniment for Building Justice and Peace in Korea by Erich Weingartner

[This article was written for a discussion on “The Korean Peninsula: Towards an Ecumenical Accompaniment for Building Justice and Peace” at the 10th General Assembly of the World Council of Churches, which took place in Busan, Republic of Korea, from 30 October to 8 November 2013.]

Site of the 10th WCC Assembly in Busan, ROK

Site of the 10th WCC Assembly in Busan, ROK (Photo by EW)

The Korean War claimed millions of lives between 1950 and 1953. Sixty years ago, that war paused with the signing of an armistice, marking the cessation of the hot war on the Korean Peninsula. But an armistice is not a peace, and the hostilities of the Cold War have not ceased to this very day. The world’s largest armies, with the most powerful weapons, still threaten each other across the so-called “demilitarized” zone that dissects this beautiful country. This seemingly endless confrontation continues to be used by those in power to prove that the price of security is readiness to resort to arms, and that justice is irrelevant to peace.

In the name of this false security, economic well-being continues to be sacrificed in favour of military prowess. But though the pain of this tragedy is borne primarily by Koreans, the illness that caused it is global. When the WCC thirty years ago embarked on a mission to forge lines of communication between North and South Korea, we could not help but challenge the sanity of the bi-polar world that was taken for granted as a necessity for the preservation of security in our World. We no longer have a bi-polar world, but we still have a bi-polar mentality. Bi-polar illness is what used to be called schizophrenia. The continued division of Korea is a clear symptom of our global schizophrenia. Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering the RAC, by Justin Rohrlich

[CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner talks to New York City based journalist Justin Rohrlich about the early days of the RAC, an expatriate bar and social club that attained a surprisingly worldwide reputation as a must-visit venue for foreign visitors in Pyongyang. This article was published on 23 April 2013 in NKNews.org. –CanKor]

Remembering North Korea’s ‘Random Access Club’

Canadian Erich Weingartner recounts how he helped set up an exclusive foreigner only bar in Pyongyang

“This was the T-shirt we produced back then,” Weingartner says. “Don’t know if it was ever repeated. As you can see, no reference to ‘Random Access Club,’ haha. On the back of the shirt were the names of the agencies, both UN and NGO who were resident in North Korea at that time. 20 in all.”

“This was the T-shirt we produced back then,” Weingartner says. “As you can see, no reference to ‘Random Access Club,’ haha. On the back of the shirt were the names of the agencies, both UN and NGO, that were resident in North Korea at that time. 20 in all.”

Mirroring the experience of other expats that have lived in North Korea, Erich Weingartner says that when he arrived in Pyongyang in 1997 to head the Food Liaison Unit, a division of the UN World Food Programme, “there was literally nothing for foreigners to do” outside the Munsudong compound within which virtually all of them reside while in-country.

“In those days, they had a bowling alley, which still exists, and we used — we had our daughter’s birthday party there,” Weingartner tells me. “They had a couple of amusement parks in the city; there were some classical concerts you could go to; they had a zoo. I never went, it was apparently pretty sad to see the animals there, but it was available. Other than that, we mostly played volleyball and soccer and so on in the diplomatic compound.”

“The Russians had more access, for example, to a golf course, occasionally some hunting,” he remembers. “They’ve been there so long and have such a huge embassy, they have extra privileges in certain areas.”

But even though Weingartner, now Editor-in-Chief of CanKor, an Ontario-based initiative “seeking rational North Korea policy,” managed to obtain a North Korean driver’s license (the saga involved an interpreter who “sweetened” Weingartner’s incorrect answers to ensure he passed the oral portion of the exam and a road test that tested his ability to drive up a winding hill and halfway into a circular driveway, then back down to the bottom of the hill in reverse), his movements were still restricted. Read the rest of this entry »

Nightlife in Pyongyang, by Justin Rohrlich

[CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner and Brain Trust member Kathi Zellweger were among former residents and frequent visitors to North Korea that were interviewed by a New York City based journalist Justin Rohrlich about nightlife in North Korea. The resulting article was published on 19 April 2013 in NKNews.org. The full text, with NKNews photo, follows. –CanKor]

North Korea’s Nightlife Scene: The Pyongyang Perspective

Justin Rohrlich speaks to former residents and regular visitors to learn more about nightlife in North Korea

Pyongyang-NightlifeThough it sounds like the start of a bad joke, North Korea does, indeed, have a nightlife.

“It’s not just going to rallies,” says Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based travel outfitter specializing in North Korea. “There is such a thing as leisure time, at least for people in Pyongyang and in certain other parts of the country. North Koreans are not the Taliban; they do things that most westerners can relate to: having too many drinks, having a singsong, having a night out — these types of things do occur.”

A night on the town wasn’t always so easy for Pyongyangites — or the 200 or so resident foreigners living there; diplomats, aid workers, and the odd European or Asian investor. Read the rest of this entry »

My First Monitoring Trip

This is the third episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. All photos are by Erich Weingartner. Previous episodes were “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang” and “My Introduction to Nampo Port.”

DPRK Kindergarten

“It’s all a matter of perception, you know,” Naresh answered with a knowing smile. “Reality is just an illusion.”

I had asked my Bangladeshi colleague Naresh Talukder how we were going to verify that what we would see was real. We were in a WFP vehicle barreling at top speed along a paved, almost completely empty superhighway, heading south from Pyongyang. My eyes were glued to the road as I conversed with him. This was my first monitoring trip. My heart was still in a rush of excitement, trying to grasp the reality of exploring a hidden corner of our globe that few foreign eyes had seen.

“Sounds a bit too Hindu for my taste,” I quipped.

“Not all Bangladeshis are Muslims, you know.” He was looking for something in his briefcase. “You Westerners are far too concerned with facts and figures, imagining that this is the way to harness reality.” Read the rest of this entry »

My Introduction to Nampo Port

[This is the second episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. The previous episode was “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang”.]

“Do you have any plans for lunch?”

All I could see was my Bangladeshi colleague’s smiling face peeking at an angle through the door. I was seated on a kitchen chair, the only piece of furniture in the bedroom that was to serve as my office. I was glad for the interruption, because I had difficulty making sense of the file of “monitoring reports” balanced precariously on my knees.“I was going to ask you where you go for lunch around here,” I responded. The diplomatic compound where the UN offices were located seemed devoid of commercial establishments.

Nampo Port (Photo by Erich Weingartner)

“Normally I eat at home or at the diplomatic club,” said Mahbub,[i] “but today I am going to Nampo port. Do you have your passport with you?”

“Yes, always.”

“The blue one?”

“My Canadian passport.”

“Mmm, that might be a problem. I will check with FDRC.”

The FDRC[ii] was the unit in the Foreign Affairs Ministry that served as official DPRK counterpart to all humanitarian agencies following the 1995 floods. This was in the early days of the relationship, a time when the FDRC was still learning by trial and error how to navigate the precarious fissure between the requirements of foreign agencies and the constraints of domestic regimen. Read the rest of this entry »

My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang

[This is the first episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999.]

The Tower of Juche Idea, Pyongyang (Photo by Vincent Yu, AP)

Tower of the Juche Idea, Pyongyang (Photo by Vincent Yu, AP)

When I was summoned to the office of my new boss, the other staff looked at me as though I was about to enter a lion’s den. I paused at the door, took a deep breath, and entered. I wanted to make a good impression in my first meeting with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) DPRK Country Director. She was reading a file on her desk when I came in. Not certain if she had noticed me, I knocked on the open door.

“Close the door and sit down!” she snapped, without looking up.

I sat in the only chair I could see, across from her desk. I looked around as she continued reading in silence. Her spacious office used to be the master bedroom of the United Nations Resident Representative in Pyongyang. It was sparsely furnished with a desk and a large filing cabinet. When the WFP established its DPRK country office in 1996, it set up operations in the vacant residence of the UNDP compound.

At the time of my arrival there were only five international staff. The British deputy-director had greeted me that morning when I arrived jet lagged from the hotel. He showed me the empty downstairs bedroom that was to be my office and introduced me to the young North Korean assistant who said he would take care of my every need. I also met the two Bangladeshi monitors, the German office manager and two local staff in a living/dining room area that had been converted into an open-concept office on the ground floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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