Wednesday, February 26, 2014


 “It’s like Prison.
“No, it’s like family.”
“Ok, it’s like being in prison with your family.”

When I first arrived in Korea, this is the way the seminary community that I would be living in was described to me.

Well, time moves fast and a number of the wonderful folks who have supported me over the past six months are on their way to begin their ministry in the world. I hope they know that I am incredibly thankful for accepting me into their community. I wish them the best of luck and offer prayers that they work as much good in the world as their kindness as worked on me.

Here are photos of the graduation ceremony. 
First of all, there is this guy. I think he would rather be anywhere in the entire world than at this graduation ceremony. Luckily, his sister gave him a hearty slap to wake him up/encourage him. Also, pictured are the bouquets which are commonly given to the graduates, male and female. The streets from the Subway to the School were lined with people haggling over bouquets in true Korean fashion.

The seminarians who were graduating from behind during the large ceremony.

The priest from Myanmar who stayed with us during the semester to work on his dissertation receiving his P.h.D.  Or has he would say, "Finally", receiving his P.h.D.
This is a picture of the large graduation ceremony for everyone at the university. During this brief and simple ceremony one representative from each department goes on stage to collect the diplomas for the entire department. Later they distribute them at at smaller and more personal ceremony.
For the smaller ceremony, we naturally got the run of the University Chapel. Here the six graduates are actually receiving their diplomas.
Family was an important part of the ceremony. During the ceremony, all the teachers made speeches, the graduates made speeches, the families were introduced, and then the families said their congratulations.
The little gal in the front is the daughter of one of the graduates and simply had to be a part of the fun. Behind her are the graduates and department heads.
And then came the photos. Like a million photos. Group photos, individual photos, and every paring of two or three photos. Just happy to know that my inability to take an appropriate photo transcends cultural bounds.
Finally our graduates and the president of the seminary. Good luck guys!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Changes in the Borderland

Recently, at a Chogokbo meeting, we had a special guest who has been living in the borderland between China and North Korea. She moved there to study the way North Korean culture and economy are changing, based on the communities of both legal and illegal North Koreans working in China. Her talk was very interesting and in a lot of ways changed the way I think about North Korea. I wanted to share some of this information in the hopes that it will provide a different perspective for you as well. I will do the best I can to relay it here, I am no expert, so please bare with me. If you notice something that seems incorrect, please let me know. I am trying to learn as well.

To begin with, there are two prevailing theories about what will happen with the North Korean economy. The first, and certainly the most prevalent in the West, is the idea that the communist economy will eventually become extremely disadvantageous to the people. Once this happens, there will be some type of major reform or overthrow of the government. This however, has not yet happened, despite major starvation that occurred throughout the 1990s. In fact, with the support of China, the North Korean economy, is getting better, though I would not go so far as to say recovering. This brings us to the second theory. This is the idea that rather than collapsing or leading to a government overthrow, the communist economy will slowly transition into a capitalist economy as it becomes more advantageous for the people and the government.

This struck me as quite a shocking idea when I first heard it. I think mostly because it is so contrary to my American conception of North Korea as being totally stuck and immune to any sort of development. But when I began to look at history, this idea is not unprecedented. There are many examples of land reforms and redistribution of wealth according to the communist ideal that have over time crept back into forms of capitalism. If you wish to look further into this, the most prominent example in our age is that of China, just google “China” and “Capitalist” if you don’t believe me.

Our guest speaker suggested from her time in the borderland between North Korea and China that the second theory is gaining a foothold. First a little background about the area. North Korea shares an 880 mile long border with China to its North. The area that was the object of study is primarily a rural area. This area is home to native Chinese, people of North Korean heritage who escaped to China during the Japanese occupation or Korean war and are now Chinese citizens, and North Korean citizens that have come to work or trade with China, some legally and some legally.

This population is, in itself, a sign of a changing economy. The border between China and North Korea has become more and more porous in recent years and there has been a great increase in legal trade, not to mention black market trade. This has also led to the set up of small local markets. This doesn’t sound like much, but for many years markets that were not government controlled were strictly forbidden. This led to a number of merchants that were nicknamed grasshoppers because when the North Korean police would come into the area, they would all hop away. Out speaker shared the story of one grandma selling her good who refused to pick up and move one day. The police told her that she should at least pretend to move when they came by. Supposedly she told them she was just one dead grasshopper and she was left alone.

This leniency eventually crystallized into the legalization of small local markets where the vendors are required to have a license and are taxed by the government. The legalization of the capitalist markets has also, according to sources our speaker interviewed, prompted an increase in the amount of illegal trade and selling taking place in the context of these local markets.  This change was due in part to the vast starvation that happened in the 1990s. Since government supply was so low, people were forced to look elsewhere to fulfill their basic needs. This took the shape of local merchants and the tradition carried on until it was legalized.

The vast starvation also had another important effect on the North Korean people, according to our speaker. Though not a direct economic effect, she says they way that North Koreans viewed themselves in relation to society shifted at this time. The people she interviewed talked about believing in and behaving as a part of a larger social order. They said, however, that this idea was weakened during the period of starvation because the difficulty of finding food shifted the focus from doing for society to taking care of you and yours. While this attitude is not shared by all, our speaker posits that this subtle change of thought can possibly be a seeds of change towards capitalism in North Korea.

The final change brought about by these local markets is the one our speaker finds the most interesting. Before the markets, every farmer was responsible for every aspect of his crops, right down to the transportation. After the markets appeared, those who managed to afford a license began to hire others to actually transport their crops to market. Though this might seems small, the speaker took it as an indication of the beginning of division of labor and therefore a fundamental change. The local people in one area were even able, with the help of an NGO, to set up their own bus line to help with transport to and from market, an important leap in their rural infrastructure.

But most importantly, our speaker stressed the exchange of ideas that is made possible by the increased traffic in the border area. Workers are allowed to come to China and return to North Korea. Though they are often times supervised by members of the North Korean government, the speaker claims that they are still exposed to a more advanced level of development and technology. Furthermore, the cell phone towers in the border area of China provide service, albeit in a very limited range, to North Korea, in spite of the North Korean government’s attempts to block them. This means that traders and smugglers have open contact between the two countries. A small area of cell phone coverage might not seem like a lot to us, but it can lead to bigger things. The speaker sighted an event that happened a few decades ago where a Chinese woman was allowed to attend a student event in Pyongyang, the Capitol of North Korea. She said by the next year it was reported that all the young women were sporting the same haircut.

The speaker concluded with an example of the shift in attitude. She told the story of a young North Korean woman who had looked across the border into China and saw the huge differences in the lights there. She said to her all the lights meant were a place to make money that she could bring home to here family. She wasn’t interested in the development she symbolized. She went to China to trade and work but never wanted to leave her own country permanently, even for money. Then she saw a rice cooker in China for the first time. She said the shock of being able to simply press a button and make rice changed her. She began to look at those lights differently. Though she returned to North Korea, and still has no intention of leaving her home country, her idea of social and economic progress has been changed in a fundamental way.

*The speaker admits that the area around the border is a very special area and in not necessarily indicative of what is happening in the rest of North Korea. She also admits that it is difficult to get a clear picture of what the average North Korean thinks as only people of a certain mindset were willing to risk being interviewed by her. All that said, she still personally sees the economic activity in the border area as a very hopeful sign.