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The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

I'm just going to tell you about being in that village just after the August of '98 missile firing. We were in North Korea at the time, and just after the Japanese Minister made his statement that Japan reserved the right to fire at the launch site of a North Korean missile. What happened in North Korea is very interesting. In that isolated rural village where we have been working, there was a military base about 100 meters from a cabbage patch in which we have constructed our wind power system. Those of you who are interested can look at a very detailed photo gallery on our website at You can actually see what I'm talking about: there's an anti-aircraft artillery unit about 100 meters from where we're working on a hill. At the other end of the village there's a surface missile radar placement. For those of you who are really interested in the military aspect of North Korea, just over the ridge from where we're working is what is called "Magic Mountain" which is the underground MIG airfield that protects Pyongyang. So we are in a very militarized area, and what we saw within nanoseconds of that statement, literally, was a situation in which things had been fairly relaxed in the village, where soldiers had been walking to and from the fields to help prepare for the harvest, this was at the period of preparing for the harvest, in late September/early October. We were building up towards that and the soldiers were in the fields, partly to help with the work and partly to make sure that no one ate the grain off the rice plants. And everything went from a state of being relatively relaxed, including how people related to us, to one of extreme tension where you could literally, you know, it was palpable - you could cut the air. And our minders came to us and said: "Look, for at least the next few days, and probably the next few weeks, your work has to slow down. You can no longer be literally in the face of the military like this, as Americans, who are putting such pressure on our country. We'll continue to work but we have to just slow it down and we can't be as easy with access and sort of wandering around the village and doing our work.

And it did slow us down substantially. You know, this tension literally impedes development projects in North Korea and at the macro-picture, of course, it - and this intended, I believe, in Washington - it puts a tremendous squeeze on a country which is already in a economically desperate situation. Now, I want to now just talk about some of the issues related to the humanitarian situation. And we all know the stereotypes of North Korea - the stereotypes of the starving people, the abuse of the land, which set the scene for the flash floods (this was not a natural event in the mid-nineties but a series of human-made catastrophes related to land use and abuse), the military goose stepping, etc… And all that is true. I mean, in my view, President Bush got one thing right, although I think it was very unfortunate that he used the rhetorical phrase, from a Western value perspective this is an evil political regime. It's evil in a very direct sense. But we don't need to, I think, wrestle with those stereotypes because the North Korean nightmare is not stereotypic. It's actually very different from the stereotypes that are the ones that administration seems to be doing battle with. It's a very, I think, closed circuit in Washington at the moment.

And so, when you come down to the ground in a village like North Korea you discover some interesting, bigger picture interrelationships that link energy and food and public health in very tangible ways. Let me be specific: in the village in which we were working we installed, as I said before, these wind turbines that turned the lights on, literally, in that village. In fact, I have to tell you the village chief moved from the part of the village that he'd always lived in to the part of the village that was lit. Between the beginning of the project and the second year that we came out he somehow got himself transferred into the lit part of the village. And we also came back, I guess it was in the year 2000, and built North Korea's first, very simple mechanical water lifting windmill. The kind of thing you see in Kansas, nineteen-thirties, maybe nineteen-forties. This is a low tech, not a high tech but a low tech, windmill. It was the first one to be built in North Korea. And why did they want a windmill? They wanted a windmill because in the middle of winter, when there's absolutely no electricity - right now - they couldn't operate the pump, the Soviet-era huge pump that would suck water up from the ground water through a bore and then be forced through a reticulated pipe system into the village. There was no electricity. So what they wanted was emergency drinking water, in the middle of winter when the ground is frozen. And we said "that's fine" and so we built this windmill with them. But we also had brought with us a little system for testing the water to see if it was polluted because we suspected that the groundwater in this village - given the sanitary system, the sewage system, where you take the human waste from each house and block and store it in cesspools and then put it on the crops to fertilize the crops - may have polluted the groundwater.

And so we made this windmill work. It gushed forth water and people were very excited to have this water gushing, and then we tested it and we found it was heavily polluted. The groundwater was heavily polluted with human sewage. And we then said to the village chief that we needed his permission to now go into a large number of households all over the village, not just in one area or in the area where there was electricity where they already knew us, but all over the village, to find out if this water was in fact delivered polluted to their existing water system throughout the village. And what we discovered after about a day's worth of walking around and taking samples, was that the whole village was drinking fecal contaminated water. And this is a microcosm of a very big picture. Because what happens when people drink water that is contaminated with human sewage? They get very sick. They get dysentery. The public health surveys in North Korea that have been done by the international agencies who work on public health indicate that somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the population is suffering from dysentery on any given day. And if you're cold, young, sick, tired, hungry, malnourished, you get sicker and you die. There's a vicious circle, a series of interacting vicious circles here. And we could see it in our village.