North Koreans stand onboard a ship in the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiji, opposite the Chinese border, in 2006. Photo: Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images.
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Sailing for North Korea: A voyage to the town where no one knows the Beatles

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. In May 2013, the North Korean city of Sinuiju opened up to westerners for the first time.

The Friendship Bridge reaches across the Yalu River from Dandong in China to Sinuiju in North Korea. It’s an unremarkable construction, worthy of note only because the Chinese have festooned their end with multicoloured neon lights and lasers in a soaring display of civic one-upmanship. At night, from the North Korean side of the river, it’s like looking at Las Vegas. Peering in from China, it’s a bridge into the black.

The Chinese have always made the crossing: historically for trade, more recently for tourism. Friends tell me Sinuiju reminds them of an old China: before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms cleared the hutongs to make way for branches of Gucci. In May 2013, the city opened up to westerners for the first time.

It was an interesting time to visit. The very public purging in December of Chang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, was still headline news, as was the unlikely alliance between the “Dear Leader” and the retired US basketball player Dennis Rodman.

Meanwhile, there were signs that Kim’s promises to raise North Korean living standards might be paying off. At the border, a line of brand new Hyundai taxis bound for Pyongyang suggested a growing middle class. North Korea is now manufacturing a tablet computer for its domestic market, the Android-powered Samjiyon, which comes with Angry Birds pre-installed.

My guide, Ms Lee, meets me on the North Korean side of the Friendship Bridge. She found work at the state-owned KITC tourism company after learning English at university in Pyongyang. She chaperones me quickly through border control, a scruffy one-room building, stamping her feet to keep warm. Outside, it is beginning to snow.

At first glance, Sinuiju looks like Pyongyang’s unkempt little brother. It’s more industrial and less grand, with Soviet-style housing blocks daubed in various shades of pastel, but it shares the capital’s wide boulevards and large public spaces. We stop at a giant bronze statue of a youthful Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current leader, where formality dictates that I place flowers before the Eternal Leader and bow, while young boys in old clothes clear the snowfall.

Then we head to the city’s Revolutionary Museum, where our breath forms clouds in the corridors and dim bulbs flicker into life as we move from room to room. At Sinuiju Folk Park, which Ms Lee tells me was built entirely by women, we kick ice from our boots as, in the distance, thousands of people stream home from a mass rally. Coats pulled tight, leaning into the wind, they look like matchstick figures departing an L S Lowry painting.

Questions can be problematic. For journalists, who occasionally sneak into the DPRK on guided tours and who are obliged to ask questions the guides cannot answer, this is especially true. But keep away from the difficult subjects and you’re more likely to build some trust and learn more.

Lunch, which takes place in a private, windowless room in a restaurant next to the Yalu, is delicious: kimchi accompanied by spiced squid, sliced duck, chips and – most unexpectedly – fat chunks of Swiss roll dipped in mayonnaise. The waitresses take turns to sing romantic and patriotic songs, a mixture of backing music and howling feedback streaming from the karaoke machine. We dance and they ask me to sing. There’s no western music on offer, so I try “Yesterday” by the Beatles. Unaccompanied, my amplified voice echoing uncomfortably round the room, it’s obvious they’ve never heard of it, or them.

The highlight is a visit to Ponbu Kindergarten, home to the city’s most extravagantly talented six-year-olds. Two boys in sequined shirts and bow ties perform a complicated duet for drums and xylophone. In the playroom, two more take potshots at tiny American helicopters on a miniature diorama with toy guns while a third, dressed in small military greatcoat, pushes model tanks and fighter jets around a table. The visit finishes with a live show, tiny girls with fixed gymnast smiles juggling, unicycling and hula-hooping. Later, in China, my contact shakes his head when I tell the story: only North Korean children can do that.

As we wait for my bus at the border, Ms Lee complains about the cold and offers me her hands, which I rub. It feels like a touching end to a fascinating, bewildering day.

As North Korea’s slow embrace of western tourism grinds along, these brief glimpses of life beyond the hermit kingdom clichés are becoming a little less unusual. We say goodbye and I cross the bridge out of North Korea and back into the neon. I’m going to send Ms Lee some gloves.
 

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org