Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Habitat for Whom?

Just today, I was drawn by him to here thanks in part to him.

But upon arrival I realized that I already knew this story; it has been at the planning stage for three years or more, and now seems to be coming to pass. This organization, The Fuller Center for Housing, a religious non-profit not unlike Habitat for Humanity, is building 25 energy efficient duplexes in the middle of a collective farm near Sunan Airport, Pyongyang. The news, such as it is, is that Jimmy Carter, who recently descended on Pyongyang to pull an ill-advised missionary sort, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, out and take him back to Boston, where he should probably consider staying, has endorsed the project;

They’ve already gotten permission from the government of North Korea to come in; they’ve already had a team there to assess the construction possibilities. This has to be a very flexible thing because as you know all of the houses in North Korea are owned by the government,” Carter said. “We’re just thankful that we’ll be able to get some houses built in North Korea for people in need.

Anyhow, my attention span shortened by the lack of newsworthiness contained in this revelation, I ambled over and took a short look at the blog of David Snell, the president of the organization. He was in North Korea in late-September, he reveals. But it was what else he said that concerned me;

A final stop for the day was the E-Library at Kim Il Sung University. This was a project of the Paektusan Academy and took one of the original campus buildings and turned it into a state of the art computer center. Students can do research ‘online’ accessing thousands of books on terminals in a number of study rooms. Very impressive.

Monday evening was set aside for a special treat—we went to the Arirang mass games performance. This is an annual event that involves some 20,000 dancers and gymnasts. The back bleachers are a solid mass of placard-bearing youngsters who change their cards to create panoramas that provide the backdrop for the performances. It was an amazing experience. I was exhausted by the time it was over.

On Tuesday we broke from our discussions to visit the Taedonggang fruit farm, a massive sea of apple trees that has grown from nothing to 1,600 acres since 2008. Big is a part of the culture here. We went to see some new houses that the Academy has been working on—very nice, very tidy and appropriate to what we will be doing.

Now I’m back home. The miracle of modern travel can make for a disjointed life. There are few places on the planet as different from Colorado Springs as is Pyongyang. Remarkably I feel pretty much at home in either one.

I don't really want to get into the rights and wrongs of The Fuller Center for Housing, or Habitat for Humanity for that matter, working in North Korea. I expect that they may end up building homes for Party loyalists in the countryside of South Pyongan and North Hwanghae, but life is probably fairly hard for those people, too, and being a mid-level rural Party functionary does not, in my book, make you particularly evil, so maybe a new house is not unreasonable, anyway.

Furthermore, David's organization is doing something, and anyone doing something is better than everyone doing nothing, more or less. And he is building trust, which is equally important.

And in any case, from his use of bold in a previous post, here, it is also clear that David believes the international media is doing North Korea a disservice;

I arrived in Pyongyang Saturday afternoon and was met at the airport by Mr. Sin from the Paektusan Academy and my interpreter, Mrs. Kim. My seatmate for the flight was a young man from Alberta, Canada, who was traveling with his wife and two sons and 11 other Canadians who are coming to Pyongyang to teach English for three months. This is one of the few cases I’m aware of a longer stay being allowed for western visitors. Things seem to be changing in the Democratic People’s Republic. At the airport I happened to meet the British Ambassador and the Hong Kong representative of the ATPN news group—a providential meeting perhaps.

But on the other hand I will also say this; there is good quality evidence that the people who take part in the Arirang Mass Games are forced to do so (knowing about the North Korean system, one knows that volunteering plays little part in anything), that the audience is also compelled to be there, and if there is a sea of apple trees why isn't there a sea of apples for the children in the schools and orphanages around the nation?

At the very minimum, I think more perspective and a critical approach are necessary if David Snell's laudible attempts to work with North Korea are going to bring about the best possible results.

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