Bojagi — Introduction

This series of bojagi pieces was written by the 2011 KEEP-D delegation. Bojagi is a traditional cloth used to wrap and carry items. In wartime, people would wrap their belongings in a bojagi and carry their possessions on their backs. In this context, bojagi is a short reflection, a portion of the trip now carried in the written word. This year’s pieces were inspired by the changes we saw, especially those related to the economic development of the country. Please enjoy!

A Traffic Controller at the Crossroads  — Introduces the theme of change.
Nuclear Weapons — A look at nuclear weapons and the DPRK’s position
Lee Omonim’s Song — The Arduous March and Songun politics
Equity, a Work in Progress — Education and healthcare
Food in the DPRK — A look at food and aid
“Let’s Breakthrough to the Cutting Edge” — CNC technology and factories

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A Traffic Controller at the Crossroads

Yes you too you too are people. –Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes

The image of the North Korean traffic controller is familiar to those who follow North Korea: a man or woman in a blue and white uniform and white hat, directing traffic at a four-way intersection. Documentaries on North Korea are populated with images of traffic controllers in action, where they serve as a visual signifier for the brainwashed and robotic populace of North Korea. A North Korean film (after which this article is titled) about traffic controllers presents a vastly different picture—the protagonist sees her role as not limited to directing traffic but as also being involved in the community in which she works. The perfect symbol, the traffic controllers can come to reflect the viewer’s thoughts about North Korea. Perfect robots, as the journalists see them, or model citizens, as North Korea (per the film) sees them?

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Nuclear Weapons

This year’s delegation trip to the DPRK occurred during a time of high military tension between the DPRK and the ROK. One example of this tension is that on our first full day in Pyongyang, we heard (leaked from the AFP) that Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Jong Un’s photographs were being used for target practice by members of the ROK military. One military official responded—almost as if to shrug away how serious of an insult this was for North Koreans—that this was done merely to “boost battle spirit.”

Over the past two centuries, military tensions on and surrounding the peninsula have been constant, from the guerilla fighting that occurred along the Manchurian/Korean border during Japanese colonialism, the “precision bombing” campaign that decimated the peninsula during the Korean War, to the ongoing military tensions between the DPRK and the ROK/US.  Nuclear weapons have loomed as a significant source of military tension, as North Korea’s possession of them has often been blamed as one of the main reasons for international sanctions, as well as for the US’s consistent refusal to resume peace talks.

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Lee Omonim’s Song

On the way from Pyeongyang to the Chongsanri cooperative farm, Lee Hwa-il “omonim” (mother), as we fondly called our guide, sat in the front of our fifteen-passenger van, faced backwards to look at all of us, and sang a song that brought tears to her eyes.  This was her favorite song, she said; it gave her strength to get through the Arduous March, the period of time between 1995 to 2000, when the entire country of North Korea struggled to overcome the mass food shortage and economic crisis that resulted from the collapse of the socialist trading bloc.

“All we had to eat was corn so we made porridge and we all went to work,” she said.  “Even though the factories weren’t running and there was no electricity, we all thought, ‘Let’s at least stand guard at our posts.’  And at the end of the day, I would go home and had to feed the kids but didn’t have enough to eat.  So I gave all that we had to the children because they have to grow, and I would go to bed hungry, and it was so hard.  And I would sing this song to remind myself that one day we will overcome this struggle.  That’s how we all sacrificed and got through the Arduous March.”

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Equity, a Work in Progress

When I entered college in the California State University system in 2006, the tuition fee for full-time students per academic year was $2,520; it has now been increased to $5,472 for the upcoming academic year. In the U.S. and in most parts of the world, education is a commodity that only a handful of privileged people can buy. Amidst my friends struggling to register for their classes, I left college with a degree in guilt and responsibility.

I tried to imagine a society in which everyone has equitable access to education, health care, and other social services–not because I’m a socialist, but because such a society makes more sense to me. I tried to imagine a community in which everyone encouraged each other to continue educating themselves, because I believe in the power of knowledge. I imagined really hard, and then I found myself in north Korea.  Continue reading

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Food in the DPRK

Our first morning in the DPRK, we awoke early to take a walk by the Daedong River and noticed this EU truck parked in front of our hotel.  During our visit, the EU announced that 10M Euros of food aid would soon be distributed to North Korea through the WFP (World Food Program)!  Our translator had worked closely on this transaction and shared the good news with us when she received the text message.  While the current food shortage is not as serious as during the Arduous March in the mid-1990s, food aid should not be used as a weapon in negotiating foreign policy.  Rigorous monitoring of the food distribution will be conducted by the WFP through 400 visits per month to food distribution sites (3–4 times per food distribution site). Continue reading

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“Let’s Breakthrough to the Cutting Edge”

Lyrics of “Let’s Breakthrough to the Cutting Edge”

1. Whatever we set our minds to, made according to a program
Pride of the machine industry in the songun era, our style CNC technology.


CNC is the power of Juche industry
CNC is an example of self-reliance
According to the path shown by the General
Let’s breakthrough to the cutting edge
Ah~ Arirang, arirang raising the nation’s pride
Let’s build a strong country with science and technology
Happiness is billowing toward us.

2. Today in the age of information economy, if we fall behind we become slaves to technology
Going forth in the world with high-tech, our style CNC technology.

3. If our hearts burn with patriotism, there is no high-tech we cannot conquer
With our strength now a hundred-fold with songun, let’s hold mastery over everything.


“Let’s Breakthrough to the Cutting Edge” is the title of a new song, popular in North Korea, that features CNC technology as its main theme. CNC stands for “computer numerical control,” a type of technology that has undergone constant evolution since computers were first introduced into the production process using digital information from computers to operate machinery.

The idea of computer-automated machines taking over the kind of work that was once carried out by workers seems somewhat contradictory to the communist spirit. Scenes like the following of a North Korean worker standing atop a large metal furnace used to be iconic, representing the working class in the era of the Industrial Revolution. Hence, the hammer representing workers and the sickle representing peasants were major symbols for the communist movement whose objective was to organize the vast majority of the people in the world for a more just and equitable distribution of the profits that was the fruit of their labor.

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