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.”
The entire bus fell silent as we watched Lee omonim wipe her eyes with a handkerchief. I realized at that moment that despite the impressive signs of economic progress we saw – the new Pyeongyang airport, the replacement of the iconic traffic controllers with modern traffic lights, factories running again and the computer automation of machine tools – the pain and hardship of the Arduous March were still recent history and fresh in everyone’s memory.
It was only fifteen years ago when the entire world predicted the collapse of North Korea’s regime. Almost overnight, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, North Korea found itself alone in a world where global capital reigns. With no cash to import oil and hit by a series of floods and droughts that destroyed multiple years of harvests, people turned to eating “alternative foods” – a mixture of wild grass and twigs with corn gruel, decocted out of sheer destitution – that destroyed their intestinal lining. We heard heroic tales of people who took in and raised the children of their co-workers who had collapsed and died on the job out of exhaustion and hunger.
Today, contrary to western media predictions of widespread famine and impending doom, what we saw on our two-week trip to North Korea were signs of economic recovery. And it’s not just because we were only shown what the North Korean state wanted us to see, as many skeptics are quick to conclude, but it was evident in the things that weren’t necessarily pointed out to us – more people on the streets compared to past years, the increased confidence and sense of purpose in their gaits, and a greater willingness to talk about the hardships of the Arduous March period. “Yes we have a food shortage this year, but what we’re experiencing now is nothing compared to what we endured back then,” said Lee omonim. How, then, was North Korea able to turn itself around from a crisis of such magnitude and rebuild its economy?
“Songun politics” (literal translation – “military first”) was the most common response from the people I spoke to in North Korea. “The military leads the process of economic development,” explained Professor Chung Ki-poong of Kim Chol-ju University of Education. “If we need to build a power plant, the military goes and builds the power plant. If we need a factory, they go and build a factory. They are the youth, full of energy and enthusiasm, and they perform the most difficult labor. In this way, they give hope to the rest of the country that we can indeed rebuild our economy, and set an example for the rest of the nation to follow.”
Songun is one of the many misunderstood aspects of North Korea by the outside world. The idea of putting the military first conjures up, for most people, images of a repressive police state imposing its world order through brute force. But what the world doesn’t know is the role the military plays in North Korea’s economic development. The Daedong River Apple Orchard just outside Pyeongyang, for example, was built from scratch by the military. It yields more than one hundred varieties of apples (from seeds imported from Italy) and boasts a state of the art storage facility with computerized temperature control, as well as a pig farm that provides manure as organic fertilizer year-round. To build the orchard, the military is said to have cleared and plowed 10,000 square kilometers of land, dug 2,800 km of pits, and poured 12,000 tons of manure. They also planted hundreds of apple trees, paved the roads, and built all the production and storage facilities. North Korea hopes to replicate this model in other regions, and party officials and workers from other provinces come to study how the orchard was built. In this way, the military acts as a catalyst for the construction of infrastructure, not just in agriculture but all key economic sectors.
Military resources are used for other civilian purposes as well. If an ailing patient needs to be taken to a distant hospital for emergency care, for example, the military lends its helicopter or truck for transportation. Soldiers are mobilized to construct dams and hospitals, and of course, to help with rice planting every spring. “Songun is not just about strengthening military might,” said Lee omonim. “It is about our youth leading the way in constructing a better society. Without the army, we could not have rebuilt our economy.”
One morning, I stared for a long time at the young soldiers whose morning calisthenics outside my hotel window had woken me up. Jumping in perfect formation and singing in rhythmic unison, they were indeed full of enthusiasm and pride. And I thought about our young soldiers back in the United States—how awe-inspiring it would be and how hopeful we would be if their youthful energies were mobilized to rebuild factories, plow farmland, and revitalize ailing local economies. Sitting in the hotel room half way around the world in Pyongyang, I thought long and hard about all the people back in New York growing uneasy about the recession and our uncertain futures. I hummed Lee omonim’s song and wondered what will carry us forward and give us hope for better days ahead.