I attended the working-level meeting for the Inter-Korean Joint Festivities, held in Pyongyang from January 21 to 25, as the women's committee chair of the Joint Festivities Steering Committee (made up of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, seven religious organizations and the Reunification Alliance). Through these working-level talks, the two Koreas have agreed to hold jointly organized events this year to commemorate the third anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration, Liberation Day, and Korea Foundation Day, in the agreed city of Seoul or Pyongyang. Participants also agreed to hold the 'March 1 National Rally for Peace and Reunification' on March 1 in Seoul. (translator's note: March 1 is a national holiday to commemorate the fight for independence from Japanese colonial rule.)
Negotiations for this event started with the seven religious organizations in South Korea inviting religious organizations in North Korea to the international religious ceremony scheduled for March. And the final product of the negotiations was a jointly organized event on March 1. The event will be organized by the religious groups in the two Koreas, and North Korea will be sending a sizeable delegation to attend the event.
As for sectional events (for women, workers, farmers, youths), no tangible agreements were reached except for evaluating last year's events and discussing this year's plans. However, the two Koreas reaffirmed their commitment to further working-level meetings to ensure that sectional events come to bear fruit.
Our visit to Pyongyang was filled with more tension than on any other occasion, probably because it took place in the midst of mounting nuclear disputes between Pyongyang and Washington and the threat of war on the Korean peninsula. But while we were in Pyongyang, inter-Korean Ministerial-level talks and talks for the linking of North and South by road and railway were being held in Seoul and Pyongyang respectively, giving us a thread of hope in this time of crisis.
On the morning of the 21st, just when we were about to board the Koryo airline plane bound for Pyongyang, we spotted Mr. Baek Moon Gil (an officer with the North Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation whom we'd met several times) on his way to attend the meetings in Seoul. Seeing him was a great relief to us, as it was proof that the two Koreas were moving back and forth between Seoul and Pyongyang to build the bridge for peace and reconciliation in spite of the troubled times. Also waiting for the Pyongyang-bound plane with us were many other South Koreans involved in humanitarian aid to North Korea, namely Koreans Helping Each Other, Neighborly Love Society and the National Teachers' Union.
We were told that the cold had lost its bite in Pyongyang. But the next day's weather was very cold. We saw more automobiles and people on the streets of Pyongyang compared to our last visit (in July 2000). Perhaps because there is no work in the winter? All our rooms in the Koryo Hotel had electric heaters, so the cold was no concern when indoors.
But the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital and Good Will Hospital that we visited between meetings were exposed to the harsh weather. The Good Will Hospital in particular - even though it was a hospital designated for foreigners - was so cold that we might as well have been standing outdoors,. Each room had an electric heater, but all the doctors, nurses and patients were shivering with cold.
Even the famous Pyongyang Maternity Hospital was evidently short of medicine and medical equipment. North Korea's food and energy shortage was truly threatening the lives of the people in the winter. We also got to travel to Sariwon, and the further we got from Pyongyang, the worse the houses and people looked.
It was a replica of the harsh winters after the Korean War that we experienced in our childhood. It seemed heartless and immoral for South Korea to be hoarding so much rice (about 50 million bushels in reserve as of the end of 2002) and squandering more than 50 billion Won a year in storage costs and still showing reluctance to provide food aid to the North. This was the Korean division in life.
Despite pitifully deteriorating living conditions, the North Korean officials' attitude towards the nuclear standoff with the US was resolute. The North brought in higher-ranking officials than we had anticipated to our civilian talks (Kim Young Dae, Ahn Kyong Ho, Jang Jae Un, Jun Kum Chol). The officials took pains to explain North Korea's position on the nuclear issue and to listen to South Korea's opinion and advice.
During the group discussions, Jun Kum Jin (Vice president of the Committee for National Peace and Reunification) attended the meetings with the Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, women and youths. Jang Jae Un (North Korean Red Cross) attended the religious organizations' meetings, and Ahn Kyong Ho the meetings with the Reunification Alliance, workers and farmers. The North Korean officials stayed throughout the lengthy discussions and even had their meals with the South Korean delegation.
The North Koreans mainly talked about how the US's anti-North Korea policies (such as the 'axes of evil' speech and talk of a preemptive nuclear attack) were the cause of the present nuclear dispute, why a North Korea-US treaty of nonaggression that is legally binding is the solution to the current crisis, and how North Korea's abandoning the nuclear freeze is to generate power, not to threaten the South.
In response, we relayed the concerns and opinions of the South Korean civil society. We explained points such as the problem with Pyongyang's NCND policy since Bush's Envoy James Kelly announcement of Pyongyang's admission to nuclear development, the need to consider other alternatives besides a nonaggression treaty, the fact that time is of the essence in this crisis, and the reasoning that the US's hostility comes from a deep mistrust regarding North Korea, which in turn stems from the mistrust for North Korea's unique system. We touched on many sensitive issues in the entire discussion, but the North Korean officials listened earnestly, commenting that what we were saying was reasonable or useful as a point of reference.
North Korea's attitude was very different from the stance it took during the 1994 nuclear crisis, when it adhered to a 'dialogue-with-Washington-containment-of-Seoul' policy and totally ignored the South Korean government. North Korea's changed attitude was a reflection of how much inter-Korean relations have changed since the June 15 Joint Declaration in 2000.
North Korea has become quite flexible, and seemed well aware of the need for South Korea's cooperation.
In the midst of a brewing nuclear crisis, civilian exchanges are continuing to bridge the two Koreas and pave the way for peace and reconciliation. As long as the Joint Festivities and humanitarian aid organized by civilians continue, North and South Korea will be pulling down the wall of prejudice and widening the horizon of national reconciliation, little by little.
We must remember that sending food and our love to the starving children and expecting mothers of North Korea is the most powerful way to melt down even the nuclear crisis.