What can a water engineer tell us about North Korean society?
Well, after spending two years there, Dualta Roughneen of Ireland can say that North Korea has the vestiges of a good water supply system, though it was clearly damaged, and quite severely, by the famine and economic crisis of the mid-1990s.
“From what I could see, it looked like prior to the challenges brought by the economic collapse the country would have had a reasonably good standard of community infrastructure, but it is all in need of repair now,” said Roughneen, author of the recently released North Korea: On the Inside, Looking In.
And Roughneen, as a devout Christian, has other insights. For one, North Korea’s Catholic church, often accused of being for show in a nation notorious for persecuting Christians, has services but it’s difficult to gauge the sincerity of those taking part.
Also, since it has no priest, the church’s services don’t really count as “mass,” as they are led by a layperson not qualified to perform all of a priest’s duties. Furthermore, Roughneen, who knew little about the North before his stay, misses many of the people he got to know during his stay, but concluded that life in a diplomatic compound, with its limited social interactions, was not normal.
NK News: There’s been a growing interest in accounts on daily life in North Korea since the success of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. However, not many of those who write about it get to spend as much time there as you have. What prompted you to write the book?
DR: Well, I wouldn’t say something prompted me. I kept notes and a personal diary about my life in the country, not so much for recording things really, but rather because when I was there email access was limited. I thought it was a better option rather than sending group emails to friends and relatives when there was something I would want to share, and because blogs were still not so popular then – this was between 2004 and 2007.
Then a few years passed and it took a while before I sat down and considered giving it a more organic structure, to make it more formal. So I took a couple of months, writing in my free time or in the evenings, during a mission in Niger, trying to edit the information I had into something more readable, adding a little structure, because what I had originally written was very informal.
NK News: So the book spans more than two and half years, when you were working in the DPRK as a water engineer. A look at things like water pipes in the DPRK, or the homes of ordinary people doesn’t happen very often. What kind of experience was that?
DR: Yes, I was there as a water and sanitation engineer, and at first I worked on small-scale projects, in rural areas: We were checking water supplies from springs and hills for villages and work teams, building spring boxes, connecting water sources and piping them to tanks on the hills above the villages and then piping it down to the village itself and individual homes, right to the single tap. Technical things, nothing fancy, really.
NK News: How much of your time was spent working shoulder to shoulder with North Koreans?
‘Clearly they were much better off during the 1970s’
DR: Well, not much, as I was primary involved in project design, or surveying things with my North Korean colleagues and, when things were ready to be built, ordering the materials which would then be delivered to the local county official, who would manage the distribution of materials to villages and communities, so that each community can have a technician trained in water supply, and he (or she) would manage the physical construction of the system and we would, from time to time, make sure the work was done properly.
NK News: How bad was the actual situation in terms of infrastructure when you were there? How much work do you estimate is needed?
DR: I think a lot of it is…relative to the situation the country was in during the 1970s, and to what your perspective is. Clearly they were much better off during the 1970s. A lot of the communities and villages had the remnants of what would have been an old water supply system; some of them had motorized water pumps systems, using fairly heavy-duty galvanized iron piping, whereas we were turning into something more locally maintainable, something less heavy. We made it so that the system would rely on gravity (as in sending water downhill) rather than umping, because that’s a problem now with the energy shortages they have, and it’s more suitable to their situation, it requires less maintenance. From what I could see, it looked like prior to the challenges brought by the economic collapse the country would have had a reasonably good standard of community infrastructure, but it is all in need of repair now.
NK News: What kind of work did you conduct in Pyongyang and in the countryside?
DR: In Pyongyang we did not work on the water system, which is fairly functional in terms of piping, even though they would still have issues with the electricity supply from time to time, and that affects water availability, as the water system depends on electricity for its pumps. Both Pyongyang and the countryside have a system of central tanks, where the water is taken from, and then distributed into homes. The problem is always twofold: one is the lack of electricity from time to time, and the other is the degradation and corrosion of the piping system, so you have leaks, and also at household level, people would have just one tap in the house, and it’s difficult to find spare parts or replacements when things break down, then there are also problems in the piping of each single house, when one of two conducts break and it’s hard to repair them.
‘Personally I have always felt like life there for me was as watching television with the sound off’
NK News: You mention a number a times that as a Christian you attended mass services in Pyongyang regularly, but then you were surprised to find out that what went on in the church wasn’t always genuine.
DR: Well, I have been wondering about that. I used to go to the Catholic church in Pyongyang on most weeks and there would always be a good crowd. But there was never a priest. Rather, you would have a layperson who would be going through the service, and people were attending quite attentively, and foreigners could still follow the various parts of the mass even if they were recited in Korean; but I was never completely sure of how much of it was true. Again, it was not really a mass, but more of a service, because there are parts of it that only a priest can perform.
I can’t tell you 100 percent how genuinely the people there were involved. It’s hard to understand what is really happening, because of the language barrier, and because people there are wary of foreigners. Not in a bad way, but there’s always some distance. Personally I have always felt like life there for me was as watching television with the sound off, which I also mention in the book. You’re here, you see people and things but you’re not really involved, so it’s hard to either verify or disavow things.
NK News: I have found things in common between your account of life in the DPRK and that of former UK Ambassador John Everard, with regard to the fact that as a foreigner it may be hard to make true friends (in the sense we usually attribute to the word), with North Koreans. What was your experience with North Koreans colleagues and people you got to meet?
DR: It is very hard to say. I think there were a few people I did have a very close relationship with, but not to the extent that you would have back in your hometown or in your own environment; as I said there’s always a distance that you’re not going to bridge because you are a foreigner and you live separately, in a specific part of the city, in a few compounds and you live under different conditions, most likely quite privileged conditions compared to most people in Pyongyang. Think I can consider a few people I met there friends, even today, even though there were no chances to stay in contact after I left. There are valuable relations because I know I will not be able to repeat them anywhere else.
NK News: So you lived in the compound where most of the foreigners live?
DR: Yes, the same place where most of the aid workers and European foreigners live in, the diplomatic compounds. I know some Russians lived somewhere else in the city, but most of the foreigners lived in that area, and they socialized together.
NK News: What would you say are the things that you really miss, as of today, from your North Korean experience?
DR: The people I got to know well and I worked with; I still wish I could be able to be in touch with them. But for many other things the time I spent there was just incredibly quiet for many respects. See anywhere else you’re bombarded with multiple ways of interaction, email, phone, messages, etc., but in the DPRK we had almost none of it, so the interaction had to be necessarily more personal; and a lot of the quiet time you have on your hands gives you the chance to think, and you go back to a mode of meeting people simple by making an appointment and sticking to it, because there is no way to reschedule last minute. It’s a little like going back to living in the 1980s, I guess. So the relationships and the life there are more structured and also more stable than what we have now in the West, I think.
NK News: Did you have the opportunity to study the language while there?
DR: Well, I was allowed to take courses with a private tutor, but I never really had the chance to sit down and go through them, so I mostly picked a little Korean from my colleagues and co-workers, but not enough to go beyond an elementary conversation.
NK News: What is the place that has impressed you the most?
DR: I would say the metro is quite impressive, but probably the number one place is that May Day Stadium (where the Arirang Mass Games take place), just for the sheer size of it, it’s absolutely impressive, and also the West Sea barrage in Nampo.
‘…if that starts to feel normal, it’s not a good sign’
NK News: Was there ever a moment when things started to feel “normal,” when you felt that living in North Korea, and driving around Pyongyang or the countryside, was starting to be a routine?
DR: Well, the definition of “normal” depends on a number of factors and the situation you are in, but I would say that, yes, there was a time, at some point, when it started to feel like that was my reality and that’s where I started to feel perhaps I was staying there too long; see, when you spend a lot of time in a place like the diplomatic compound in Pyongyang, where your interaction with other people and your social life are indeed limited… if that starts to feel normal, it’s not a good sign, I think, because that is not what life is supposed to be like, so at that point I realized maybe it was time to leave.
Picture: Dualta Roughneen
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2011 words of this article.