In 1998 I had the pleasure of serving as the team leader for a group of eight Americans working in North Korea for a consortium of U.S. non-profits and the World Food Program. Our job was to set up a Food for Work program to distribute 75,000 tons of USAID-donated food grain to ease alleged wide-spread famine conditions. (95% of the food grain was in corn, 5 % rice. This ratio was much to the North Koreans' dismay because rice is such a preferred food, as in much of Asia.) I say alleged famine because there was considerable debate about the extent of food shortages and the North Korean government refused to allow the collection of credible empirical evidence on the subject. Toward the end of 1998, UNICEF was finally able to complete a study of the nutritional status of children that it felt met international standards. That study did show that malnutrition among North Korea's children was severe and compared unfavorably even to comparable groups in Bangladesh.
We were in North Korea from May to November and traveled widely within those counties that were not closed to foreigners, including those working for the UN (click map thumbnail). As Americans, we were subject to particularly tight restrictions on our movement, ever present minders/translators, and bizarre negotiations over every issue and many non-issues. Our hotel rooms were bugged, our hard drives were copied, our signed program agreements were physically doctored, and we all developed a healthy sympathy for our diplomats who negotiate with the North Koreans over far more important things. Nevertheless, we were determined to enjoy the experience and the country, and we did. North Korea is a beautiful country despite severe deforestation, and we found the rural populations warm, curious, and hospitable -- particularly in those rare cases when our minders were not interfering (three of our group were Korean speakers). Meals that our rural hosts provided us were sumptuous and generous, embarrassingly so given food shortages, and the liquor always flowed.
The North Korean women in the background picture are visiting a very popular and important tourist site in the hills of southeastern North Korea, in Kumgangsan which borders the eastern end of the DMZ. At the time we visited Kumgangsan, which translates as "diamond mountain", the two Koreas had negotiated an agreement that allowed South Korean tourists to take a cruise ship into the eastern port of Wonsan and then be bussed to Kumgangsan. They were beginning to arrive in fairly large numbers. The highlight of our visit was a lovely hike up the mountain to an outdoor refreshment area facing directly at an impressive waterfall.
Other than the natural beauty of Kumgangsan, two other experiences are vivid in my memory of the area. First, our hotel's parking lot was full of mountains of acorns. Our minders reluctantly told us that the schools along that part of east coast were cancelled for a week and all students were instructed to spend that time collecting acorns. They were collected at the schools and transported to the hotel's parking lot from which they would be hauled off to processing facilities to make food and liquor. (We were not permitted to take pictures of this acorn cache.) Second, the hotel had a wonderful complex of very hot public baths (for which we were charged an absurd amount of hard currency -- dollars only, please).