The slow march from vulnerability to relative prosperity

Published: 15 November 2011 16:18 CET

By Francis Markus in Maejon Ri

There are still the maps on the wall and the bulky sofa in the meeting room. There’s still a little boy – not the same one, I don’t think – having his hair cut in the community building. But despite the continuity since my last visit, there’s an intangible air of growing pride and confidence around this community, about an hour’s drive north of the capital Pyongyang.

“Lots of people from nearby communities have been coming on exchange visits to see how we have achieved our success,” says Kim Ri Hua, chair of the community.

From an extremely vulnerable community, disaster prone and subject to serious environmental problems, Maejon Ri has become one of the most prosperous villages in the province.

Of course there are a number of aspects to the transformation, but we visit one of the most tangible of them a short drive down a bumpy track across the fields.

It’s the new reservoir which the residents of this community have built over a two year period, at a cost, we’re told of 100,000 person/hours.

And it’s helping to change people’s lives in a number of ways.

“Before, our fields were constantly being inundated because of the overflow from an irrigation channel,” says Ms Kim.

Now, the community is able to harvest an extra 300 tonnes of rice per year, which in the context of the DPRK’s tight food security situation, is a significant improvement.

We can see people busily feeding the harvested paddy into the threshing machine and gathering the maize cobs out in the fields.

They can also generate extra income from other sources such as the abundant fish which are now breeding in the reservoir – as well as the food processing machinery that is widely used by people from surrounding communities and greenhouses to grow vegetables.

People here used to have to travel up to 10 kilometers to process their grain into noodles, for example. So that’s a huge improvement to people’s daily lives.

We hear about more benefits of the project from 80-year-old Oh Chang Ju and a small group of his fellow volunteers.

“The clean drinking water installations which we have put in place have improved everybody’s health,” he says. And with him not looking a day over 60, I’m inclined to believe him.

Of course Maejon Ri’s success hasn’t come without criticism and envy from other quarters. “At first we got sympathy from people, but then this turned to criticism,” says the Provincial Red Cross branch secretary Kim Sun E.

I wonder whether it’s still problematic in the DPRK’s egalitarian structure for some communities to prosper so much more than others.

But before I can take this train of thought further, Ms Kim continues: “The criticism served as an incentive.”

Clearly, with Red Cross support, the leaders and volunteers here are determined to pursue a variety of projects to improve people’s lives, including new housing and a new kindergarten.

I fully expect to come back here in another year or so and see yet more new development, serving as a model to show other communities what can be done with sufficient determination, planning and a little support from the Red Cross.