According to former Swiss federal councillor’s Peter Vollmer, just back from a trip to North Korea with a group of Swiss politicians, “North Korea has a cell phone network with its own frequency, and there is internet service, but it’s very limited. You can make a phone call, but it’s complicated. You don’t see any satellite dishes”.
The tour group visited a number of Swiss-funded aid projects, such as an agricultural one with a focus on cultivation methods for steep slopes. In addition, Switzerland has been supplying milk powder which is enriched with vitamins and distributed to infants, schools, hospitals and day care centres through the World Food Programme (WFP). “The project makes sense and helps the population,” Vollmer said.
There is little traffic outside Pyongyang and hardly any private transport. “On the highway, our bus was all alone. There were potholes, and we also drove on dirt roads – where corn was being dried and pedestrians and cyclists were travelling, too. It was pretty demanding for our driver; it took two hours to cover 60 kilometres.”
“Some of North Korea looks like Switzerland’s Emmental. Gently rolling hills plus steep slopes and many mountains with little arable farmland.” Although North Korea’s landscape is similar to that of the Emmental, he adds “the country is still a far cry from a democratic civil society”.
According to Vollmer, an atmosphere of change had prevailed there during his last visit in 1985. “At that time, agricultural mechanization was taking off there, and North Korea was developing its own tractors. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought on a total collapse. From one day to the next, Russia turned off the oil spigot and only delivered in exchange for hard currency, while the North Korean economy was on the brink of ruin. Then came the great famine – a huge setback,” Vollmer said.
Today the country is heavily de-industrialised; productivity is low, crop yields modest and infrastructure obsolete. You see factories that no longer operate, and because of international sanctions, there are no spare parts.
“People are constantly walking somewhere briskly, often carrying heavy loads. They march for 20 or 30 kilometres, sometimes with ox carts,” Vollmer said. He says the little-developed railway network is mainly used for the transport of goods, while people often travel in 50-year-old open trucks.
“We were able to take photos of everything except military installations. Earlier, there was a soldier stationed at every intersection, bridge and tunnel, but this is no longer the case,” Vollmer said.
Vollmer is aware that his group only saw a tiny part of the country during its short visit. And the chaperones were omnipresent. But in his opinion, North Korea is a poor country that is trying to meet the basic needs of its population – albeit at a very low level.