A tourist's alternative view of North Korea

The Korea Herald
May 12, 2016


When Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, chairman of the advisory board of the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation, decided to make his first trip to Pyongyang last October, his friends and family started worrying that he might not make it back.

"They told me not to go because it would be dangerous and I might end up in jail. They were worried because I always speak my mind and that would get me into trouble," recalled Prince Alfred, who noted that the general perception of North Korea is often shaped by Western news reports that he said tend to be one-sided.

He even admitted to making contingency plans "so that things would run smoothly back home if I didn't come back in a few weeks."

Prince Alfred, who has been involved in several peace initiatives around the world, was spearheading efforts by the IPF to initiate an academic dialogue between a group of Nobel laureates and North Korean students and academics. To his surprise, senior Pyongyang officials and academics quickly and openly embraced the idea. That led to a visit by three Nobel laureates last week, when Prince Alfred found himself back in North Korea's capital once again.

Prince Alfred spoke to the Nation about his impressions during his two visits.

Question: What expectations did you have before the trip?

Alfred: I was very much involved in the transition of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I had visited the Soviet Union a number of times before (the tenure of) President Gorbachev and knew how the communist system was organized. They didn't have the same freedom we had, but there could be positive features in their system. I was surprised by how positive and enthusiastic and even idealistic most of the young people here (in North Korea) are, not only the students but also the professors. There is a good spirit here. It's not what I expected - that everybody would be depressed and living in fear and not trusting each other.

Q: What was the most surprising thing for you?

Alfred: It's the economic system and the whole budgeting system here. We are in a country where there are no taxes, where apartments are free, nobody pays rent, everybody has free access to health care and education, and where stocks of food for each household are provided free by the government. So I wanted to find out how all these (things) were possible, and I am still exploring. I have no answers yet. But I am beginning to understand it now. So instead of tax, the government gets its revenue from the state-owned companies. But it's difficult to understand in detail. Even the economics professors we met either didn't want to tell us or didn't know. My impression is that there is no clear understanding even on the economic side of how this works. So this is one surprise for me. The other one is that the government here has sincerely, and not for show, put a lot of effort into education, science and technology and also into children's futures. And this is very positive. My prediction is that if there is no major crisis, Pyongyang will become another Singapore within 15 to 20 years with science and technology institutions and hi-tech companies and a highly educated workforce and government pushing hard in this field. It's amazing that the government is encouraging the new generation to learn and speak English. Studying English was made obligatory starting at primary schools two years ago. That means in 10 to 15 years, English will become their second language. This is what they want.

Q: But didn't you feel frustrated by the limits placed on access to places and people?

Alfred: Sure. This is what I learned from my experience in the Soviet Union. You cannot move freely with people keeping a close watch on you. But the initiative by the International Peace Foundation didn't come out of the blue. They worked on it for two years with a lot of effort. And within this process of preparation and cooperation you establish trust, and they learn to know each other on the human level. The limits expand a little bit with less and less control once they know you are not vicious to them and are open to learn and have cultural sensitivity and empathy.

Q: Your visit coincided with a tightening of international sanctions against North Korea. How do you see the trip in this context?

Alfred: What choices do we have? Are we looking internationally for a military solution or a military intervention? I am in favor of a peaceful solution. The level of distrust of governments is rising everywhere, in Europe and in the U.S. People don't believe in what the governments are saying any more. So this is a time for "Track 3" diplomacy -- people-to-people diplomacy. If we are interested in peace then we engage ourselves, and this is what we are doing here. The more the tensions rise, the more important it is that we engage in dialogue. You may have disagreements and conflicts, but mathematics and science are a universal language. One and one equals two wherever you are. The spearhead of international dialogue has always been the scientists, because they speak the same language. Therefore, we have a good start here. And it has nothing to do with politics. We try to find common ground to bring people together.

Q: What will you tell your family about your experience here?

Alfred: In my eyes, media reports on this country are not always fair and objective. For example, our media reported on the escalation of tensions (on the Korean peninsula) with (North Korea's) latest nuclear threat against the United States and missile tests. But they did not tell us that in March there was the biggest military maneuver between the United States and South Korea with North Korea as an invasion target. So if you don't tell this side of the story and then report only the threat from North Korea, then people wouldn't know that there was provocation. It's like provoking a dog into barking. So if you come to a country with the conviction that you are reporting about a murderous regime, then you report only things that feed the concept of an "axis of evil". This in my eyes leans toward propaganda rather than good journalism. One stupid dogma of journalism is that bad news is good news. And they are still teaching that at journalism schools. Good journalism should be constructive journalism, engaging journalism, with intention to do something positive, something educational, something that brings about peace.

Q: Is there something we should know about your country, Liechtenstein?

Alfred: My main message about Liechtenstein is that it's not the numbers that count. Even if you have a small population but you are determined to make the best of your potential, you can do great things. You don't need millions of people.