Amid mounting military and nuclear tensions with North Korea, an American retiree has gained rare access to the pariah state to build schools in the usually off-limits countryside.
Christopher Carpenter, 73, who used to head the UN refugee agency in Vietnam, began building schools in North Korea in 2008.
“It wasn’t really my idea. The North Koreans contacted me out of the blue by e-mail in 2007,” Carpenter said in Switzerland, where he lives and where his charity, the Foundation for Microprojects in Vietnam-DPRK, is registered.
His organization had been financing schools and other projects in Vietnam since 2000, and the North Koreans asked Carpenter if he would do the same there.
Typhoons had destroyed many North Korean schools, built with mud and hay instead of cement, and Carpenter’s foundation agreed to help, becoming one of few independent aid groups in the country.
North Korea’s regime has been pilloried for prioritizing its nuclear program and military over basic necessities, and Carpenter said he could be accused of filling in where the regime is failing its people.
“But the fact is they’re not doing it and the people are suffering the consequences,” he said.
Even though the North Koreans approached him, Carpenter says they initially barred him from the country.
“They had difficulty with my passport in the beginning,” he said, so his French colleague Catherine Bertrand undertook the initial visit in February 2008.
Also a retired UN representative, Bertrand, 67, was taken to the remote southern Kangwon Province, where she found a school on the verge of collapse teaching students in sub-freezing temperatures.
“The kids were so cold they couldn’t move,” she said.
When the new school opened the following November, Carpenter was allowed in. He has made four trips since, with another planned in October.
“We have never encountered any hostility,” he said, stressing that the North Koreans know he is there to help and, he believes, have decided to trust him.
The foundation has built six middle schools, each for around 300 students, and has three more under construction. Carpenter and Bertrand inspect all sites before and after the schools are built and pay no more than US$40,000 per project, with the state usually pitching in about US$25,000.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re using the money properly,” he said, pointing to the inspections and detailed financial reports.
In its first education reform in four decades, Pyongyang announced in September last year an extension of compulsory free education from 11 to 12 years.
Carpenter says children are openly taught propaganda in the schools he funds, but stressed that “they also study other subjects like English, math ... and art.”
Bertrand insists that the schools are a rock-solid investment.
“You know it will be filled with children and teachers ... for propaganda,” she said, but “to teach propaganda, you have to teach them first how to read, write and count.”
The two describe friendly relationships with the North Koreans they work with, and while they must request permission for every move they make, it is usually granted.
Carpenter describes extreme poverty and houses with cracked windows in the dead of winter, but says that, from what he has seen, people seem to have enough to eat.
However, that is not the view of the UN, which says two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people are chronically food insecure. Pyongyang has often turned to the international community for food aid.
Carpenter almost fully funds the North Korean projects himself, and laments the difficulty of convincing donors to pitch in. He says his success in establishing working relationships in North Korea “shows communication is possible,” insisting communication rather than sanctions is the way forward.