Cartoonist Oh Young-jin, center, and Guy Delisle, left, listen to Daniel Ollivier, director of the French Institute in Seoul, during a news conference at the institute, Thursday. / Courtesy of French Institute
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Oh Young-jin, who had stayed in the North Korean port city of Shinpo for 18 months from August 2000 as an engineer for Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO), lamented over the unspeakable conditions facing women there.
During a joint news conference with Canadian cartoonist and animator Guy Delisle at the French Institute in Seoul on Thursday, Oh Young-jin, also a cartoonist, said that he wept for several days after watching the plight of a North Korean woman.
"Before I went to the North in 2000, I heard a lot about economic hardships facing the country following the devastating famine and floods that killed millions of North Korean residents in the mid 1990s," Oh said. "Despite this, I felt helpless after seeing a woman who washed her body in a paddy field nearby my place after giving birth to a baby there. I cried for several days as I witnessed the inhumane circumstances women there had to deal with."
Oh, the author of a two-part cartoon titled "A Guest from the South" and "Opening up of the Wall," said he has worked for KEPCO as his day job to finance his cartoon projects.
The French Institute organized the news conference with the two cartoonists, who hadn't met each other before, to give people an idea about life in the Stalinist country through the two cartoonists' first-hand experiences.
Back in 2000, Oh was a field manager in charge of the construction of two light water reactors to provide electricity in the North. Under his supervision, several North Koreans worked as laborers.
The light water reactor program was part of a nuclear deal signed between the United States and North Korea in 1994 following the first nuclear crisis in the North. Under the deal, South Korea, Japan and the European Union were committed to share the financial burden of the construction of two reactors in the North in exchange for the country's halt of its then-plutonium-based nuclear bomb program.
Oh said North Korean women faced multiple challenges at home and in the workplace partly because of their uncooperative, patriarchal husbands.
"Women were responsible for raising children and doing home chores. They were also frequently called upon by the Communist Party to work in nearby collective farms," he said. "While North Korean women struggled to balance the demanding work and family, men there didn't do anything. They gathered on the street and smoked and didn't share home chores."
Oh also shared his observations about the work ethic of North Korean workers.
He said that workers there were lazy and not motivated to work hard and, as a result, their performances were very disappointing compared to their South Korean counterparts.
"I several times argued with the North Koreans regarding their outcomes. Whenever I complained about their job performance, they would insist that North Korea is heaven for workers and I was not supposed to blame them," he said.
Award-wining animator Delisle, who released a comic book titled "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" in 2005 after his two-month stay in the capital in 2001 for an animation project, presented different observations about North Korean workers.
The Canadian spoke highly of the North Korean staff with whom he worked. "They worked very well and no one there was lazy. All I did was to encourage them to get things done as soon as possible," he said through an interpreter.
But the Canadian said during his two-month stay, he constantly felt that some kept watching and monitoring him and that sometimes scared him.
Regarding the differences in work ethics of two groups of North Korean workers, Oh said that animators are highly skilled workers and they were probably more motivated than laborers with whom he had worked in Shinpo.
Delisle said his experiences and observations of the North were limited and different from those of Oh probably because he was an alien there and couldn't communicate with North Koreans as much as Oh because of the language barrier.