▲ Tangerines being loaded aboard a ship, above, for shipment to North Korea. Photo courtesy Jeju provincial government
Amid heightened tensions and volatile relations on the Korea peninsula in recent months, Jeju is continuing a recently established tradition of contact with North Korea. Tons of Jeju tangerines are destined to be shipped to North Korea early this year, largely to the efforts of local Jeju citizens, the Jeju Center for Inter Korea Exchange and Cooperation and the provincial government’s Department of Agriculture. This will be the 12th consecutive year for citrus shipments to be sent to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. One of Jeju’s most prominent symbols, the tangerines have extra significance in what they represent for relations with the North Koreans.
On Jan. 1, 1999, the first shipment of tangerines made its way to Pyongyang, along with a delegation of Jeju politicians and support staff. Yoon Chang Won of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province’s Department of Agriculture has helped to oversee both the shipments and communications with his North Korean counterparts.
When asked how he felt when entering North Korea, Yoon said, “I thought they would be the same as us, but what I saw was a scene from [South] Korea from the 1960s. People were smaller from a less-balanced diet and clearly our tangerines could help provide a source of food and vitamins.”
In the beginning, those involved in the Jeju delegation may have thought of the fruit as food aid, but the North Koreans never felt this way. “The shipments were begun for additional reasons as well - to ease political tensions, to create a new potential market and as a humanitarian act, providing a source of vitamin C in the winter,” Yoon said. The delegations have generally been able to oversee distribution of the aid to orphanages, infants and pregnant women. Communication is a significant hurdle to success-fully completing shipments each year, however.
Yoon must first send any messages through diplomatic channels in China who, in turn, fax messages on to the North Koreans. Any responses return through the same channels. “It can be very frustrating when there are urgent decisions to be made, or messages to send. This annual project is the most challenging and difficult part of my career,” said Yoon, with a sense of great accomplishment and pride. He has made 11 trips to the DPRK; three for the tangerine shipments and eight times for other agricultural-related visits.
A variety of sources come together every year to help ensure the shipments are made. Tangerines are donated by local growers, money is donated by the public and there are some funds allocated from tax revenues.
When the program was started, it followed closely after the efforts of Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea. However, since Lee Myung Bak’s government has been in power, central government funding for the initiative has been scarce. This has not deter-red Jeju from committing to its annual shipments. The Jeju Center for Inter-Korean Ex-change and Cooperation helps keep things moving.
Professor Koh Sung Joon of the Department of Tourism and Tourism Management at Jeju National University said, “There are mainly two ways to help join the campaign and that is by joining the Jeju Center for Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation, and by giving donations directly to the center. Foreigners are welcome to participate.” Koh noted that support from the public for the program is withering as time passes. “We need even more groups to participate. Some worry, however, that this is an act for which we will receive nothing in return.” Indeed, the amount of tangerines shipped can vary greatly depending on funding.
Koh said that giving is the more important factor in this case. First, the aid provides a badly needed source of nutrition. Secondly, it serves as a trust-building factor for reconciliation. Thirdly, it helps to establish Jeju’s reputation as the Island of World Peace. At the very least it serves as an important example of a catalyst that could lead to the easing of tensions.
“Jeju is just a small island and has a limited budget. But Jeju is trying to do its utmost to do something that only Jeju can do. Sending tangerines to North Korea is the best thing we can do.”
In 1999, the first shipment of tangerines to the North was initiated by the Jeju government and Nonghyup bank. After that, the shipping was spearheaded by citizen groups. “That was the time I was involved in this aid initiative,” Koh said.
This year marks the 12th year for Jeju to send tangerines North. Given that North Korea expressed thanks for the aid and even expressed their hope for Jeju to send more tangerines, this provides an opportunity that shouldn’t be ignored, no matter how strained the family ties might be.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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