The forgotten people: A trip to North Korea

Anna Pavlakis

Society and culture | Asia


Anna Pavlakis journeys from mainland China to Pyongyang, and her findings are remarkable.

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Dubbed by many as a land of ‘man-made misery’, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) makes regular headlines worldwide for its vitriolic threats, infamous nuclear weaponry program and its seemingly unbaiting longevity under the iron fist of current leader Kim Jong-Un. Desperate to witness, at least to some degree, the dogged persistence of a regime that was suffered the full spectrum of socioeconomic setbacks in its 65 years; I decided to fulfill a long-standing dream to visit the Hermit Kingdom.

Boarding the 22 hour train from Beijing to Pyongyang, I expected to enter the country second-guessing everything I saw, rebuking every comment made by tour guides, and scoffing with humorous disdain at the obvious lies propounded as we toured the country. I expected the confirmation of ideas put forth in my countless essays, and to have a surreal experience akin to visiting East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What I didn’t expect to see, and what I had forgotten to consider, was the human factor.

My first interaction with a North Korean was when a throng of stern faced guards carrying large guns and adorned with military medals boarded our train at the border crossing. We had been warned to have all electronic items, all books and all identity documents ready for a thorough inspection. We were told to scribble out any indicator that our cameras had GPS, and to hide all map applications on our phones and tablets. We were tense. They did search our bags, they flicked through our books, our electronics were inspected, but the first indicator that there were more to these guards than fervent fealty was when the our cabin’s guard, who had been inspecting the photos on a Russian man’s camera, started to laugh. He beckoned us closer and showed us a ridiculous selfie the traveller had taken. Together we skimmed through the photos together, the guard showing his delight and interest at photos of Moscow and Beijing, and even zooming in on a skimpily dressed Russian girl at a club and remarking in broken English “very good, beautiful, beautiful”.

Driving from Pyongyang Train Station to our hotel I waved at children coming home from school, neatly dressed and holding hands walking along the clean wide streets of Pyongyang. Their faces lit up, grinning at me, and they started to run and wave along the side of the bus until we couldn’t see them any more. Throughout the week, amongst visiting the DMZ, the enormous bronze statues of former leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and then seeing their embalmed bodies in the Kumusan Memorial Palace, I witnessed an array of human emotions from North Koreans that shattered my misguided preconceptions of them as emotionless pieces of an autocratic regime. We drank beers almost nightly with our tour guides, who would often drunkenly grab a microphone and sing Western songs in thick Korean accents. We visited a theme park where despite a crazed moment where the power went out mid rollercoaster ride, we screamed with joy with the people of Pyongyang. We walked through a park on the national holiday of May Day where we danced and sang national songs with strangers we met.

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I also saw children who would look at us fearfully on the subway, and women pull their children close and give us a wide berth when we walked past. I watched in shock as grown women cried and wailed upon sighting the bodies of their former leaders at the mausoleum. I witnessed laughing families jokingly spoon-feeding each other at picnics, only to be silenced when a guard walked past.

There was a point during that week where I realised I had to some extent been conditioned into feeling a strong albeit warped type of affection for North Korea. The majority of footage on my camera was of smiling children, elegantly dressed women, gargantuan monuments in spotless Pyongyang streets and memories of the voices of our tour guides whose every word dripped with a deep ardent love for their country and its leadership that I had never witnessed before. It took significant effort to shake myself back to the reality that I had seen only the lucky 1% of the country, in the richest city they had. That less than 20km from the splendours of Pyongyang was the gulag that Shin Dong-Hyuk famously escaped from, and that much of the population is said to be living in abject poverty.

I won’t deny that there were many inconsistencies with what I saw. The tour guides often spoke of the compulsory 12 years of education for all children, but from the train I saw groups of dirty children ploughing fields during weekdays. They also adamantly denied knowledge of the existence of prison camps, but a UN worker I met on my final night told me in hushed tones that he had personally seen trucks of corpses. My preconceptions of the ruling party had been somewhat confirmed, but my holistic approach to the country had utterly changed.

I had come into North Korea seeking to further understand its seemingly crazed leadership, but had come out of it with a deeper perspective of its people. Behind a veil of suspicion and apprehension, the North Korean people I met were open and warm. They laughed and cried for the things they loved and were as multi-faceted as any other human. The people of North Korea are the forgotten faces of a country depicted only for the policies of its leaders.

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A blackbirded past, a healing future

Bianca Hennessy

Society and culture | Pacific


Bianca Hennessy discovers Australia's dark history of 'blackbirding', the recruitment of South Sea Islander workers by questionable means. 

Emelda Davis' email signature ends with a short statement in small purple font: "never underestimate the power of gratitude". A perfectly sensible maxim, one that evokes a lucky life lived graciously.

Emelda's belief in gratitude, however, stands in potent contrast just beneath another snippet also found the end of her emails. It outlines a shameful and tragic history: an indentured labour trade "akin to slavery". 55 000 people taken from their homes. Diseases and death. Stolen wages. Mass deportation spurned by racist government policies.

The setting for this history? Australia.


Between 1863 and 1904, around 55 000 people were taken to Queensland to work under indentured labour contracts in sugar cane plantations. These workers were "recruited" under a method known as 'blackbirding': tricked, kidnapped or recruited under exploitative conditions from the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The definition of blackbirding remains controversial, but the Australian South Sea Islander (ASSI) community identifies with a shared history of being the descendants of slaves. Some were coerced with violence, some were lured with cheap objects, and others enlisted with the promise of fair payment - which for many, never eventuated. Clive Moore of the University of Queensland talks of "cultural kidnapping"; even when Islanders enlisted voluntarily, they were bound by contracts they could not understand and most were not properly renumerated for their work.

The injustices suffered by Islander labourers cast a dark shadow on Australian history. Some labourers were violently abused during the recruitment process or by their employers in Australia, and many died from diseases they had no immunity to. The Queensland government misappropriated the wages of deceased South Sea Islander labourers, withholding money from workers’ families once they had died - essentially gaining around $30 million in today's value from the deaths of indentured labourers. 7500 Islanders were forcibly deported after 1901, when the Pacific Island Labourers Act was implemented as part of the White Australia Policy.

This is an enduring history: there are currently between 40 000 and 50 000 Australian South Sea Islander descendants of the blackbirding era. The Queensland towns Mackay and Townsville - where much of this population now live - are named after blackbirders.

Whilst this is a story of a tragic and shameful past, it is also the story of a hopeful and brave future.

Emelda is the President of Australian South Sea Islanders - Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ). It’s an organisation that represents and advocates for descendants of indentured labourers today. ASSI-PJ seeks to promote ASSI culture, raise awareness about their history and advocate for the group politically, socially and economically.

A key initiative of ASSI-PJ is Wantok, a series of conferences run in towns that have a large population of ASSI people – like Tweed Heads, Mackay and Bundaberg. Wantok aims to facilitate healing and the development of family connections among ASSI people.

The following is a video of the 2012 Wantok conference in Bundaberg:


In this video, conference attendee Michael Douglas speaks eloquently about Wantok’s capacity to connect ASSI people with their family’s history:

“I met a group of ladies and chiefs who came from the island where my grandfather comes. And when I met them, I made a connection in my heart and my spirit. And deep down in my soul I wept because I was touching my flesh, my bones, my blood, of my grandfather. And I am honoured to be here with my people. I am honoured to be with what belongs to me.”

Michael’s last few words resonate with Emelda’s vision of ASSI-PJ. She tells me about the power of self-representation, of sharing one’s own stories. The ASSI-PJ website is a platform to collate the self-told stories of ASSI people. It teems with information and multimedia to raise awareness and aid research into the past and present situation of ASSI people, and is a great place to start if you want to learn more about the movement.

Collaboration with academia, particularly Professor Clive Moore a University of Queensland historian, has offered a basis for more stories to be built upon. Wantok conferences are meticulously recorded and shared online, to broaden the scope of community access. Participation and engagement is seen as an ongoing collaborative process.

There is still much work to be done. ASSI people are campaigning to be recognised by governments as a distinct group with a distinct culture, and are overcoming the huge socioeconomic disadvantages faced by their people.

I ask Emelda why gratitude is important to her. Given the terrible sufferings experienced by her descendants and people like them, and the current disadvantages faced by ASSI people, why does she feel grateful?

She tells me about her grandmother, mother and daughter: all healers and nurturers. She tells me that people adapt to disadvantage, and that gratitude can be a tool of strength.

It is apparent that ASSI-PJ and the Wantok conferences employ many tools for strength. They mobilise communities, commemorate tragedy, lobby governments and help individuals to learn about their families and reconnect with the culture of their ancestors. But perhaps the greatest strength is ASSI-PJ’s capacity to not only fight to change the future of ASSI people, but to feel grateful to be able to do so.

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