Translated from German (original language) into English.
Article of the German newspaper FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG,
Nr. 278, Page 9, Deutschland und die Welt (Politik),
Monday, 28th Novembre 2016
Mr Remarque Grund, so you have been working with deaf people in North Korea. How did you end up there, I mean, why North Korea out of all places?
I always get this question. Would people even ask me the same question if I had engaged in development cooperation in Africa, for example? Everyone asks: Why North Korea out of all places? But, it’s actually just ordinary work.
But, North Korea is considered an isolated country, especially tucked away from the West?
Of course, it had been tough in the beginning. Back then, I was still a 18-year old Deaf student in high school. When someone like me shows up at a North Korean embassy requesting for a visa, one would immediately raise questions as in why would I even?? I went to the North Korean Embassy again and again, prodding and annoying people there until I finally prevailed obtaining a visa.
Why did you want to go there so badly?
I was 15 years old when I saw a TV programme claiming that there are no deaf people in North Korea. I was very skeptical about that. So in 2004, I visited North Korea for the first time ever. I was 19 years old that time. Back then, I searched for deaf people but could not find any there – not even anyone in wheelchair out on streets. In Asia, disabled people are often not visible in public. During my 3rd visit, I finally bumped into the first deaf person in North Korea. He asked me: “Are there more deaf people in the world?” That really hit me hard.
How did you both communicate?
Communication was difficult because I could not use the international sign language very well. I had a German-Korean interpreter who is a hearing person. I wrote down my questions in German and the interpreter translated them into written Korean.
So this is how you proved that there are deaf people in North Korea?
Yes, this was my goal. Actually, the story could have happened here - but the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) was very surprised about the whole thing. Of course, they also knew nothing about the situation of deaf people in North Korea. That’s why the WFD gave me the instructions to develop a cooperation with Deaf North Koreans who are.
You had lived in Pyongyang since 2013. What is it like to live there?
Everyday is different. Sometimes, my day isn’t off to a great start because their internet is notoriously fickle. You have to be prepared for that. I used to set a weekly schedule for the Foreign Office on Fridays. None of the plan is proceeded until end of the week.
You have built a centre for deaf people though?
Yes. Partnered with their deaf people, I also founded a first kindergarten of the deaf. There is also an official national association for deaf people, a wood workshop and the Centre in Pyongyang where blind people meet up.
The government instructed you to establish the centre, however the money needed to build it must be funded by yourself. Right?
Yes, this was a long-term conflict. I had to ask for donations in German, but a lot of people tend to hesitate when it comes to North Korea. So, this process took a long time. People in North Korea themselves had no clue what I was talking about – the whole enthusiasm about building a centre for deaf people. In 2014, I travelled to the WFD headquarters in Finland, also accompanying deaf North Koreans – it was the first time ever that deaf North Koreans got a passport. When the deaf and hearing member delegates in Finland got a better picture what this centre should look like, the project was finally initiated. 20 days after I returned to Pyongyang, we finally secured a location for the Deaf Centre in the well-known city district named Moranbong.
Is it difficult to work together with the North Korean government?
Here’s an example: In partnership with the deaf North Koreans, we wanted to publish sign language books intended for children. It took one and a half year until we got the permission for it, what a long red-tape.
Deaf North Koreans should illustrate the books by themselves because sign language is their native birthright language and we work according to the principle: “Nothing About Us Without Us”. Since deaf people are marginalized in the North Korean society, nobody believed that deaf people would have any illustration skills. That’s why we created playing cards as a first step. These cards were illustrated by deaf North Koreans and then printed abroad. I hereby wanted to demonstrate and exhibit that deaf people can have illustration skills, despite the fact that they often were not properly educated and that they had started compulsory school education at a later age than hearing persons of the same age. With this project succeeding, we could prove that deaf people are skilled as well. So, that led us to the next step, which is the creation and publication of these books n North Korea.
Do you know now how many deaf people there are in North Korea?
In developing countries, approximately 1 – 2% from the society are found to be deaf. According to an estimation by the North Korean government, about 1.7% of the North Korean society are deaf. It would mean that approximately 250 000 to 300 000 deaf people are estimated to exist there!
Is it true that parents do not send their children to school due to stigma?
That is not exactly right. There are eight schools for deaf people in North Korea, which are all located outside Pyongyang. The actual problem is that a lot of people are unaware that these such schools exist. And this similar phenomenon that can be seen all around the world: Hearing parents of deaf children are often reluctant allowing someone else take care for their deaf children. A lot of those parents simply do not know any sign language. In April, we opened the first kindergarten in Pyongyang. The government expected around 40 children to attend. Since North Korea is a socialist system, they already how many deaf people there are and where they live. Eventually, only three children came. This was a surprise – well at least for the government, not for me. This such issue needs some time, because you do need to convince the people. Nowadays, there are already 19 children in attendance at this kindergarten.
Can you freely move around in North Korea?
Yes, in the capital. Regarding places outside the capital, even North Koreans need to request for permissions. In Pyongyang, I’m allowed to go shopping everywhere. 80% of the products in the shops are exported from Germany. I could even buy canned Königsberger Klopse. I missed those from my mum nevertheless.
And what else?
If I were a hearing person, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in North Korea as long as I actually did. For instance, those loudspeaker announcements, the 6am wake-up call, the evening call and the tribute songs - hearing people told me that it’s tricky to not hear it. So, it dawned on me that it would be an advantage being deaf in North Korea.
Why does North Korea support your work – what do you think?
I am certain that North Korea wants to change a lot of things. They want to roll up their sleeves to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. To achieve this, they really have to work hard. But nowadays, you can finally notice people signing in public – that is a great progress compared to my first stay in North Korea.
In 2015, you participated at the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf together with a group of deaf North Koreans. There was also a gathering with a group of South Koreans. Was this gathering supposed to be like an indirect contribution towards political de-escalation?
I would not put it this way. It was an encounter between deaf people from both countries. It was a matter between deaf people. It was not a political issue.
Nevertheless, it did not happen in a political vacuum.
It is an inter-Korean issue I should not interfere with.
You do not like to talk about North Korean politics, do you?
I like talking about politics in Germany. I am German, so German politics concern me. On the other hand, the North Korean politics are internal affairs and remain none of my business. A lot of people ask me about human rights in that country. Thus, I always answer: “Nothing About Us Without Us!” One should not talk about human rights in North Korea without a North Korean present.
What are the next steps regarding your work?
I organized a contract with the World Federation of the Deaf and the North Korean government and this contract expires at the end of the year. Then, I will work from Berlin and continue to build up centres for deaf people in the provinces.
By the way, we have loud background music here the whole time. That is quite bothersome.
I could not stand this. I have to say this: I have been born deaf and I do not miss anything. In school, I was forced to wear hearing aids for eleven years. I was almost traumatized.
Were you able to hear something with that hearing aid?
Only annoying background noises. Hearing people often do not understand that we do not need to hear something. What we critically need is bilingual education: Written German and German sign language.
Questions by Denise Peikert.
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