North Korea Today No. 103

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today
103rd Edition December 2007

A Woman’s Suicide in Chungjin Gains Public Sympathy
A 36 year-old woman who used to sell vegetables at Sunam Market수남시장 in Chungjin청진시 has committed suicide due to her and her family’s severe economic distress. It is said that she finally decided to kill herself because she could not feed herself and her family due to the recent trade ban. She used to manage to feed her parents in law, husband, and 9- and 6 year-old children by trading at markets day by day. Even when she worked hard at the markets, she could not make enough food for her family of six, and thus, the recent trade ban has made them much worse off. After she could not work at markets, her family were barely getting on by eating porridge죽물, and she finally killed herself not being able to bear the tough living conditions. The shock of the residents in Chungjin was great. They’d just heard about rumors of other citizens’ suicides, but this is the first time that they confirmed it to be true. This news has spread through word of mouth with some exaggeration and has even agitated the public. Finally, the news was reported to Pyongyang평양, and the central government quickly organized the Central Anti-Socialist Conscience Investigation Patrol중앙비사회주의그루빠검열조and sent them to each region to investigate what is happening among people.

The Trading Ban Creating All Sorts of Rumors
The economic hardship of people makes bad rumors of every kind around the country. According to a seller at a Tong-Il street market 통일거리시장in Pyongyang, there is a rumor that the government will eliminate all the markets in Pyongyang. Another rumor is that products manufactured at Kaesong Industrial District 개성공단would be distributed to each market in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, many high officials are arguing that the trade ban would be abolished and it should be. However, the Pyongyang citizens doubt that the ban would be cancelled because what they have seen and heard so far are just the directives which have reinforced the ban.

People’s Complaints Heightened: “What Do They Expect From the Trade Ban?”
People are increasingly unhappy about the market trade ban. They are complaining that regulating market activities as strictly as this without any back-up plans for future shortages of provisions do not make any sense. One high official in Pyongyang says, “The government might think that they could solve this problem by talking with the American government. But, they don’t have any plan in case the food aid is delayed or things change.” Another high official is worried about the government’s extreme measures. He says, “The government says unless it takes strict measures at this time, things will be too messed up to be controlled. However, this tight ban is too much. They don’t need to drive things to the extreme.”

Complaining about the Ban on Market Trading May Lead to Arraignment
The regulation that no one under 50 is allowed to trade in the market has finally been enforced at the Chupyung market추평시장 in Hamheung City함흥시. As a response to this new regulation, some words of complaint have been circulating among residents: “How did this country get into this mess?” “The country has gone totally the wrong way,” “The government cannot be more corrupt than now,” and “We’re collapsing soon.” On the spread of such rumors, the government has issued an emergency order and called law enforcement officers, such as police officers보안원 and National Security Council officers보위부원, to find out the origin of the rumors and arrest the culprits. As the result, many innocent people who have simply passed on the words have been arrests. Residents are complaining bitterly about the arrests as the interrogation often involves torture.

Even Market Managers Perplexed with Shifting Regulations
According to a Pyongsung market평성시장 manager, government regulations on the market change almost everyday and thus even law enforcement officers feel perplexed. He continues to say that it has been a headache to execute regulations due to their inconsistency and vagueness; items to ban for today are completely different from those to ban for tomorrow. As a result, this brings confusion over what items to be prohibited or to be allowed. In the meantime, selling items outside the market building is still banned. Police officers wearing armbands blow whistles and stand at fences near the market building to monitor the traders. All the entrances except one in Pyongsung market are closed in order to control people coming in and out. Although confiscated items are supposed to be sent to the government, the number of items actually delivered to the state remains low. Pyongsung City manages markets according to the newly issued regulations of the Central Party on the market control.

The National Intelligence Agency보위부 and Police stations보안서 in Pyongyang have also initiated its 100-day-control백일전투 on the market. The market control is taking place everywhere and the law enforcement officers사법일꾼 are standing at each subway entrance, checking people and their bags. Big-size bags are more likely to be confiscated. Merchants and traders either continue to do their business by averting police officers’ eyes or carry on commission sales through National stores 국영상점.

Stores arbitrarily decide on the Prices of Consigned Items
There are big price differences in goods between stores because they sell the same items with different prices. As the number of individual traders following the consignment sale system is increasing, each store tends to arbitrarily decide on the prices of goods. National stores sell goods consigned by individuals and receive a commission on the sale as a profit after deducting some percentages from the price. They pay their employees’ salaries with these commissions, but the stores decide on the price by themselves because the price is not exactly regulated/fixed. Customers even call these shop assistants ‘barefaced robbers.’ However, the central government has strictly restricted individual trades and continuously tightened personal investments, so the number of bankruptcy is increasing. According to the strong regulation of absolutely not allowing personal businesses, saunas목욕탕 or restaurants run by individual investors registered with the titles of the Public Enterprises기업소 or each Unit단위 have closed down recently.

The Home Improvement Project in Hoeryung is slow
For the December 24th event (the Day of Mother Kim Jung-Sook김정숙), the central construction headquarters of Hoeryung City회령시 has ordered residents to put panes of exterior windows, cover the roofs again, and paint their houses to make them look better for the visitors coming for the event. However, only one apartment called the 8th dong8호동 has accomplished these tasks. The residents from other apartment unite who have not done these, are trying to finish the work in the shivering cold. On the other hand, Hoeryung City is intensively controlling Kkotjebi꽃제비 (homeless children) to prepare for the event. When the city officials find Kkotjebi, they take these children to the Kkotjebi Relief Institution구제소 without exception, so recently it is hard to see them.

Amount of corn harvest from small plots is lower than last year
Some laborers in the Joowongu주원구 of Onsung County온성군 in North Hamgyung Province 함경북도 are almost in tears as they could only harvest 500kg of corn by working 800 pyong평 of land (1 pyong is 3.954 sq. yds.) with rakes곽자 and hoes호미 ever since spring. They blame the fact that they couldn’t afford any fertilizer. A family of four can live on a minimum of 1,000kg of corn per year – 500kg won’t last even 6 months. Laborers and farmers complain that they are asked to give more and more while they can barely afford to feed their own families. Some of the non-voluntary “voluntary” contributions include 3kg of corn for the shock troop brigade돌격대, 2kg of corn for the Urang River Hydroelectric Dam어랑천발전소. Representatives of the Neighborhood Unit인민반 go around every household to gather up these contributions. In November alone, the residents were asked three times to contribute 2 sacks for the military, 6kg of beans, grain of rice낱알, or cash.

Inspection of South Korean Style Pants in Major Cities
The pants inspection has been tightened in major cities such as Hamheung함흥, Pyongsung평성, Pyongyang평양, and Sinuiju신의주, because the central government has issued an order controlling a current trend that some young people wear South Korean or Chinese style pants. Therefore, the members of the Democratic Women’s Union녀맹, the Workshop Union직맹, the Youth Union청년동맹, and Labor organizations근로단체 are thoroughly examining and inspecting people’s pants on the street.

Female teacher driven out for speaking in South Korean dialect
Among the young, South Korean fads are in vogue. The latest hair style, clothing, pants, and shoes are essentials. North Korean youths even mimic the way South Koreans speak.

A female teacher at the Kim Hyung-Jik Teacher’s College 김형직사범대학 got into trouble for using the South Korea style language in class. She was subjected to a People’s Trial군중집회투쟁 in the middle of the school yard and had her teacher’s certificate taken away. She was said to have enjoyed watching South Korean movies and dramas on CD. Liking the soft-spoken way that South Korean women actors spoke on TV, she had enjoyed joking around with her friends using a South Korean accent but got into trouble when she used it in class as a joke. Upon hearing of her troubles, the parents even went to the school administration to ask for forgiveness since the teacher in question was always considered to be excellent and popular. However, the administration sent the parents back, admonishing them that, considering this is related to a political issue with South Korea and National Intelligence Agency and the police stations are all keen to push the issue to the end, they should be grateful that everyone got off easy.

Opinion: Don’t turn your back anymore to the people’s desperate cry for help

North Korean authorities are still keeping up their crackdown on the market trading activities that were the only way for the people to make a living. Recently, we are seeing cases of suicide by those who became tired of having to live day by day overburdened by the unbearable hardship. A woman in Chungjin, not able to trade because of the age restrictions, killed herself in desperation leaving behind her husband and young children. This case is causing ripples of indignation among the residents towards the government.

Without providing for the people’s livelihood in any concrete way and in the absence of a coordinated policy towards market management, these various directives coming down from the People’s Security Department, National Intelligence Agency, and the Central Party are creating confusion that even the local market management officials are having trouble unraveling. Restrictions on age, crackdown on products other than agricultural ones, and monopolizing the prices of non-agricultural goods by the state commercial interests/shops are making the daily lives of the people even worse, driving even the survivors of the Arduous March to despair.

We can’t emphasize enough that the government must allow people to find ways to live, if it does not or cannot take care of the people itself. The goal of any policy must be to safeguard the livelihood of the people. We ask that the government reexamine the goal of the market-related policies and reformulate and implement a comprehensive and coordinated policy overseeing the market operations. The current policy of non-discriminatory crackdown is not only worsening the daily living conditions of the people but also undermining the ideological shield that the central government is trying to strengthen. The government must not turn its back on the people’s desperate cries for help any longer.

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