North Korea Today No.117

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today
117th Edition March 2008

Grain Prices Shoot Up In March
Rice prices are increasing daily in March. It started off at 1,400 won per kg in the beginning of the month; by the middle of the month, it reached 1,600 won. As we approach the end of the month, it’s now 1,800 won per kg. We suspect that it will hit 2,000 won per kg before the month is out. More than rice, prices for corn is really steeping upwards. As of 3/20, corn is being traded at 870 and 880 won at Pyongsung and Wonsan, respectively. In other cities, also, the corn prices have gone above 800 won. In Pyongyang and Sariwon, the corn prices have already gone above 900 won. It’s apparent now that it wasn’t just a groundless prediction when the residents of Gimchaek City predicted back in January that corn prices will exceed 1,000 won come April or May; back in January, the price of corn in Gimchaek City was 520 won per kg.

Table of Rice Prices in Major Cities in North Korea in 1st Qt. 2008
*Exchange Rate



Pyongsung, South Pyongyang Province

Sinuiju, North Pyongyang Province

Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province

Wonsan, Kangwon Province







Early March






Mid March






Late March






* Exchange Rate as of 3/20 in Sinuiju: $100=311,000 Won, 100 Yuan=44,000 Won

Emergency Due To Lack of Rice for Military
The farm workers are voicing their frustrations loudly that they can’t work without food. At the same time, the farms are having trouble obtaining the seed stock for the upcoming season’s plantings. In light of the situation, the National Defense Committee ordered each region to gather up as much rice as they can, regardless of the lack, for military use. In response, mangers of the local regions are expressing the sentiment that, “it’s a disaster that we have to collect military food to store while we lack even seed stocks.” Meanwhile, the authorities are investigating nationwide whether there were any cases of managers in farm collectives pilfering or embezzling harvest grains for personal use; they are even investigating the managers’ personal stores of food to look for any wrongdoings.

“Even Yanghwa Fisheries Enterprise Has No food To Distribute.”
The absentee rate for workers at the Yanghwa Fisheries Enterprise located in Shinpo County, South Hamgyung Province, is increasing because they are not distributing any food to the workers. Many households can’t eat more than two meals a day because the fishermen can’t go out to fish. The manger of the sea tried to solve the food situation by borrowing food last October from an import/export company against the December’s harvest of pollacks but it didn’t work out because of the less-than-expected number of pollacks caught last December. He still hasn’t paid back the import/export company yet and is under constant pressure to pay back the debt, impacting the operations of the Fisheries Enterprise negatively.

At this news, an official from Pyongyang exclaimed, “How could this happen to Yanghwa Fisheries Enterprise, which was the best Fisheries Enterprise in the whole of the republic and how each household could afford pots of salted roe, beef soup, and tiled roofs?” He continued, discouraged, “If Yanghwa could go bankrupt, and then we don’t even to look at other places. It’s like standing in front of a steep cliff. I can’t see what’s ahead.”

Lack of Food Rations Causes Increasing No Show at Lanam Colliery Machine Company in Chungjin City
Since the beginning of March, workers’ absence at Laman Colliery Machine Company in Chungjin has been increasing. As food rations for workers completely stopped, the number of people who do not come to work without notice has drastically increased in March compared to January. As a result, a special group of security guards were recently created. These special security guards are responsible for searching those workers to bring them back to work. To those who still do not show up despite warnings, the company has uttered threats that they would be assigned to the most difficult division at the factory and also be sent to a re-education program for a certain period of time. Some workers have already expressed their complaints against these threats.

“It Seems Like 1996 All Over Again.”
Ryum Mi-ok(43 yrs), sitting in front of the manufactured goods shelf in Hamheung City market, says without hesitation that this year seems like 1996 all over again. She says, “The hardest time I have had so far was 1996 because of the sudden stoppage of the public distribution system. This year feels like a reproduction of 1996.” She added that she often gets scared. Having been blessed with diligence and talent for making things, Ryum was able to make ends meet and survive, along with her family, through the tough times of mid-1990s. Afterwards, she even made enough money to buy a house in which her husband and one daughter could live together and could be considered well-off by others. In 2005, they moved to an even bigger house. They spent a lot of money but didn’t have much trouble making ends meet. But everything changed this year. Perhaps because people just didn’t have the money, business in the market went down precipitously and food prices really shot up compared to last year. Other non-staple food items also shot up in prices, imports from China have stopped coming in, and soybean oil prices have really jumped. They had to begin eating corn instead of rice, but consider that as par for the course right now. “I can’t even imagine how others are faring when I am having such a hard time myself,” she concludes.

Illegal Border Crossings Increase Because of Food Shortages
Authorities are on a heightened state of alert because of the increase in illegal border crossing due to the food shortage. During the Arduous March period, countless people crossed the Tumen River into China. Afraid that such a situation might repeat itself, the authorities strengthened the laws against illegal crossings. Until now, you could get caught crossing illegally once or twice without undue punishment except for maybe attending discipline classes and some under-the-table money. But now, you will get a three-year sentence in the rehabilitation center even if you get caught just once. If you are caught 2-3 times, then you will be sentenced from 5-7 years to the rehabilitation center. Five times or more will get you up to 10 years, even if you had already served your time for previous offenses.

In response to the increase in illegal crossings, the National Security Agency and Police in Onsung County have beefed up night patrols and collected information on the whereabouts of local residents. The authorities have also increased the number of legal officers per town unit, with special emphasis put on investigating the activities of previously convicted people. Therefore, people who have crossed into China previously are complaining that “people who have crossed into China can no longer come back home while those who are here are so under constant watch that they are almost forced to try to cross back into China.”

60,000 Workers Suffering from Hunger in Chungjin City
Major public enterprises in Chungjin City, including Gimchaek Still Mill, have stopped food rations for their workers since January 2008. It is because the food supply has stopped other than 3,000 MT out of 5,000 MT rice from South Korea that was allocated to Gimcahek Still Mill last November. Meanwhile, the Municipal Bureau of Labor announced at the March 4th emergency meeting held due to the market incidents that 60,000 workers are suffering from hunger in Chungjin City as of March2008. In other words, food rations have not provided for any of three meals per day during past three months. The authorities officially confirmed serious food shortages that the City is facing.

Breathlessly Busy Two days of Chungjin City
To summarize Chungjin City’s local market incidents on March 4th, 2008 is as following. As the City tightened its control over illegal market activities, market management offices removed product display stands from markets on March 3rd, in order to chase out all the young women who are in conflict with the market age restrictions out of markets. This management offices’ action became the trigger for the incidents.

In fact, women were hitherto a main target group of the state’s market restrictions. The door of female local traders to markets had been narrowed by the age restrictions policy—banning on market activities of “women under 30-year old” were expanded to under 40-year old, 45-year old, and in the end to 49-year old. This market age restrictions indeed had a great deal of direct impacts on women’s survival. Women who were in conflict with the age restrictions had to bribe law enforcement officers or find a business partner who is older than 49 years old—in many cases, their mothers or mothers-in law—in order to continue their market activities. In addition to such unfair restraints on female local traders, a drastic measure to remove their product display stands from markets was harsh enough to enrage them.

The next day, on March 4th, female traders began coming together at local markets starting at 1 pm. Several thousands of women gathered only in Sunam District market and at least hundreds of women came to each of other local markets, according to a municipal authority. City-wide, the official continued to say, the number of women at markets reached at slightly more than 10,000. Even women passing by markets and women who did not participate in market activities joined the protests. Kang Myung-hee, a 47-year old female resident, said that “Middle aged married women went to the market management office and expressed their anger. As soon as one woman shouted that ‘give us rice,’ other women started shouting after her.” Han Jeong-aeh, a 38-year old resident, said that “Do you [government officials] only care about your own survival? Let us trade so that we can live on our own. Otherwise, provide us with food rations! The state should offer us at least either one,” which was originally claimed at the protests. “Probably, if we were men, police officers would have arrested us,” she went on to say, “However, because we were women, they could not take any physical actions to us and rather felt impatient.” Reportedly, police officers did not take any forceful actions after all.

An official, too, of the Security Bureau said that “If we suppress these female protesters by force, it can only lead to a riot. That’s only making things worse. If these women get hurt, then workers would be the next group to strike. It is because any physical harm to women would affect their husbands and children and even provoke them. If you go out to the markets, you can see your neighbors, close relatives, and even your own sisters. Thus, any of our security guards are hard to imagine attacking them.” The official added that as these female protesters did not use any violence—neither hurt others nor broke things and only expressed their anger and frustration with words—which sounded reasonable even to the police, any of officers could not even think of quelling them. More importantly, the protests took place when wives’ market activities were banned, while food rations for workers [husbands] completely stopped. As a result, authorities seemed more concerned about reactions of workers.

Meanwhile, it was the market management offices and the municipal authorities who were under pressure due to these unexpected women’s protests. The Chungjin City’s municipal authorities held an urgent meeting and waited for the central party’s response. Yet, they did not receive any response from the central party until the next day. Woman protesters scattered and went home on the night of March 3rd. And they gathered at markets again the next day. Even early in the morning, markets began to be crowded with people, including women carrying their babies and young women accompanied with their mothers and mothers-in law. As the protests became more serious rather than calm down, the authorities eventually decided to lift the market age restrictions by opening markets under the authority of the Municipal Bureau of Labor (시노동국) on the afternoon of March 5th.

Women in Chungjin Upset by Open Execution of Women in Onsung
Women in Chungjin have done a group protest, triggered by the open execution of 15 women in Onsung County last February 20th. A 44 year old Cha Kyong-mi said "The news about the open execution in Onsung spread out in strong version. The killed women helped North Koreans to cross the border so that they could make a living. Everyone knows that. The women argued that the government made them looks for other ways to survive because there was no public provision and food distribution. When looking at these killed women who did the best to survive, I thought this could happen to me. Every woman thinks in the same way as I do."

About this remark, an officer responded that, "Women could think that way. But they know one thing and not the other. Onsung’s open execution has more purposes than fixing human trafficking or refugee problems. The bigger problem was the information leakage. Those women provided information about the inside system or market prices to outsiders. If people get to know that information trading could be a livelihood activity, it would be more problematic. If the public finds out that they earned money through informing the market prices through the linkage of their South Korea families, other people would do the same because it would be much easier than crossing the river. So the residents were not told the true reason; these women were executed not because of human trafficking or collusion to cross the river but because of selling internal information. The executed women were caught three or four times.”

Reconfirmed Central Party’s Direction about Assigning Job to Women over Minimum Age to Trade in the Market
The central party has not taken any policy direction until March 9th for the Chungjin Market Group Demonstration occurred from March 4th until the afternoon of the 5th. At last on March 11th the party reconfirmed the policy that women under the minimum age to trade in the market should get a job in factories and enterprises under the market management law. Following the central party’s direction, each city and county pledged to implement the party’s direction without any exception while strengthening the measures to correct market management. Especially Chungjin city has received a strong order from the central party to implement the direction at all costs. Concerned about the contagion effect of the demonstration in Chungjin city, the control has become more intense in other major cities such as Sinuiju and Hamheung.

Fraud Under the Pretense of Inspectors in Hoeryung City
As various inspections were continuously taking place in national border areas, such as Chungjin, Onsung and Hoeryung, there were fraud cases under the pretense of inspectors. On February 29, 2008, a group of people who pretended as Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) inspectors visited households and confiscated four VCRs in Dukheung County in Hoeryung City. According to the owners of those confiscated VCRs, they were told to visit the VCR inspection office next day. When they went to the office, however, officers there said that there was no such case. As several similar cases were reported in other parts of the city, the Municipal authorities ordered inspectors to show their identification cards and inspection permits to the head of Neighborhood Unit. Meanwhile, as the inspection on video cameras and transformers continue to take place, factories, public enterprises and units, not to mention ordinary people, have temporarily hid their electronic equipment in warehouses or Gimchi jars (or containers).

Students Kicked Out of University for Trading
In Wonsan in Kangwon province college students has been actively involved in trading. For example, in Jogunsil College of Engineering (former ‘Wonsan College of Engineering’) some students with good business skills have bribed the college officers and faculty members monthly with about 30,000 won to sell Japanese used goods. On February 7th, the college expelled the students because they did not give up their illegal activity even with repeated warnings. On the day of expulsion, the college announced in front of all the college students that they will expel 11 students because of their delinquent college life, bad grades, and frequent violence. The college also announced that they have to retake pre-qualification exams if they want to study again.

Wishing I Could Send My Young Brother to Kindergarten
A 12-year old Jeong Yong-joo in Musan city in North Hamgyung Province is doing a good job playing the role of household head although she is very young. . Her mother left her family to China because of severe poverty a few years ago. Since her mother left, her 40-year old father, who had been scraping a living by digging coal, in despair started to drink alcohol in an empty stomach. From the bad alcohol habit his health condition became worse and is now bedridden with an abdominal dropsy[간복수].

Ms. Jeong works hard for food in mountains, farms and rivers to support her family, when other children of her age go to school. In spring and summer, she collects medicinal herbs by following women in her neighborhood. In autumn, she makes every effort to glean ears in the field without recognizing blisters on her cute little hands. In winter, she makes a hole on the frozen river to do fishing with her 7-year old younger brother in order to tend her sick father. Ms. Jeong does not seem to care about herself even though she knows other children are wearing pretty clothes and shoes, and go to school. The biggest wish Ms. Jeong has is to make her younger brother study and to buy a bowl of boiled rice for her father even though she cannot afford the medicine. She talks like a grown-up “I’m sorry for my younger brother Yongsuk because he cannot go to kindergarten while other children do. I want to see my brother g to school when I grow up and if I make money to buy shoes and school supply for him.”

Other Accident News
On March 9th, a 38 year old woman riding a bike was hit and killed on Yeonjin-ri road by a car owned by Rochang Fisheries Enterprise in Chungam District in Chungjin, North Hamgyung Province. Despite the one-day long emergency treatment, the victim could not be restored to life. Currently, the car driver is detained in the Province Police Station.

On the night of March 12th, the soldiers stationed in a brigade of the training center of Security Service Bureau(호위국) in Pyongsung city, South Pyongan Province, committed a robbery on the road to Sunan District in Pyongyang city. They threatened the passengers riding a bike and took the bike, 120,000won and other things. They beat the resisting young man to death. After receiving the residents’ reports of this crime, the police traced and caught them selling the bike in Soonchun city on the site. The criminals are detained in Pyongsung Police Station.

On March 13th, there was a fire accident at an office of Daesung Tobacco United Enterprise in Hoeryung city, North Hamgyung Province. The fire extinguished around 10 PM, but it was not extinguished well. Past midnight, the flame became intense and spread into the entire tobacco factory so that it could be seen from all sides of Hoeryung city. Being frightened out of the firing factory some residents woke up and watched the fire for a while. About 50 factory workers who were mobilized on the fire site pulled out tobacco machine with a rope after dissembling the machine. As the flame spread out, residents around the place were hurriedly mobilized to put out the fire. Meanwhile, the residents frowned at the idle fire trucks of the city police station because they were not enough water or out of order.

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