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North Korea Today No.119

Rearch Institute for North Korean Society
http://www.goodfriends.or.kr/eng
North Korea Today
119th Edition April 2008


End of March, Price of Rice and Maize Reaches Highest Level in History
Updates on the Rice and Maize Prices in Major Cities - End of March 2008
“Distribute Rations at Your Own Discretion”
Due to Food Shortages, Increase in Workers Leaving Jobs
Last Year’s Food Production estimated at 2.5 Million Tons
50% of Households in Some Regions of North Hamgyong Expected to be Without Food
Complaints Because of Higher Cereal Production Quotas than Last Year
Onsung County, 4.25 Tobacco Plantation Foremen Resign
South Hwanghae Province, Farming Preparation Meeting for all Citizens
An Investigation on Private Investment Business Started
Investigation of the Forest Sector by the National Defense Committee
Silly to Let the National Defense Committee to Inspect the Forest Sector
Sinuiju Customs Facing Troubles Due to a Crane Breakdown
International Trade Companies are Mere Ciphers in North Korea
“Even Though There Might Be Hope, We’re Fed-Up with It”
“Hope? Absolutely Fed-Up with it!”
“Please provide plenty of aid so that even we can eat”
General Praise for the Ministry of Education for Distributing Notebooks
News of Incidents and Accidents
[Opinion] Looking Forward to More News That Warms the Heart Like the Spring Sunshine

End of March, Price of Rice and Maize Reaches Highest Level in History
The price of foodstuffs is increasing at an incredible pace. On March 30th, for the first time in the country, the price of rice went over the 2,000won per kilogram mark and was traded for 2,050won in the city of Nampo. In the case of maize, the situation is even more extreme. The rumors that the price of maize would go over 1,000won in April became a reality and was being sold for 1,000won in places like Pyongyang, Chungjin, and Hamheung, while in Nampo, it was being traded for 1,050won. In other outlying regions, maize was still being traded at high prices ranging from 900won-950won. Only in areas like Onsung, Hoeryung, and some border areas in North Hamgyong Province was rice being traded at the comparatively low price of 1,600won for rice and 650-750won for maize.

Updates on the Rice and Maize Prices in Major Cities - End of March 2008
(Units: kg/ North Korean Won)



NOTE: Exchange Rate: 1 USD: 3000won (North Korean)
[Average workers wage is around 6000won per month]

“Distribute Rations at Your Own Discretion”
At the end of March, the Central Party held an emergency meeting to address the current issues related to foodstuffs. Because of the lack of a clear alternative, the decision was made for each province to “distribute rations at your own discretion.” It was revealed that because increasing the supply of rice for the military is currently the most pressing issue, rice that enters the country through trade must be distributed first to the military. For the past few years, the regions that have been the first to distribute foodstuffs have been Pyongyang, Kaesong, and Hoeryung. In Hoeryung in March, a 15-day supply of whole maize was distributed to workers and their dependents.

Due to Food Shortages, Increase in Workers Leaving Jobs
The daily attendance rate of workers at factories in Hamheung, North Hamgyong province, has been dropping so significantly that the absenteeism is readily apparent. Presently in Hamheung, many citizens are having a difficult time sustaining themselves with even two meals a day. A resident of Hamheung, Kim Gwang-hyuk, expressed his concern and said that if the present conditions persist for a few more months, many people will die of starvation as they did during 1996’s Arduous March. Workers at the Gimchaek Steel Mill(김책제철소) in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province have also not been reporting to work ever since food distributions were stopped. With food prices currently hovering around 2,000won, it is difficult for workers to even afford one kg of rice with their monthly wages of 1,000won. Rather than report to work, workers are trying to earn money in labor intensive jobs such as movers by working as drivers or porters. There are also many people who help their spouses at the markets. In order to enforce attendance at its factory, the authorities at the Gimchaek Iron Factory have mobilized patrols to find those who are absent.

Last Year’s Food Production Estimated at 2.5 Million Tons
The interior ministry has come to the understanding that the total food production, including the food produced in the different provinces, was 2.2 million tons. Even if the semi-annual crop is taken into consideration, the amount of food produced does not exceed 2.5 million tons. Due to the damage caused by the flooding last year, the semi-annual crop production declined and did not exceed 300,000 tons. This figure is roughly 15% lower than the amount of food that was produced in 2006. For the country as a whole, it is likely that the food situation will be even more difficult than the period during the Arduous March. The biggest blow to food production has come become of the decline of food production due to flood damage in North and South Hwanghae Province, the breadbasket region of North Korea. These two regions usually account for 55-60% of food production in the country, but currently, it is only accounting for 30% of food production. Pyongyang is feeling the impact caused by insecurity about food production in these regions and as a result, food distribution has been suspended from April.

50% of Households in Some Regions of North Hamgyong Expected to be Without Food
In regions across North Hamgyong Province such as Saebyul, Eunduk, Yonsa, Booryung, Myungchun, which are plagued with infertile land, it is expected that half of the households will have their supply of food cut off. During the farming hardship period from April to June, it is expected that each “County” will be short of at least 800 -1,000 tons of food.

Complaints Because of Higher Cereal Production Quotas than Last Year
At the end of March, the Interior Cabinet discussed measures for ensuring supplies of rice for the military. In order to do this, a plan to increase cereal production quotas for all farms throughout the country was discussed and the quotas for this year were raised. Because of this plan instituted by the Interior Cabinet, there are significant complaints issuing from workers in the farming industry. The managing chairmen of farming and the chief engineers went to Farming and Economic Commission (농업경영위원회) and said, “What are you going to accomplish by just raising the farming quotas without a proper plan? You know full well the current situation of the farmers, so if you push this kind of policy through, who is going to want to farm? We can’t bring ourselves to order those individuals to report to work.” There were also people who said that they would rather submit their letters of resignation and object.

The supervisors and foremen of the farms said that “simply raising the cereal production quotas without providing proper fertilizer or rations for the workers is to treat them as less than human beings,” and went on to say, “We cannot continue farming like this, so you individuals who have made this decision go ahead and work on the farms. We have not been able to achieve the present production quotas even once but let’s see if you can meet the higher production quotas that you have instated.” The popular sentiment is that raising the production quotas does not make any sense because the previous quotas were never accomplished, and the fact that the commission has raised rather than lowered the quotas shows how out of touch the policy is.

Onsung County, 4.25 Tobacco Plantation Foremen Resign
Following the news from the government to distribute rations at their own discretion, the foremen and supervisors of the Onsung 4.25 Tobacco Plantation have taken fright and have submitted their letters of resignation. Although the plantation previously received rations simply by producing tobacco leaves, the change in the system to a self-sufficient one whereby food needs to be secured independently has caused much concern because the avenues for securing food are few and far between. There are many foremen and supervisors of other farms who are voicing their intention to do the same because they stand to receive much criticism especially with the cereal production quotas having been raised. These individuals uniformly say that if the government does not lower the planned production quotas, they will not be able to perform their duties as foremen and supervisors. The workers who work on cooperative farms also do not want to work because they are tired and exhausted from working. Kim Yong-hwan, a farm supervisor from Haeju, said that “the increase of the cereal production quotas by the government is making life for workers much more difficult.” Koo Jong-soo, a foreman from the same farm, said that “if the government wants to institute increases in the cereal production quotas, at the very least, our workers need to have food before we can even attempt to achieve the goals.”

South Hwanghae Province, Farming Preparation Meeting for all Citizens
On March 21st in South Hwanghae Province, there was a meeting for all citizens of the province. Because South Hwanghae Province is one of the central grain producing regions of the country, the open discussions centered on the topic of how to secure a good harvest this year. Despite the discussions, no clear methods for improving the production could be arrived at, and many of the participants could not hide their disappointment. One of the reasons why preparations for farming is being delayed is the lack of diesel fuel, which is a necessary element of tilling the fields, and a plan for distributing diesel fuel was discussed at the meeting. The different factories and businesses in the various cities and “counties” of South Hwanghae Province agreed to provide farms with as much diesel fuel as they needed. One executive sighed that “the policies that are made each year are all the same. Well, I guess its because its not possible to come up with any other policies.” The participants of the meeting all resolved to do everything possible to ensure a productive harvest and concluded the meeting.

An Investigation on Private Investment Business Started
An investigation on private investment companies and Convenient Service Networks (편의봉사망) has begun since this March. North Korean authorities recently ordered the National Security Agency, the Defense Security Command, and the People Safety Agency to conduct a joint investigation on private companies doing business under the name of organizations(기관), public enterprises or units. The primary goal of this joint inspection is to find out where actual investors get money from and place those companies back under the state’s control. An official of the joint investigation team mentioned that the main purpose of the inspection is to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and it is also the very first step of a national wellbeing project that aims to make the nation more equal as well as to enhance the quality of people’s lives until 2012.

Investigation of the Forest Sector by the National Defense Committee
The National Defense Committee has started its investigation on the forest sector. They have tightened control on the forest sector to prevent illegal tree-cutting since the open execution in Yonsa County last July on a charge of cutting slogan trees
[1]. However, there is hardly any tree left in the forest throughout the country. It has been extremely difficult to find woods since the late 1990s’ food crisis, when people started to clear hills to make patch fields. Even after a long search deep in the mountains one is lucky if he can find a tree to cut a just piece of wood. With no trees in the mountains, there are increasing landslides and soil erosion, in such a situation, no officials can avoid getting caught during the investigation. According to the order, an overall forest policy should be made while no mercy would be given to any kind of flaws done before, which has made many officers nervous.

Silly to Let the National Defense Committee to Inspect the Forest Sector
A laborer in the forest sector in Kangwon province said it is silly that the National Defense Committee investigates the forest sector. He made a long complaint, “if we go to the mountain, we find that the worst law offender is the army. Before the problem becomes worse, just stop feeding the army to build barracks and training camps. The military authorities should solve the lumber problem first before giving an order. Private Solders receiving the order under wood shortages climb mountains to cut woods with axes recklessly. If we control the army’s’ wood cutting, they make a disturbance saying “Military and People in Unity(군민일치)”. Even they beat us to the point of having to go to hospital. I am suspicious that the forest inspection is an excuse to collect money. How easy to earn money once an inspection is carried out.” An officer in Wonsan in Kangwon province said “Now the National Defense Committee investigates the entire sectors including the forest and land. There is no need for other agencies. Only the National Defense Committee will remain.”

Sinuiju Customs Facing Troubles Due to a Crane Breakdown
After the shift of administrative authority over Sinuiju Customs to the executive branch, there have been various managerial problems. Many traders and local merchants seemed to see this as a policy failure and are fretful about the recent administrative change.
The National Defense Committee has banned direct driving of container vehicles to a port. As a result, traders have been facing difficulties in moving containers. When traders were trying to transfer containers at Gyodu Customs (National Border Customs), they could not do so at the customs yard. What is worse, it is difficult to find a crane to move 40-feet containers. Even a currently available crane is broken. A resident Gye Myung-Sung deplored the national backwardness and the government’s ignorance, “Wherever you go in this country, we are so behind. Despite such backwardness of the nation, state leaders do not even try to improve the situations or to come up with any plan to solve problems, not to mention local government officers who are indifferent to people’s needs. Rather, the government continues to issue new rules and policies to tighten its control over people. Thus, nothing is getting better; things are only getting worse.”

International Trade Companies are Mere Ciphers in North Korea
Employees of international trade companies say that these companies are boasting but their work does not have anything to do with foreign trade. Because these companies function just as a broker rather than trading, their financial status is near bankruptcy. A few companies employing some skillful workers can barely manage their business by purchasing goods on credit and paying back after selling them. In the farming season, the companies are busy and running around like a headless chicken because they need to supply vinyl, fertilizers, seeds, foods, and daily necessities and to take care of all kinds of requests related to the international trades. However, the workers of these companies felt discouraged because their companies do not have money to purchase these items and nobody wants to supply them on credit.

“Even Though There Might Be Hope, We’re Fed-Up with it”
“Hope? Absolutely Fed-Up with it!”
Popular sentiments are currently becoming more and more grim. The populace is suffering from the food shortage, electricity shortage, and from the different restrictions that are in place. Even when citizens are able to procure a kilogram of maize that is selling for more than 1,000won, they are unable to process the maize, which is necessary to preserve it, because of the lack of electricity. As a result, women are forced to grind the maize by hand in their homes. Lee Sun-ook (28) of North Hwanghae Province said, “After spending a day trying to do business in the markets while evading capture by the authorities, I have to come home to a dark room and a heap of housework to do. Even when the electricity comes in for two or three hours a night, I can’t believe they could only provide electricity when I buy voltammeter that costs 120,000won. If I had that kind of money, I would rather fill up my empty stomach. How can I have the luxury of buying a voltammeter?

Oh Moon-hui (42), who was returning from the Democratic Women Union (DWU), complained, “This is really too much. I’m not sure if they’re telling us to live or to die. Other women who were assembled said, “Trying to survive is tiresome. Even though they say at the meetings that the situation is improving, we see no improvements on our end. No matter if we attend lecture meetings ten times or a hundred times, it won’t amount to anything.”

“Please provide plenty of aid so that even we can eat”
The North Korean populaces are suffering immeasurable difficulties because of the different inspections and regulations that are currently in place. People are not provided anything while marketplace restrictions are being increased and people are being forced to their workplaces, and this is causing some to worry whether the government is trying to kill off the populace. A wholesaler from Nampo, Park Ki-jung(37), said that “some of us wholesalers are even saying that perhaps the executives are increasing the scope of the current regulations because they have enough to eat due to the outside aid they receive. Some people say that if the international community is going to provide us with aid, they should give us enough so that we can all eat, or they should give us nothing rather than putting on a show and tormenting people like us. The fact that people are saying things like this should indicate just how much we are suffering. The fact is that although people wish that even a little bit more aid would enter the country, some people doubt the intentions of those who provide aid because of the small amount of food that is given.” He went on to say that, “people are suffering so much that many people can be heard saying ‘It would be better if we just had a war’.” The final comment he made was that “those people who do not have anything wish for just one thing. We want to have enough food to survive until tomorrow. If those people who make donations can hear this, please, send us enough food aid so that even people like us can eat.”

General Praise for the Ministry of Education for Distributing Notebooks
The new elementary school semester began on April 1st. Each locality had previously ascertained the demand for school material and distributed them accordingly. In Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province, they distributed 7 textbooks to the best students regardless of the number of classes they were taking. To the rest of the students, they distributed 4-5 textbooks. Because of the general economic troubles and lack of material, it is very difficult to provide students with new textbooks. However, there is a limit to how long one can use previously used textbooks. Because of the poor quality of the paper, students can’t use a book for more than 3-4 years in a row. This year is better than previous years in terms of the availability of school material. The City of Hoeryung gave each junior high student three notebooks. Each elementary school student received 6 notebooks and a handful of pencils. Parents are saying that this was the first time that they saw their children look excited over going to school, and praised the actions of the Ministry of Education.

News of Incidents and Accidents
Last March 12th, an employee of a post office of Seungho district, Pyongyang, was arrested and beat by a police officer, and finally died. The victim died of
visceral cleft on the spot. The officer stated that the victim was not obedient to his order and that’s why this incident occurred. However, witnesses stated that they clearly saw the officer beating and killing the victim, and argued that the murderer should be arrested and punished. The officer has been arrested recently.

Last March 25th, a ship belonging to the Fisheries Enterprise of Urang County, North Hamgyong Province, was taken by wind and waves and all 5 crews died. Because of this accident, some executives were punished.

Last March 27th, a cargo container tumbled down at Musanryung Hill, Buryung County, North Hamgyong Province, due to malfunction of brakes. 5 passengers including the driver died in this accident.

Last March 29th, there was a vehicle accident in Ryonggye-ri, Saebyul County. A truck from a machine factory in Hamheung hit a farmer and a cow belonging to the Ryonggye-ri. In this accident, the farmer injured his legs and the cow died on the spot.

[Opinion] Looking Forward to More News That Warms the Heart Like the Spring Sunshine
We recently heard that, in spite of dire lack of paper and other resources, the Ministry of Education of North Hamgyong province distributed from 4-7 new textbooks to the students, eliciting cries of joy from students and parents alike. We only hope that there was more heartwarming news like this in North Korea that we could share with the world.
The North Korean education system is supposedly free, including textbooks, stationery, and other school materials. However, because of the difficult economic situation, parents have been taking up more and more of the educational expenses for some time, forcing them to choose between the educational needs of their children and food for the whole family. As such, students had to use books that were rags and use notebooks made from corn husks, making the writing almost illegible. Parents went around houses selling their personal items to buy textbooks for their children. Often, the textbooks were too expensive.

Although this good news is limited to this particular locality, the residents didn’t stint on their praise for the hard-working staff of the Ministry of Education. We hope that the residents who have been so buffeted by the vagaries of difficult life in North Korea would find some modicum of hope and strength from the smiles of the children with their new textbooks. We also hope for more good news that could warm the hearts of the people as they brace for higher food prices amidst increasing crackdowns by the authorities.


[1] slogan trees(구호나무): “slogan trees: praises for Kim’s family engraved on the trees on the well known hills in North Korea”


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