North Korea Today No.121

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today
121th Edition April 2008

Price Controls Imposed on Rice, Penalties for Anyone Selling Rice for More Than 2,200 won per kg.
What We Need Most Is Food and More food
Facing Nation-Wide Starvation, North Korea Heads Towards the Mountains
Workers in Kaesong Receive Only 20 Days's Worth of Rations during 4 Months
Pyongyang Receives Food through Imports into Sinuiju
People No Longer Believe News about Food Imports
Re-abandoned Children
People Leaving Hometown in Search of Food
Food Shortages Separate Families: "Don't Die and We Should Meet Again"
"It Must Be Better To Die at War than Dying of Hunger"
The Relationship between North and South Worsens, "Starving To Death or Dying At War"
The Third Renewal of the Japanese Economic Sanction against North Korea and the Increasing Lament of Remigrants to North Korea
The Order "Prepare Successfully for 4.15 Day" Is Giving People a Hard Time
People Busy Registering Birth If Their Children to Receive National Holiday Gifts
The Cabinet Decision No.24 on Cemetery Code of Ordinances
“Prone Grave Stone Will Make the Ancestors Angry"
The Virtue Handed Down For Thousands Of Years Shall Not Be Hampered.
"Public Trials Become Propaganda Place of “The Rich Walk While the Poor Get Punished for the Same” Crime
[Opinion] "Dream of Josin" Becomes a Painful Reality for People of North Korea.

Price Controls Imposed on Rice, Penalties for Anyone Selling Rice for More Than 2,200 won per kg.
As the grain prices skyrocketed across the nation, the authorities started to crack down in a desperate attempt to rein in the rice prices. Security officers are roaming the markets in major cities, catching anyone selling rice at over 2,200 won per kg and punishing them by confiscating their stock. In Pyongyang, the line in the sand is 2,500 won, at which point the stock is confiscated. In Haeju, the price shot up to 2,900 won briefly until forced down; it’s barely holding at 2,200 as of 4/20. Rice prices at Pyongyang, Wonsan, and Sariwon had also shot up to 2,500~2,600 until it was forced down by the crackdown and are now holding temporarily at around 2,100~2,200 won. Although it looks like that rice prices might not go up higher anytime soon, no one knows how long the authorities will be able to keep the lid on the prices. In parts, however, the rice prices are slowly creeping up again, with rice merchants predicting that they will soon hit 3,000 won per kg. Officials are also admitting that they won’t be able to stop the rise in prices forever since there is a fundamental lack of supplies in the market. The party is instructing people at official meetings to be aware of “bad people” who are colluding to raise the rice prices to 3,000 won and “encouraging” rice merchants to lower their prices as much as possible.

What We Need Most Is Food and More food
Regardless of their positions, titles, or socioeconomic status, nine out of ten North Korean people asked, “What do you need the most right now?” will say, “food.” To overcome this crisis, food must be made available. Those with food refuse to sell and those seeking to buy can’t because it’s too expensive. This is because there is a fundamental lack of supply. On top of it all, there is an expectant air of an oncoming train wreck later on this fall, since the spring farming could not be carried out normally because the South Korean government hasn’t sent the fertilizer as it usually did every spring in previous years. They want to buy the fertilizer but don’t have money. Even if they pool their money, it’s just not enough to afford the fertilizer on the international markets at the going prices. They need to let the crop seedlings germinate and sprout under a blanket of protective plastic sheeting before transplanting them onto farms, but don’t even have the plastic sheeting. They just lack everything. The only thing they can produce these days is the sighs of desperation, of which they have plenty. Their future looks bleak.

Facing Nation-Wide Starvation, North Korea Heads Towards the Mountains
The food shortage in Kumkang County in Kangwon Province is very serious, especially since they suffered a direct hit in last year’s flood. Any household who can eat grass porridge three times a day is considered well-off. Most households have to get by on two meals a day at most. People are wandering around the hills to look for edible roots and herbs. Citizens of Koan-ri, Jinchun County in South Hwanghae Province are also suffering from hunger. They are also eating anything they can get their hands on in the mountains. It’s easy to discover people who are trying to allay their hunger on arrowroots. In farms near Haeju City, South Hwanghae Province, farm workers are increasingly absent from their work because they can’t eat. Even here, farm workers are making do with one or two meals of grass porridge and then head to the hills to looks for roots and other plants to dig up. Kids can’t go to school since they have to help their parents forage for food. There are schools in rural areas that have to close because of lack of students. The people say that such things have never happened even during the Arduous March and have to now worry about kids’ education on top of providing for food. The farm workers in Jangpoong County near Kaesong City are also suffering from food shortages. It’s barely enough to eat three full meals a day when the spring farming season starts. But they now have to make do with one meal, or two meals of grass porridge. Without prompt intervention by the government, the food will be gone soon. Workers are saying that starvation is the hardest insult that they have to endure. Everyone is saying, almost like a mantra, that they need to eat; otherwise, they can’t go to work.

Workers in Kaesong Receive Only 20 Days’ Worth of Rations during 4 Months
Workers in Kaesong only received 20 days’ worth of rations between January and April. As such, many workers are too starved to report to work. Many people are taking to the road. It’s easy to see women vending alcohol and food in order to survive. Even young kids are trying to make ends meet by selling things in milk bottles. Inevitably, social problems are increasing. Major crimes like murders, muggings, and thievery are all on the rise, as well as domestic violence. Elderly abuse is especially increasing. Kaesong used to be one of the safer cities but now they recommend that you don’t go out at night past 9pm. In fact, there has been a dramatic decrease in people out and about late at night.

Pyongyang Receives Food through Imports into Sinuiju
Since early April, there have been occasional shipments of food through Sinuiju Port, including an 8,000 MT shipment of corn. Out of that, 4,000 MT was immediately sent downstream to Pyongyang. Pyongyang then used this to distribute food that had been delayed. With the influx of food, there is bound to be incidents. A night guard from Pyongyang Cement Company who went to take shipment of 1,200 MT of rice from Sinuiju Port was attacked by nine assailants. Although he fought back bravely, he suffered grave injuries to his head. But he was philosophical about his ordeal, saying that his assailants were also desperate to eat. He went on to say that it’s fortunate that some food is coming in, although he doesn’t know how or from where.

People No Longer Believe News about Food Imports
Since April 10th, officials have been going to local Neighborhood Unit and Democratic Women’s Union meetings to tell the participants that food will be coming in soon. “The increase in food prices is temporary. We will soon have massive imports of food, so don’t worry,” they say. However, the local people don’t believe a word they say, since they have rarely seen the benefits of any food from outside sources even if they do come in. Kim Kyung-Joong (51) said, “They are all lies. No one believes them anymore since we have heard so much of the same so often. They are doing this to calm down the growing unrest among people but it won’t work.”

Re-abandoned Children
At any train stations during the Arduous March, you could easily see children abandoned by their own parents. Parents who were struggling with chronic hunger left their children on trains, hoping that they could be adopted by warm-hearted, better-off people. That, those parents thought, would be better than keeping their kids and raising them in a miserable environment. Needless to say, however, there were heartless parents who abandoned children for their very own survival. In any case, these abandoned kids were also neglected by the society. It was because the whole society was in poverty at the time, with the economic depression and nationwide famines; no one, therefore, could care about others. It was the time when survival was everyone’s top priority and people who were alive were winners. In spring 2008, ten years after the Arduous March, children are being abandoned again for the same reasons.

A group of young Kkotjebis (homeless children) was running around between passengers to look for food at Sunchun Station on March 17th. On the other side of the station, several Kkotjebis were vying with one another to get crumbs of food on the ground, which passengers dropped. Meanwhile, a baby wrapped with a blanket, seemingly about two months old, was crying at a corner of the station. A Kkotjebi said the baby was crying for a couple of hours. People at the station tut-tutted and criticized the baby’s mother for abandoning the baby. Nonetheless, no one was trying to pick up the baby and assuage him/her. It was not until the baby was too exhausted to cry that police officers showed up, and they took the baby. Only then, people looked relieved even though they felt the sting of conscience. Shortly after, however, they just went back to their own business.

Regardless of where to go, Wonsan, Gowon, Pyongsung, or Hamheung, travelers often see such scenes. Hwang Bo-Sun, a 49-year old woman who frequently travels to Sinuiju, said, “I get to see more abandoned kids this year than before. I can feel things are getting worse this year than last year.”

People Leaving Hometown in Search of Food
As more households have been facing food shortages in April, the number of people who leave their hometown in search of food has increased as well. In fact, a growing number of people in Bukchung County, South Hamgyung Province, are taking only essentials and leaving with their entire family members for survival. And these people are usually heading to places where their relatives live.

Meanwhile, as the number of households leaving the county continues to increase, Bukchung County recently tightened its control to prevent people from leaving the county. However, the county stopped regulating people shortly after due to the miserable reality. A county officer said, “I cannot just let them die here. I’m of course anxious about the situation. But what can I do for them?” There is nothing officers can do about it but helplessly watching people leaving the county, he added.

The family of Choi Gyu-Chul, a 43-year old farm worker who used to live in Bukchung County, had left their hometown for the same reason and started on a roving journey. During an extremely difficult time (the spring hunger?) of last year, Choi had gotten a loan of corn with a deferred payment. But he failed to make the payment last fall due to bad harvest and ended up getting deeper in debt. He described his wretched life a year ago: he had nothing to eat while individual farming was still banned; he had no cash because he had worked only at collective farms and never had side jobs. There was no hope, he reminisced. He eventually sold everything he could sell and even secretly yielded the permit to live his house. Despite all the efforts, he was continuously dunned. After all, he left the county with his wife and kids with minimum necessities on a freezing and windy day of February. His family went first to his uncle’s place in Shinpo, but they couldn’t stay there long since his uncle’s family was in difficulty as well. Thus, he and his family began to drift from place to place. Sometimes they were fortunate enough to get some food from random nice people. At night, they slept covering themselves with plastic sheets at stations. Sleeping crouched at stations became their routine lives. He and his wife, according to Choi, were trying to find jobs. He continued to say that he just felt grateful to his two little kids, seven and eight years old respectively, for undergoing such a hard life without being fretful.

Food Shortages Separate Families: “Don’t Die and We Should Meet Again”
Worsening food shortages separate families in South Pyongan Province again. Recently, the number of Kkotjebis in South Pyongan Province, particularly Shinyang, Yangduck, Hoechang, and Sungchun, has rapidly increased. A growing number of households could not even have one meal per day. Due to such strained circumstances, all family members are scattered to find their own ways to live in the end; husbands and wives are wiling to separate for survival. They consider it better than dying together. Each of them leaves for places that allow them to stay, mostly where their parents or siblings live. Even kids are broken up as well; some of them go with their fathers while others stay with their mothers. They all promise each other to stay alive and to live together again when things get better. It is too pitiful to see them parting from each other in tears.

On the other hand, Lim Sun-Ok, a 48-year old female resident, described the country’s currently overwhelming Kkotjebi population as “the nation of beggars.” A Kkotjebi relief center in South Pyongan Province is facing overcrowding; as the existing number of Kkotjebis is already beyond its capacity, the center is even trying to send out some of Kkotjebis. As April 15, the Day of Sun (태양절) is approaching, the authorities are busy with preparation for festivals and events. On the contrary, ordinary people are wearing worried looks due to the concerns about finding food.

“It Must Be Better To Die at War than Dying of Hunger”
As an overall food situation of the nation is worsening, more and more people are wishing that a war would break out. This tragic wish, in fact, reflects people’s despair of soaring prices of food in major cities in the country, including Chungjin, Sinuiju, and Pyongsung. Suh Gyung-Chul, a 49-year old resident of Nampo, voiced his concerns about a rise in food prices, “This nationwide food crisis is never going away. Food prices are soaring and soaring. How can we possibly sustain our lives? I even wish there would be war. If a war breaks out, we would be able to flee to China. At present, we cannot do so. Things may get improved if the North and the South are reunited.” He continued to say, “It must be better to die at war than dying of hunger.” It is not only Suh who is saying this; indeed, you can hear other people wishing for the same in any part of the nation.

Kim Song-Chul, a 48-year old resident of Daedong County also expressed his frustration about the situation, “Can you even imagine how bad food shortages are in this country? It’s so horrible that people rather wish that there would be a war. People who have ever suffered hunger might understand how we feel now. Officials would never understand it, because they’ve never experienced it. Even though we don’t know what is going on outside of the country, we certainly know that famine is worse than a war. I often wish that there would be a natural disaster to kill all people together. Still, it would be better than dying of hunger.”

The Relationship between North and South Worsens, “Starving To Death or Dying At War”
Recently the major media of North Korea such as Korean Central Television (KCTV) and Rodong Shinmun, and all kinds of meetings and lectures have criticized the Lee Myung-Bak Administration of South Korea. Because the criticism is getting worse, officials who have supported the improvement of the relationship between North and South Koreas became agitated. An official was disappointed and said, “During the Governments of Kim Dae-Jung and Rho Moo-hyun, the North Korean TV never complained about these presidents, but when I look at the current situation, I don’t think the relationship between North and South will improve.” He continued, “In this situation, I think even private trading between South and North will completely stop. If this conflict continues and worsens, we should eventually choose from two options, death or war. According to some officials, they are worried about this situation and said that now we have only two choices: starving to death or dying in the war.” Another official stated, “The South Korean Government has spoken too hastily and thoughtlessly. Although they have something to say, they need to learn to keep quiet about certain things. I don’t understand why they seem so eager to say things they do not have to say. I am not sure if they want to improve or retreat the relationship with us. Even for someone like me who supports improving the relationship with South Korea is confused, so how much more perplexed are those who do not support the effort to improve the relationship with South Korea? .”

The Third Renewal of the Japanese Economic Sanction against North Korea and the Increasing Lament of Remigrants to North Korea
Last April 11, Japan decided to continue the economic sanction against North Korea for 6 additional months, specially prohibiting North Korean ships such as Mankyungbong 92 from entering ports, people with North Korean citizenship from entering Japan, and products made in North Korea from being imported to Japan. Remigrants from Japan who read this news on Rodong Shinmun were in despair and discontented with this sanction. They had maintained their living by receiving aid from their relatives in Japan, but they have experienced infernal difficulties since 2006 when Japan started the economic sanction against North Korea. Their living standard couldn’t be worse. Residents of North Korea can get assistance from officials who are their family members or friends or can use any possible connections to get help, but most remigrants can hardly escape their poverty because of the shortage of personal networking and the social discrimination in North Korean society. The first generations of reimgrants are usually regretting their decision and the second generations are complaining to their parents about the decision. Especially, the first generations deplore the fact they suffer this difficulty because they were born in a poor country. Their relatives in Japan are also so indifferent. When the reimgrants ask help, their relatives sarcastically chide them; “When you tried to return to North Korea, we persuaded you not to do, but you persisted stubbornly in keeping your decision. Now you are regretting and asking us for help. That’s your choice and a reward for loving the country.” The poor reimgrants and their children are enduring their troubles, but things are getting tougher because of their relatives’ indifference in Japan and the deep-rooted social discrimination in North Korea. Additionally, the Japanese government’s economic sanction made their lives more miserable.

Ko Chung-Hyun (74 years old) said, “Because this blockade has been issued at national levels, we cannot live. How can we survive? Since they already issued this measure twice and they renewed it again, I am not sure whether I can survive or not.” He was filled with tears and regretted, “It’s a shame. I am a sinner to my children. If I die now, I can accept it. However, what is their fault? My innocent children just followed their parents. Please, save them.” Suh Kyu-Hwan (42 years old), a second generation of reimgrants, was despaired and sadly deplored, “When I was a child, I can remember that an elder uncle of mine in Japan sent us a lot of clothes, candies, snacks, and others, so we were OK. But, now it was just a dream. My children envy Chinese emigrants. Their mother country is living well, so they have some benefit. Even the native residents (original North Korean people) say that it’s their goal to do daily chores for the Chinese emigrants’ houses. But everything seems to be just a dream for us.”

The Order “Prepare Successfully for 4.15 Day” Is Giving People a Hard Time
Because the authority of North Korea has issued an order that people should celebrate 4.15 Day more extravagantly than ever before, every organization, enterprise and school is very busy preparing for the celebration. Both adults and children spend days and nights preparing for sports, cultural performances, and group dances. Young kids do not have appropriate meals regularly, but they have to endure exhausting activities, so it is natural for them to want to eat food. They want their parents to provide them with lunches, candies, snacks, and fruits, so their parents have troubles. On the other hand, schools in North Hamgyung Province conducted the export trade movement to show their loyalty to the government and collected 7 rabbit skins from each student. People complained a lot because people who did not contribute had to pay 2,000won for a skin. People strongly complained about the order because schools used to collect 5 rabbit skins at most, but they increased the number of the contribution without considering people’s dire situation.

People Busy Registering Birth If Their Children to Receive National Holiday Gifts
To celebrate Day of the Sun, the government distributed to members of each neighborhood unit with a bottle of liquor, a cake of soap, and a pair of socks, and candies for children. The government gave the staff of the National Intelligence Agency and police stations in the entire provinces 2-5kg of bean oil, liquor, cigarettes, 2-5kg of pork, candies, and underwear. The quantity and quality of distributed items, although similar, depended on the organizations, enterprises and units. Even though the holiday distribution for children is really worthless, people want to receive this trivial gift, so the number of birth registration has drastically increased. Because people did not receive any benefit for a newborn baby from the government, they used to neglect to register the baby. However, the police station is in turmoil because people want to register their children’s birth. Oh Soon-Young (32 years old), from Soonchun, stated that she also recently registered her 2-year-old child and people tried to use ways and means to receive anything free in this economically difficult situation.

The Cabinet Decision No.24 on Cemetery Code of Ordinances
On Last March 27th the 24th Decision of the Cabinet on Cemetery Code of Ordinances was made as follows.

“On establishing an order for disorderly located old graves”

1. The order should be followed that graves shall be in the approved cemetery zone.
1) Graves shall be in a public cemetery zone.
2) Graves shall be a flat type with 2 m of length, 80cm of width and 10cm of height.

2. All the graves that are not in the new public cemetery zone shall be moved to the new one.
1) Graves seen from main roads, highways, and railroad or located in farming or forest regions shall be disinterred and reinterred into the new public cemetery.
2) Graves without the owners shall be removed with the stone tables and headstone.

3. Graves with high mount that are not moved by April 5th to a new public cemetery shall be regarded as one without the grave owners and shall be leveled off.

4. Graves that cannot be moved because of special reasons shall lay the headstone down and level the grave mount.

Juche 97th year, March 27th, Democratic Peoples of Republic Korea Cabinet

Prone Grave Stone Will Make the Ancestors Angry
The residents are skeptical about the 24th decision of the Cabinet because the similar policy has been attempted repeatedly for the last 10 years but it has not been complied by people Oh Jung-Keun (63 years old) in Pyongyang said the rules and regulations about the cemetery and graves are not easily complied. Even though the Party orders to use a flat type grave like those in the Patriotic Martyrs Cemetery (애국렬사릉), it is hard to do this. He showed a strong opposition about the decision saying “Is it reasonable to lay down the headstone because the grave looks bad? My ancestors will be angry.” He said it cannot be even imaginable and that is not the way to show respect to the ancestor. Ko Sang-Hyeun (58 years old) also revealed the negative response saying “It is acceptable to level off the high grave amount a little. But how I can see my ancestor after my death if their headstone is flat on the ground.” The Party recommends for people who are not willing to lay down the grave headstones to move their graves to public cemeteries. However, this is also difficult to implement. A party official said “The public cemeteries are too far to reach for people who do not have a car. So people have no choice but to make their graves on the hills near their place disorderly. Even though the Party delivers the order to level off the grave mounts and lay down the headstones because of the ugly appearance, the residents’ resistance is so strong. So the Party recommends moving the graves to public cemeteries, which are too remote to go there on foot. That is the reason why the same policy has failed for the last 10 years” and 24th decision of the Cabinet will not have much effect either this time.

“The Virtue Handed Down For Thousands Of Years Shall Not Be Hampered.”
Last April 5th (Hansik), many people visited their families' ancestral graves and held their own rites to worship ancestors. A man in his 60s spoke frankly to his neighbors about the cemetery regulation on the way down from his visit to the ancestral graves. He gained a lot of sympathy from his companions, when he said “It has been a virtue and a laudable custom of our people for thousands of years to bury our ancestors in topographically great mountains and visit the family grave on a traditional holiday every year in order to show our respect. I heard that South Korea regards Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) as the biggest holiday and even China gives one-day off for traditional holidays such as Chuseok and Hansik. While other countries supports this kind of cultural traditions very well, I cannot understand why our country suppress the freedom to hold the ritual for the ancestors more and more by ordering us to ‘reduce the grave size’. How inhumane. Complying with the government rule is to break primary life principles that should be followed.” His companions and passersby listened to his speech seriously and agreed with him saying “more and more things are hard to understand” In the past, those kinds of remarks were carefully made, but these days people talk about the issues without a hitch, and listeners do not report the fact to the Party Officer or other relevant institutions.

Public Trials Become Propaganda Place of "The Rich Walk While the Poor Get Punished for the Same Crime"
Last March 31st, at 3pm, there was a public trial in Onsung in North Hamgyung Province.
At this public trial held on the playground of Machinery Vocational School in Onsung-town, 17 criminals were sentenced on charges of drug smuggling, illegal film circulation, human trafficking and illegal border crossing. People are tired of being forced to watch all trials.

Cha Mi-Yong (38) shook her head saying “I wish only those who want to witness the trial can watch the trial, I cannot understand why people who do not want to see should see it.” An Chun-Sil (43) coming back to his house with his neighbors said “When I see the public trial, I cannot help but think that the rich survive and the poor dies even though they commit the same crime. The public trials are intended to advertise that fact to the poor like us.” His neighbors who accompanied him agreed with him saying “It is right”. The recognition surges that the public trial is the place where only the poor are punished unjustly.

[Opinion] “Dream of Josin” Becomes a Painful Reality for People of North Korea.
In the Naksan Temple located in Kangwon Province, the legend of the monk Josin is still being told. The young monk Josin fell in love with the daughter of the local village magistrate and prayed to be together with her. Magically, she appeared to him and they ran off together to live together as man and wife, giving birth to five children. But their happiness was soon overwhelmed by the abject poverty and constant hunger that shadowed their life together. Their eldest son died when fifteen-years old from starvation and disease since they had trouble eating one meal a day. When the couple became old and weak, their twelve-year old daughter had to go begging. One day, the daughter came back limping from being bitten by a village dog. Realizing that they would all starve to death staying where they were, they decided to split up in desperation, with a parent taking two children each. As they said goodbye to each other for the last time, they were heartbroken at the emptiness of life. Then he woke up. It was all a dream. The monk Josin, thankful at the lesson, focused on his studies from then on.

Unfortunately, this legend is all too real for many families in North Korea who are forced to split apart to survive. The legend of the monk Josin is being reenacted among children who are killed by starvation and diseases, kids who have to beg to keep their whole family alive, and couples who promise to see each other again as they are forced to say goodbye, knowing that such promises are empty promises. Even a family bond or a couple’s love is powerless in the face of starvation.

The government of North Korea today is no longer capable of providing an environment in which a family can survive. The monk Josin at least got to wake up from his dream that turned into a pitiful nightmare. But the North Korean people are waking up from a dream into a worse reality. The monk Josin learned a valuable lesson from his experience. But the North Korean people are only learning an indelible hurt that will linger within their collective consciousness for years to come as deep-seated rage and distrust.
For how long are we to bear witness to the tragedy enveloping the North Korean people today without doing anything? For how long would we go on blaming the North Korean government? How will we explain our absence in their desperate hour of need to the 20 million North Koreans when we are forced to look into their eyes?

Perhaps we are dreaming that this current situation in which we pretend to not know what’s going on is better. Perhaps we are thinking that it’s better to remain in this dream-like state of willful ignorance? Then we are not dreaming. We are deluding ourselves. We dearly wish that this cruel spring of 2008 is all a dream. But it’s not. It’s a cold reality. It’s time for us to wake up from this dream and heed the desperate cries of help of 20 million fellow Koreans

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