North Korea Today No. 122

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today
122nd Edition April 2008

Best-selling Items at Markets Are Wild Greens

As grain prices are soaring and prices of staple commodities are continuously increasing, the best -selling items at local markets are various edible wild greens. In spring, a peak season of wild greens, there are a number of people who pick wild greens in the mountains as well as on the plains. No matter where you go, every mountain is packed with people who are looking for edible greens for food or to sell at markets. A demand for wild greens is increasing because wild greens are key substitutes that double the quantity of a meal, adding to a little amount of corn rice.

Approximately thirty young female students who live in a nearby farm village are selling wild greens at the entrance of Namsong market in Sinuiju. During the school hours, these little girls rather go to nearby hills to pick wild greens and sell them at a distant market. These young students charge about 500 won per a bowl of wild greens. You can also easily find young female students and women of mixed ages at Chaeha market. People who live in Southern Sinuiju villages, such as Majon-ri (마전리), Bakto-ri (백토리), Lakwon-ri (락원리) mainly come to Sinuiju markets to sell wild greens.

Even Residents of Pyongyang Barely Manage Their Lives with Rice Gruel

Of residents of Pyongyang, some households barely manage their lives with rice gruel day after day. Some of these households have two meals with the gruel and the number of such households is increasing. Compared to the officials of organizations, enterprises and companies, ordinary workers do not currently receive any distribution because their ranks are low. Without receiving rations, the workers’ situation is indescribably miserable. An official of Pyongan is worried about the worsening of public securities and the weakening of the government’s power to contain crimes, and says, “In this situation, I am sure that the number of robbers and thieves is going to increase.”

The Shortage of Food Is Worsening in Nampo

Nampo known as an internationally famous port city has also had troubles with the scarcity of food. Residents living in the suburban cities and counties of Nampo aside, about 350 thousand people live in the city and laborers have not received rations since last December. The City Government has had urgent meetings about food problems, but they did not find appropriate answers. They have just asked people who are going to foreign countries to get food by using any connections. If it is not possible to get food in the countries, they seem to think simply bean oil is enough in this malnutrion period. They ask their favors again and again because they can prevent them from starving to death by only dipping grass and root in the oil and eat them. Although some people can go to foreign countries, they cannot find any connection that can provide them with food and many people ask these people for the same favors, so it is useless to ask. Metaphorically, it is like preaching to the deaf ears.

The Number of Absentees without Leave Increases in a Fertilizer Company in Hamheung

The number of absentees without leave has increased in a fertilizer company in Hamheung because they have not received any rations at all this year. Every worker speaks out that they cannot go to work because they did not eat anything. Without considering this situation, the Police Substation(분주소) in the company organized the security officers to find and scold absentees without leave but the situation has not improved much. Finally, the police officers had to get involved to make them come to work by treading them like criminals, and made the workers listen to propaganda lectures.

Even Armament Factories in Jagang Province Have Stopped Food Distribution for 4 Months

Armament Factories located in Kangye, Jagang Province have already stopped the food distribution for 4 months. Because many workers have been sick from malnutrion, the number of people going to work has significantly decreased. The Central Party has been reported this issue and has ordered to distribute, if any left, some military provision collected from cities and counties of other provinces to workers of the factories in Jagang Province.

The Department of Agriculture, “Even Though There Have Been No Natural Disasters This Year, the Prospect of Harvest is not Bright.”

The Department of Agriculture of North Korea estimated that even though there may not be any natural disasters in this year, the expectation of agricultural products is not bright as previous year.” Last year had low levels of production because of flood; this year’s situation is not improving because, in general, they acquired fewer agricultural supplies, such as fertilizers, vinyl films, and seeds than last year and hungry farm workers nationwide do not go to work. Although they currently work hard to collect human excremnets as alternative fertilizers, the demanded amount of fertilizer is beyond their ability. Workers of companies and enterprises as well as soldiers were called out to help cultivate, but these work forces cannot do the same the experienced farmers. Thus, every location has reported to the Central Party that they have already missed the timing of the farming season.

Preparation for Cultivation is Still Slow

Even though it is a sowing season, many farming areas are not ready for this yet. The Agricultural Management Committee of Daedong County, South Pyongan Province encountered a big trouble because they did not secure oil to run a machine to plow the fields. Because each farm has only a couple of oxen and it is not possible to manage farming business (경제운영관리) with poor supplies, officials of agriculture are negative about this situation. Farmers of a cooperative farm in Chungdan County, South Hwanghae Province have not come to work until mid April now, so they did not have enough work forces. Because the hungry farmers did not go to work, the County Party mobilized workers of factories and enterprises. The Agricultural Management Committee of Chungdan County had urgent meetings and urged farmers to work at their farms. The officials appealed that this year’s products are not good when farmers do not work anymore at their farms, but the hungry farmers did not care. Farmers of cooperative farms of Bakcheon-town, Bakcheon County, North Pyongan Province received rations just for 2 months last year and many workers are hungry and lying at home because most households completely ate up their food. So far, there isn’t any way to settle food issues for the farmers.

Suicide Increasing Nationwide

We are seeing more suicide victims throughout the nation as food shortages intensify. Jang Myung-hee (42) from Dukcheon, South Pyongyang Province, committed suicide by drinking hair perming solution after having a fight with her husband. “I didn’t know that she would really do it,” her husband said. “I thought that she was just letting off steam when she said that she wanted to die because she was sick and tired of not knowing where our next meal was coming from. We used to make ends meet by living on the money she earned by perming women’s hair. Now I don’t know how I’ll feed our children without her.”

Park Keum-chul (46), from Eunha-dong, Sariwon in North Hwanghae Province, also committed suicide recently after leaving a note for his family. He was the breadwinner for a family of an infirm wife, elderly mother, and a son and a daughter. He was trying to make ends meet by himself through trading. But last month, as food prices skyrocketed, his trade experienced a freefall. On top of it all, he lost all his principal investment. All of a sudden, one meal a day became a luxury. A meal once every few days became the norm. Caught between the anger at being able to provide only hunger to his family and concern for their welfare, he became distraught and chose to take his life. His suicide note begged forgiveness for not being able to provide even a decent meal to his ailing mother, let alone medicine. His neighbors were worried that his family, now left behind without a breadwinner, will all perish.

Park Rae-ok (38), from Joonggang-myun, Joonggang County in Jagang Province, has already attempted suicide three times. Although she was revived each time through emergency measures, she doesn’t consider that fortunate. She is a housewife with a husband and two sons, 8 and 11 years old. She suffered every time her husband came home because he would yell at the top of his voice to bring alcohol or go berserk and break things all over the house. He would also hit her when she would try to desist him.

She says that even his physical abuse is OK, but what she couldn’t deal with was that she couldn’t feed her two children even runny porridge. She would run around from early dawn to late night, doing other people’s errands and looking for roots, grass, and loose grains in the hills and fields, all to feed her children. She would even cultivate barren land that no one else would even try on the off-chance that it could grow something. But no matter how hard she tried, her life did not improve. She became weaker as days went by without any color to her face. There was no life left anymore on her face. She barely speaks anymore and looks more like a corpse than a living person.

Last winter, her children, without any decent shoes or clothes to wear, spent hours outside looking for loose grains that they could pick up to eat. They came back freezing and crying with hunger. Park promised them that she would buy them “nice shoes and nice clothes” then sat down and cried her heart out. That same day, she tried to commit suicide but was revived by the villagers. Although corn prices went up to 1,800 won per kg this year, the Neighborhood Unit would demand 3kg of beans for the April 15th anniversary (4.15명절), while schools would demand 14,000 won per household if they couldn’t remit fur. After paying off electricity and water bills, nothing was left, even to make porridge. After begging for some corn from a neighbor to make porridge for her children, her husband began another fight by demanding that she bring him some alcohol. She spent that whole night wide awake. The next morning, she used the last bits of corn to make porridge for her children and bought alcohol on credit from a neighbor for her husband. Around lunch time, she boiled two sheaves of straw and silently drank the drug. She was saved by her neighbor who happened to stop by to give her some tidbits. After regaining her consciousness, she was silent for a long time before sighing, “Why did you save me?” Even before, she used to say, “Often I can’t think I can die because of my poor kids… then I think that it’s better to die than to live like this.”

Han Kwang-hyuk (55) from Keumgang County in Kangwon Province is a miner. But just a few years ago, he was an intellect. As such, he had a very difficult time adjusting to a life as a laborer and making ends meet on his back. His wife would always nag at him for not being political or savvy enough to use his connections and earn money. He lost the last whatever property he had left in last summer’s flood and was severely weakened both in body and spirit. As food ran out, the couple would fight more, blaming each other. A few days ago, he killed himself by swallowing several packets of arsenic. He left a suicide note to his wife. “It was unbearable to live without having anything to eat. I believe it’s better to die cleanly rather to live in constant suffering. I am sorry that I never brought you one moment of joy despite all that you had to go through because of me. I had hopes for a better life for a while, but as things look, it would be difficult to even know when the next meal is, and I don’t even have the face to be able to beg for food. And who would I beg anyway, since everyone is in the same boat? I hope you find the person you want to live with and survive somehow. Do live by finding a place where you can eat.” The wife called him, “a really hard person,” as she cried.

A Prolonged Food Crisis Leads to an Increase in Family Crimes

Soaring food prices, which are repeatedly reaching its historic peak, is worsening the existing food crisis in North Korea. The worsening food crisis, in turn, leads to a rapid increase in crimes of violence across the nation. Crimes, including murder, robbery, and fraud, are taking place one after another in major cities, such as Pyongsung, Hamheung, and Sinuiju. Due to high crime rates, authorities are issuing new investigation orders nearly everyday. In particular, the murdering of family members, like old parents or young children, is becoming a main contributing factor to this recent rapid increase in crimes, and is drawing the society's attention.

Indeed, there was a case in the middle of April, 2008 that an elderly woman committed suicide by throwing herself into a rushing truck in Chullimagu District in Nampo (남포 천리마구역). The family of the victim initially considered it a car accident and demanded a compensation for her death. The investigation, however, revealed that her own children's cruel treatment of her was what led her to kill herself. When the truth was disclosed to the public, people accused her children of their immorality. Meanwhile, a similar case of suicide occurred in Sungyo District (선교구역) in Pyongyang. An elderly man who had suffered from his children's mistreatment set a fire on the house where his extended family were living and then committed suicide. After an intensive police interrogation of the family members who survived the fire, they confessed their ill-treatment of their father. Authorities reported the case at a General Meeting of Residents and banished those surviving family members to a farm village near Pyongyang.

In addition to the aforementioned cases, there was another case of family tragedy that a daughter- in-law murdered her mother-in-law in Pyongsung. Han Jeong-hee, a 38-year old woman, was facing a serious food shortage. Under such a distressful situation where it is hard to feed her own little children, her old mother-in-law became a painful burden for Han. Han's mother-in-law who was suffering from cerebral thrombosis had badgered Han to get her food all the time. It was painful for Han to see her malnourished young children who have thin arms and legs, and big bellies; it was because her children did not get enough to eat besides diluted rice soup. Due to the strained circumstances, she was losing her patience with her mother-in-low who could not even carry herself. That day, Han confessed, her mother-in-law kept asking her for food and she eventually gave her mother-in-law a pesticide by lying to her that it was a medicine for cerebral thrombosis. Later, Han buried her mother-in-law on a hill behind her house with her husband. Yet, a neighbor who was suspicious of not seeing Han's mother-in-law reported to the police and they found out about her death. Han and Han's husband claimed that her mother-in-law died of a disease but the autopsy revealed it was death by poisoning. As a result, they were arrested.

Lastly, Park Guang-hyuk, a 39-year old male resident of Namhyang-dong, Pohang District in Chungjin City was arrested on February 1, 2008 on the charge of murder of his stepson. Reportedly, Park beat his stepson to death. Park often had a quarrel with his wife over his complaint that his stepson ate too much. As the family was running short of food, Park even found a small portion for his little stepson irritating. Park regularly beat this little boy who was about four years old and swore at him; his mistreatment of the stepson was getting worse. A quarrel between Park and his wife always started with the food issue and then developed into his stepson issue. One day, Park's wife who could no longer tolerate her husband's mistreatment of her son lost her temper and yelled at him that it would be better to kill him if he wanted to beat her son so badly. In a spontaneous response to his wife's anger, Park suffocated his 4-year old stepson with a blanket. Park was arrested by a neighbor's report to the police and was executed in public on April 2nd. Meanwhile, Park's wife was sentenced to a Re-education center for 10 years for colluding in a crime of murder of her son. During the pretrial examination, she mentioned that she lost her mind at the moment and let it happen because being beaten to death didn't seem much different from dying of hunger. Shortly after, however, she committed suicide due to a guilty conscience over her son's death.

Increasing Theft of Farm-owned Draft Cows

Authorities began an investigation on the theft of two cows at a collective farm in Juaha-ri (좌하리), Daegwan County in North Pyongan Province two months ago. The investigation revealed that Ahn Young-chul, a 29-year old textile factory worker, got divorced from his wife and drifted from place to place. During his temporary stay at a relative’s house, Ahn stole two cows. Then he slaughtered the cows, he brought them to Sinuiju and sold them to several restaurants and beef traders. Ahn fell in a coma due to severe physical assault during the pretrial investigation on the charge of cow theft.

Meanwhile, there was another case of cow theft: three cows were stolen at Sungnae-ri (성내리) collective farm, Saebyul County in North Hamgyung Province on April 21st. The farm lost the three cows at a critical moment to plow fields. As cows are essential for plowing fields, missing one cow can affect the farming. Losing three cows, therefore, is likely to cause great damage to this year's farming, not to mention plowing fields. Farm workers are all wearing a worried look. The manager even took a sick leave and is worried about the farming at home whereas farm workers are distressed with a concern to plow fields on their own. In the meantime, no clue, as to the thief, has been found and there is still no trace of stolen cows.

News of Incidents and Accidents

Last April 11, 5 meters of a tunnel collapsed when workers of the Re-education center of People’s Safety Agency (인민보안성) were working in the tunnel in Youngkwang County, South Hamgyung Province. In this accident, 2 workers died and 3 injured.

Last April 19th, bus number 116 of Hamheung, South Hamgyung Province running from Wonsan to Hamheung collided with a vehicle belonging to the 91 boot camp of Pyongyang Capital Defense Division at Gowon. 5 people including the driver died and 5 passengers injured in this accident.

Last April 24th, bus number 116 of Chungjin running from Gimchaek to Chungjin crashed into trees on the roadside in Gilju because of drowsy driving. This accident killed 2 passengers on the location and critically injured 5 people. Those with life-threatening injuries were sent to Gilju hospital and received medical treatment. The bus company decided to pay half million won for each casualty as compensation.

[Opinion] We Can No Longer Afford To Wait To Give Food Aid to North Korea

The shadow of death is once again covering North Korea. Along with the deep sighs of the suffering North Korean people, we hear the dreaded news of people beginning to starve to death once more. With the North-South relations at a freeze, we fear that many more people would need to die before anything happens. We fear even more how and who will allay the moral and emotional scars that the North Korea people will carry with them for the rest of their lives, if they survive. How did we find ourselves here once again? Was 3 million people who starved to death 10 years ago not enough to teach us a lesson? Why are we allowing such tragic stupidity to repeat itself?

When the Arduous March was occurring, Good friends recognized the dangers and lobbied the South Korea government to give aid to North Korea without conditions. Some people replied that there was no famine in North Korea. Others made excuses, saying that, “even if there are some people starving to death, it’s limited to only a specific area and not to the entire country. Good Friends is falsely trying to create a bad image of North Korea as a nation of starving people.” Among these dueling excuses, the voice calling for food aid was buried and resulted in millions of North Koreans starving to death.

Still others focused only on the North Korean human rights situation. They believed that the emergency food shortages will bring about a fundamental change to the North Korean government, or even force it to implode. They further said that since food shortages are a direct result of the North Korean government policy, famine is a process that they inevitably have to go through to bring about a collapse of the North Korean regime that can lead to a permanent change. They also said that aid will only act to prop up the North Korean regime and ultimately act against improving the human rights situation there – they actually called for stronger sanctions to put more pressure on the North Korean regime. Among these dueling arguments, the voice calling for food aid was once again buried.

All these arguments and declarations had their own reasoning and evidence, but they all worked together to delay the food aid and resulted in the massive number of famine victims. If they had acted sooner, we could have halved the number of people who starved to death.

What’s happening in North Korea today is eerily similar to what happened ten years ago. People are roaming the hills and countryside digging out roots and collecting grass to eat. Soon, we will once again hear of people being shot to death for eating cows or selling pieces of electric wires in black markets, which is exactly what happened ten years ago. Unfortunately, we are also still stuck in the debate reminiscent of those ten years ago.

Some don’t believe that this year’s food shortages will be that serious. They are optimistic because they believe that the economy has picked up and markets are active. The North Koreans have developed coping mechanisms and can survive without aid from the outside. Yet others say that, although the food shortages are serious, sacrifices are inevitable in order to teach the North Korean government a lesson to change their behavior. Food aid must be conditional on the resolution or improvements on the nuclear issue, human rights violations, or anything else.

But how can you call barely surviving on grass porridge a coping mechanism, especially when doing so under the suffocating eye of the government? If you don’t aid the North Korean people by saying that they have developed “coping mechanisms” because they learned to live off wild roots and grass, then you are doing them a grave injustice. Also, if you believe that linking food aid to the North Korean regime’s behavior will be effective in the long run, despite the ‘inevitable’ sacrifice of the people, then you have forgotten the dying cries of the 3 million who perished in the last famine, victims of the same calculated non-action.

How can you say that you care about the North Korean human rights when you won’t vote to give one grain of rice to North Korea just because the North Korean government hasn’t ‘officially’ asked for aid? Is that all we can do? If we don’t do anything to stop the oncoming tsunami of another famine in North Korea, can the current government’s policy be said to have done more for North Korean human rights than the previous government’s so-called “no questions asked” policy of aid giving? The most urgent human rights policy is to ensure that human beings don’t starve to death. This is what we have to remember. This is why we urge a speedy and massive food aid to North Korea.

Good Friends: Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees
If you need further information, please contact

Good Friends (Korea)
Tel: 82-2-587-8996

Good Friends USA (Washington, DC)
Tel: 1-202-824-0788/1-301-455-9196(D)