North Korea Today No. 129

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today 129th Edition May 2008

“Research Institute for North Korean Society of Good Friends, in order to bring news of the food crisis in North Korea more accurately and quickly, will increase its e-newsletter frequency to more than one issue per week. As such, the release dates might shift. Thank you for your understanding and attention to this looming crisis. We at Good Friends hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.”

People Subsisting on Thin Porridge
People’s Supreme Assembly of Nampo City Request Emergency Food Aid
People in Kangwon also Suffer Food Shortage
“Farm the fields in the Morning and Then Go Gather Grass in the Afternoon.”
The Ryong-yang Mine in Dancheon City Halts All Production
The Price of Rice Soared to 3,900won after Chairman Kim’s Visit to Kyongsong
Irrigation Works from the Tumen River is Priority for Onsung County
Upholding Virtue and Moral Character for the Women of Chosun
[Opinion] We Urge the South Korean Government To Launch 200,000 Tons of Emergency Food Aid To North Korea

People Subsisting on Thin Porridge
With the suspension of food distribution in some parts of Pyongyang, the number of people who are subsisting on watery porridge is on the rise. Residents of areas like Sadong District(사동구역), Ryukpo District(력포구역), Rakrang District(락랑구역) and Seungho District(승호구역), are likely to be resorting to these measures. The food stores in these areas are completely empty and have closed their doors, and factories and businesses that used to distribute food on their own have suspended operations because of the lack of food.

Chairman Kim Jong-Il has declared on numerous occasions that food rations for Pyongyang be guaranteed. In April, Chairman Kim called together the Trade Minister, Secretary of the Pyongyang City Party, and the Chairman of the People’s Assembly to ensure that food rations be provided to people in the city of Pyongyang.

A partial shipment of food that entered the country through Sinuiju was immediately released to residents of Pyongyang, but because of the overall lack of food, food distribution was suspended shortly thereafter. Affluent households that live in the central districts of Pyongyang have, at minimum, 6 months of food in reserve, in addition to US dollars, which gives them the option of purchasing food when necessary. However, in other districts that are occupied by people with fewer resources, households are more reliant on government food distributions and have few options when distribution is suspended.

One official in Pyongyang said, “I recently went to Kangwon Province because I had some work to do there. It was on that trip that I truly realized the extreme disparity in living standards between Pyongyang and its outlying regions. It seems like another world in areas outside of Pyongyang. The living conditions of residents are so poor that I couldn’t help tearing up. Compared to other areas, Pyongyang is like heaven. If people in Pyongyang are subsisting on porridge water, it is easy to believe that people in other areas are dying of starvation.”

Fig. 1 Map of the Risk Areas in Pyongyang

People’s Supreme Assembly of Nampo City Request Emergency Food Aid
Conditions in Nampo City are much worse than in Pyongyang. All of the food stores within the city have closed their doors, and long ago, the factories and businesses that were designated as important by the government stopped providing food rations. The officials in Nampo all say that “because of the pressing food situation, the young, the elderly, and all of the citizens are facing death and human casualties.

The officials went on to say that if the government wishes to prevent large-scale deaths due to starvation, food aid must enter the country as soon as possible. The People’s Assembly of the city is urgently requesting the central government for food aid.

Nampo’s food crisis began in December of last year, and food distribution was suspended beginning in February of this year. Only the workers at Nampo’s port receive a small amount of food rations, and even the workers who work at Nampo’s artillery and military armament factories are facing difficult times.

The central government released party funds on a one time basis in order to provide a month of food rations to workers in military related factories such as these and other important industries such as specially designated businesses and factories. If these workers were like the other citizens who never received a grain of rice from the government, they would have resorted to working in the markets or farming earlier, but because these workers were all used to receiving their food rations without fail, the cessation of food distribution has had an even greater effect on them.

An official from Nampo said, “Originally, there were plans to get rid of the markets on April 15th, the Day of the Sun(태양절; Birthday of Kim Il-Sung), but now they are unable to get rid of the markets and the policy became vague. Things that can be regulated are being regulated, but the minimum age requirement is not being enforced. Since the amount of food stuffs are so scarce, the authority are fear that the public reaction would worsen even further. Women who were arrested for offense, often they are physically protesting, for instance, scratching the police’s face or grab on the ears of the officers when the women’s goods are being confiscated.

People in Kangwon also Suffer Food Shortage
According to a resident in Jookgen-ri(죽근리), Kosan County, Kangwon Province, people in this area are not showing up for work because of the food shortage. Instead, they pick herbs to make porridge. These meals are not sufficient to sustain them to do farm work. It is the same case in Kimhwa County, Bubdong County, and Kosung County. Especially in the areas that suffered from the effects of the flood last year, more people are suffering from malnutrition than in other areas.

According to one soldier in Keumkang County, the soldiers in this county are experiencing a food shortage as well. They are fed with less than half a bowl of long grain rice(안남미), a couple of pieces of Korean radish, and seaweed soup that tastes like seaweed, yet does not contain any actual seaweed. Lamenting on how bad their food situation was, he said that only on traditional holidays, can he see some oil floating in the seaweed soup. “Because we can’t eat well, we do not have any energy to participate in military training. Thus, sometimes we get into vacant houses, steal food and resell them to other residents. With that money, we get a good amount of food. Sometimes the owners of the stolen food come and complain about the theft, but we dismiss their claims and scold them for their negligence.” He added that to save themselves, there is no choice but to do some harm to the other residents.

“Farm the fields in the Morning and Then Go Gather Grass in the Afternoon.”
In Hunyung-ri(훈융리), Saebyoul County, the North Hamkyong Province, farmers are not tending to their fields because they are exhausted with no energy to work the fields due to the food shortage. Governmental officers are helpless in remedying the situation. Desperately, they demand that farmers work the fields in the morning, and then gather grass in the afternoon. According to one manager, this is the only option as herb porridge is the only food alternative and without, farmers can’t work.

The Mine Ryong-yang in Dancheon City Halted All production
The Mine Ryong-yang in Dancheon city of South Hamkyong Province stopped all production in May because it could not manage the food problem of workers for several months. One official in this area said that, “The main products of the Mine Ryong-yang are magnesium clinker. But the biggest challenge is that there is no appropriate market or outlet. If there are some importers for magnesium clinker, the mine will continue its production. However, the outlets for expert got stuck for now. It is inevitable workers get nothing to earn a living and quit economic activities.” And he added, “This is a barren place, which makes it more difficult to live on grass,” reporting that the region has been in such a destitute situation.

The Ryong-yang Mine in Dancheon City Halts All Production
The Ryong-yang mine in Dancheon city of South Hamkyong Province stopped all production in May, contributing to the food shortage crisis. One official in the area states, “The main product of the mine is magnesium clinker. But because there is no demand for magnesium, production has halted. Without pay, miners are left to search for herbs, which is very difficult because, “the area is so barren, grass cannot be found.” The region is in a very destitute situation.

The Price of Rice Soared to 3,900won after Chairman Kim’s Visit to Kyongsong
The price of rice soared from 3,200won (May 11th) to 3,900won (May 12th) just one day after Chairman Kim Jong-Il’s visit to Kyongsong County(경성군). Due to the Chairman’s visit, the Chungjin area was blockaded for 2 days, which is adjacent to Kyongsong County. All vehicles and passengers were prohibited from entering the area, causing the price of rice to rise. After the lift of the blockade on May 13th, the price of rice stabilized back to the 3,000-3,100won level again. Critics complained that “A national level economic blockade brings a lot of difficulties, which are magnified on the domestic level. It is like our hand and feet are bound. Despite severe criticism by the public, the authorities move forth with the blockade.”

Irrigation Works from the Tumen River is Priority for Onsung County
In the busiest time of the season of rice-planting(모내기), Onsung County faces a crisis as half of their paddy fields are dry due to the lack of irrigated water. On May 17th, the County Party mobilized all available personnel to aggressively pump water from the Tumen River(두만강). County authorities provided lunch consisting of a bowl of corn-rice and spinach as a side dish to all the workers for their labor. Corn meal(옥수수밥) was a wonderful substitute for their usual sustenance of just a bowl of porridge. This motivated the mobilized workers to give their best efforts and were willing to work late into the night to finish the work as soon as possible.

Upholding Virtue and Moral Character for the Women of Chosun
In order to survive, an increasing number of women are engaging in prostitution. As sex trade activities mushroom throughout the country, authorities are having a difficult time controlling the practice. In response to this epidemic, the Central Party initiated a program to educate women abstain from this practice. The lectures, which are repeated mainly to members of the Democratic Women’s Union offered, “Preserve the unique virtue and moral character of Chosun women and dispel the temptation to resort to prostitution.”

[Opinion] We Urge the South Korean Government To Launch 200,000 Tons of Emergency Food Aid To North Korea
Case1. I survived with grass and vegetables in the spring and summer. But they have become rare and are found far from resident areas, which has increased the number of starving people. A typical meal consisted of grass or a vegetable boiled in water with a few grains of salt, with corn flour. After stirring all the ingredients, I drank one bowl. That was the only meal for the day. (A man in 40s at Hwasung County(화성군) in North Hamgyong Province)

Case2. Even though a mother and daughter devoted all their energy to provide for the survival of their family, they did not have enough porridge water for everyone. The old mother gave most of the porridge water to her grandson and drank a small amount of it. In her weak condition, she wandered several miles a day to collect wild vegetables, but after her work, she couldn’t get up again in the severe malnutrition condition. That’s how our mother went to heaven forever. (A man in 50s at Gosung County(고성군) in Kangwon Province)

Case3. One day unknown children were caught stealing food. They were almost beaten to death with blood all over their body. An innocent 5 year old younger brother was forced to lick the blood off the face of his 11 year old elder brother. I was so heart- broken, I bought one bowl of fried corn and gave it to them. Then, the 5 year old kneeled down and burst out crying. I could not stop my eyes from tearing even though I am a very cold minded person. (A man in 50s at Hamheung City in South Hamgyong Province)

Case4. My son spent a long time in the military service. While I worried about increasing malnutrition in the military, one day a military car stopped by my house, put down my son and drove away immediately. I was shocked and cried over the heart of my son for a while. As people held me back, I rushed to begin to save my son. Usually, no one is concerned about he health of their children after they leave for military service because they come back home in a healthier condition. Now they return home in horrible condition. What has happened to our nation where we can not feed and care for our own military? (A woman in 40s at Songhwa County in South Hwanghae Province)

Above cases are not current reports from ‘North Korea Today’ but are stories of just 10 years ago.

South Korean authorities say that the North Korean food situation is not as serious as the Arduous March. What information do they base this assertion on?

News heard from all over North Korea in May is quite similar with the stories of the Arduous March. Good Friends presented the North Korean food crisis 10 years ago based on interviews with 1,855 North Korean defectors. We also recorded more severe cases than the above cases based on interviews with 5,000 people. Now most residents have relied merely on grass porridge and porridge made of the root of rice plants, the number of Kkotjebis (homeless children) has increased all over the nation, and various epidemics like tubercle are prevalent. Comparing the current situations with those of the Arduous March in 1990s, it appears as an early stage of massive starvation. If nothing is done, massive starvation would be inevitable.

Currently, the situation is a humanitarian crisis. Whether the North Korean government asks for aid first, should not be the bases to determine whether the situation is a humanitarian crisis. In fact the North Korean government does not have a will and even an ability to solve the crisis. The current crisis should be the only basis to determine if aid is necessary.

The South Korean government should rush to launch immediate aid to North Korea. Twenty million North Korean residents are silently calling forth for immediate food aide. There is no time to delay. Even if the U.S. sends food, it will be delivered after July or August. These are difficult days as we wait for the new potato harvest. The South Korean government should send 200,000 tons of food immediately in order to minimize the casualties of starvation in May and June. Though the amount cannot solve the malnutrition problem ultimately, it can abort the starvation risk. We strongly urge the South Korean government to send 200,000 tons of food, most of all, to North Korea as a gesture of brotherhood, so that they can withstand the serious threat of massive starvation.

Good Friends: Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees
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