GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society


North Korea Today No. 154

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today 154th Edition June 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.”

Children Killed By Eating Toads
Children in Daehongdan Die from Eating Azalea
Soldiers in Ryanggang Province Eat Cooked Leather Belts
Kkotjebis Suffocated While Trying To Pilfer Potatoes in Storage Caves
“He Died While Tightly Holding Potatoes In His Hand.”
Daehongdan County, Famous For Its Potatoes, Is the Gathering Site for the Kkotjebis
Sudden Opening of Reservoir Dam Gate Drowned Kkotjebis
The Last Gift of Yeon-shil’s Grandma
[Opinion] Starving Children Are Innocent Victims

Children Killed By Eating Toads
In Sambong District of Daehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, there has been an increase in the number of children being killed by eating toads. Children used to catch and eat frogs that hatched in the marsh regions along the Suhdoosoo River until the number of frogs declined noticeably. Presently, toads are hatching. Old wives tales tell of toad’s poisons being used as medicine in cases of cancer. But toads can also kill if eaten without being treated to get rid of the poison, especially weak children whose immunity have been compromised already by malnutrition.

Han Myung-sun (43 yrs old) of Sambong District, Daehongdan County, says, “Frogs that are just hatched don’t have any poison, but they start to develop them just when the tadpoles begin to develop legs and tails. Kids can’t wait till the tadpoles grow into frogs and eat the tadpoles by scooping them up with screens but some died last month through food poisoning. Now we no longer have frogs but have toads. Kids think that they are the same and eat them by roasting them. They ate the toads with potatoes, which also are poisonous when they start to sprout. So 5-6 kids were killed eating toads and potatoes in one night. The whole place was overcome with a sense of foreboding when we had to take care of these little bodies.” Choi Seung-chul (42) also agreed, “Kids thought that they could cook toad meat with corn power into some type of porridge but instead they roasted it and ate, and died.” One class in Sambong Middle School lost over 10 kids in just two months out of a class of 36 to starvation or food poisoning.

Children in Daehongdan Die from Eating Azalea
There are children who died after eating azalea in Daehongdan County. In Sambong Middle School, 9 students were dead from azalea poisoning. Adults know what to eat and what not, but young children can’t tell and just put anything in their mouths because they are hungry. After eating three or four potatoes, they are still hungry and they run up to the mountains and pluck anything to eat. This spring, they ate fistful of azalea petals several times and they died of poisoning. Chang Mi-oak (38) says, “They pick basketful of azalea petals and eat them, but if they eat too much at one time, it causes gastrospasms. If they eat them when their stomach is empty, they will die foaming in their mouth. I suffered gastrospasms when I ate azalea. Adults like me cannot control (the hunger); it is needless to say in case of children.”

Lee Sung-ja (37) says, “I warn my older child everyday. The older one would not do, but my younger one may eat flowers while I am not around. So whenever they go out together I admonish the older one, ‘don’t let your brother eat flowers’ several times. My older one tells me that many of his classmates die and asks me, ‘Mother, what can I do?’ It pains me greatly. Children who have no parents die so easily.” Watching the children die makes her recall the suffering of the Arduous March(고난의 행군) and she shakes her head thinking of the horror.

Soldiers in Ryanggang Province Eat Cooked Leather Belts
In early June, the commander of a unit stationed in Ryanggang Province was arrested upon inspection. The charge was that he sold army uniforms in the market. The Army had neither rice nor money and the enlisted men cooked their belts to eat. On May 28th, he had witnessed the enlisted men boiling their leather belts in a hope to drink the liquid. He asked them, “What are you doing?” They answered, “We were too hungry.” Shocked and horrified by that answer, he sold the winter uniforms in the market. He bought rice with the money and fed the men once or twice, but caught during the inspection. “Right now the men are drying. I had to sell the uniforms to feed them,” he explained but they did not allow for the extenuating circumstances.

Kim Chul-seung (38) said all the leather belts distributed to the soldiers last March had disappeared completely in his unit. “(The liquid from the boiled leather belts) I even tried. It fills your stomach and you feel better. Boiled cow skin tastes pretty good. You cannot eat leather by itself but once boiled in the water, the taste of meat soaks out in the liquid and you drink it. The drums, made of pig skin or cow skin, have all gone without a trace. Even in the time of Arduous March, we did not dream of eating leather belts. But, now everything that was made of leather is cooked for food. Some soldiers can’t wait and rush to chew leather from the drums. Now is tougher than it was in the mid 90s.

He begged for anything to eat, saying, “What have we done in our previous lives to suffer like this? How resentful are those soldiers that eat even their leather belts? They were all our children, drafted to the army. They were forced to, knowing that they may die of hunger in weakened physical condition. Please find some food to feed them.”

Kkotjebis Suffocated While Trying To Pilfer Potatoes in Storage Caves
Daehongdan County of Ryanggang Province has a reputation for being a place where one can eat potatoes that cover the streets. That’s how well the potato crops do here, although it’s too high in altitude for corn to grow well. The first potato crops come in around August 20th. Right now, June and July are the most difficult time of the year for food. They store the potatoes in large storage cave over the winter. When April rolls around, workers cut off chunks of the potatoes with the bud attached and plant them. The rest of potatoes are given to the farm workers, which amounts to less than half of the original volume of the stored potatoes.

The potatoes are stored in underground chambers that can measure up to 40 meter on each side. The air is filled with the poisonous vapor from potatoes. There is a lid every three meters for ventilation and the potatoes need to be turned over to prevent rotting. It takes one whole day to fully ventilate the storage chamber, and only after that workers get in to remove potatoes that have rotted

This year, there are many kids who die by suffocation as they tried to sneak into these underground chambers and pilfer potatoes. Although there are guards they are inside the post and the kids sneak by and enter down through the lids and close them behind since they don’t want to get caught. In this state, the kids soon gag on the poisonous vapor and die due to lack of oxygen.

Kwon Soon-young (35 yrs old) says, “This past May and June, there are many kids who suffocated to death as soon as they entered these storage sheds. You have to have oxygen tanks, but obviously kids don’t have that. Probably less than one out of ten kids succeed in stealing potatoes. But the hungry kids still try out of desperation.”

“He Died While Tightly Holding Potatoes In His Hand.”
Last May, Kim Dong-suk (age 17) lost his friend when he and other Kkotjebis (homeless children) friends went to the potato storage cave. He says, “Sang-hak (friend) went inside and I was on the look out. He closed the lid after he got in, but for a long time, he didn’t come back out. There were many friends there, but none dared to get in. I myself couldn’t get in as I feared I would die.” Crying, he said, “After 15 days we were able to get him out, and we had a funeral. He died tightly holding potatoes in his hand. As I wanted to live, I didn’t even think of getting Sang-hak out, but Sang-hak died while tightly holding potatoes in his hand.” Sang-hak had homeless friends who gave him a funeral. However, many other homeless kids who died in the same way had no one that knew their name or address and their body were simply buried. They came from all over the country and they died nameless death.

Daehongdan County, Famous For Its Potatoes, Is the Gathering Site for the Kkotjebis
Because it produces a lot of potatoes, many Kkotjebis (homeless kids) gather in Daehongdan County, along the border area between Daehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, and Yeonsa County, North Hamgyong Province. The area has swamps and Suhdoosoo River(서두수강), where they can catch frogs and fish, as well as mountains where they can dig out some edible grass. This is the reason they have continuously poured into the area although authorities have tried to chase them out. As a result, there are many straw-thatched huts along the river. A police officer states that the number of Kkotjebis has rapidly grown this year. He worried that, “The Suhdoosoo River area is jammed with straw-thatched huts built by the homeless. I do not know where they are coming from. They say that the homeless kids steal potato seeds to survive but I don’t know how long they are going to survive when even farm members can’t go to work because they had noting to eat.”

Sudden Opening of Reservoir Dam Gate Drowned Kkotjebis
In Sambong District of Daehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, on June 17th, twelve Kkotjebis were drowned to death while they were fishing when Wonbong reservoir dam gate was opened suddenly. Homeless children in this area usually fish here in this season from 9 pm to 3 am. Those who were dead in this accident were children mostly from Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province.

Lee Jong-chul (18), a leader in a group of Kkotjebis, said, “If we can catch some fish, we can make some fish soup. Because we have to fish all night, we divided into a few group and took turn. But some adults approach and beat us. They are strong and they want to steal the fish we caught. So to deal with those adults, we had to send all 12 children as a group. All 12 children who were catching fish died. We did not know when the dam gate is to be open; we couldn’t do anything and they died.”

The Last Gift of Yeon-shil’s Grandma
Yeon-shil’s Grandma lives in Daehongdan County of Ryanggang Province. She lost her husband and children during the Arduous March. She is a very diligent person who busily cultivated her small plot of land and raised a chicken. Whenever a chicken managed to lay an egg, she would exchange it for corn powder among the villagers and take care of her meals that way. Because of this, she used to call the chicken her “Golden Goose.” But since the food crisis hit the whole region, she’s been suffering also. She lives deep in the mountain where there is no train station, very few cars, and no regular markets held. The food crisis had gotten worse and there came a time when she had to kill her only property, the “Golden Goose.” Even then, she didn’t eat the meat but put the chicken inside a Gimchi earthenware pot and cooked it and warmed up a little bit of watery soup to drink. Even that watery soup she had only when she couldn’t stand the hunger any longer, thinking that “When this soup runs out, there’s no more to eat and I am going to die.”

On June 21st, Grandma called over a neighborhood kid whom she used to think of as her own grandson. The kid lived with his younger sister and was having a difficult time surviving after his parents had disappeared about a year ago. She said, “Soo-myung, take this and eat,” and gave him the chicken soup with some meat still in it. The kid was only too glad to oblige and went home happy. He and his little sister gorged on the greasy chicken soup. The next morning, he went to see Grandma as he wanted to have some potatoes with her, but the chilly air in the room shocked him. The grandma, wearing the prettiest garment among her worn-out clothes, was lying silently on the floor as if sleeping. Grandma thus ended her suffering life after giving the chicken soup, too precious for her to eat, as her last gift to the neighborhood kids.

[Opinion] Starving Children Are Innocent Victims
Seventeen-year-old Sang-hak went to a potato seed storage cave with his friends to steal potatoes. He asked his friends to be on the lookout and entered the storage, but he failed to come out. He had heard that it’s difficult to breath inside the storage due to poisonous vapor. Nevertheless, he thought that it would be okay if he grabs the potatoes and get out of the storage right away. That was a miscalculation. His dead body could only be recovered 15 days later. Sang-hak was tightly holding potatoes in both hands.

In the swamps along the Suhdoosoo River, frogs were decimated because people caught every one of them to eat. They couldn’t wait for the tadpoles to mature, so they scooped the tadpoles up in a mesh dipper. Then children died from tadpole poisoning. Now toads replaced the vanished frogs. The children that thought they could eat toad just like they ate frog after roasting died of toad poisoning. In Sambong, six friends together caught toads, ate them, and all six of them died overnight.

Fourteen-year-old Soo-myoung cried for a long time because he missed the old lady next door who was taking care of him and his sister after his own parents left them to earn some money. Yeon-shil’s grandma was like his own grandmother to him and his sister. Soo-myoung said he found the old lady dead when he went to her house to give her a few potatoes he kept for dinner in return for the chicken soup. The night before grandmother gave him chicken soup with some meat in it and he ate that delicious soup with his sister. Soo-myoung and Soo-jin could not stop crying because of the shock of losing someone they trusted and depended on.

What crimes did the children commit? Being born in a poor country and starving could be a crime? These children dying out of hunger need food now. I want to ask you: Should we help these children? Or should we not help them? The children committed no crime. Why should we sacrifice these children for the fight among adults and for the sake of unjustifiable ideological battle between the South and the North Korean governments?

Some say our information is exaggerated. Others say that there is no famine because their ability to survive has improved. We truly wish that is the case. We sincerely wish that what they say is right and our information is wrong. If what they are saying is true we won’t have to make a plea which nobody is paying attention to. However, we just cannot give up because we cannot ignore the heart-breaking images of Sang-hak, who died holding potatoes in both hands and Soo-myoung and Soo-jin, who will have to live with the memory of the chicken soup the old lady next door gave them. We will not stop our cry for help on behalf of these children until we can no long speak and shout even though our plea for help cannot be heard to the closed mind of the South and North Korean authorities.

Please save these innocent children. Even saving only one child would be worthwhile. Time is running out. These children cannot wait until food can be delivered from China and the United States of America. Please join our relief effort. The starving children need to be fed. The South and North Korean authorities should work together and save the children first. Please do not let the children pay for the crimes adults have committed. The starving children committed no crime.

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

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We should never lose our focus and common sense; it is by far not good enough to conclude about the overall situation just from the observation of a few and scatterd -although tragic and avoidable- cases. Is Korea really at the brink of a famine? The governement might just fail to protect vunerable groups and we rather have to cope with partially limited or even denied food entitlements.

Would it not be better to strongly remind the (Korean)authorities of their responsability to manage better and instead of rewarding their miss-management with unneccessary relieve goods and thus enabling them to stick to the status quo. We shall very carefully think about the possible impacts of our actions before we act. (E.g. Unnecessary food aid during the last couple of years might have brought the authorities into a too comfortable situation thus they felt strong enough
to swing back imposing again more control and central planning over their country)

Foreign residents in DPRK declare unisono there were no signs of imminent shortages or hunger to see. Could it be that they are all togehter blinded?

Not only the North Korean govenrment but also we as humanists should take our responsibiliy very seriously and adapte our actions to the overriding principle: DO NO HARM

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