North Korea Today No. 174

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today 174th Edition July 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.”

(Image by Google Earth)

Residents Gather under an Overpass in Chungjin, Worrying about Kkotjebi
Miserable Shelter for Kkotjebis under a bridge in Ingok-dong, Chungjin
Kkotjebi Shelter in Sinuiju is like a War Refugee Camp
Children Eat So Much Grass Their Teeth Turn Black and Blue
The Story of an Elderly Couple from Yanji (China) who visited North Korea

Residents Gather under an Overpass in Chungjin, Worrying about Kkotjebi
Every day people gather in the shade beneath an overpass in Ranam District to take a short rest. Residents of this area of Chungjin in North Hamgyong Province regularly drop by on their way to the market, to smoke a cigarette or have a quick bite to eat. Besides the residents of Ranam District, residents of other regions also regularly rest beneath this particular overpass. The place is alive with chatter and the laughter of gathered people. The old people come to here just to exchange news when it is too hot to work in the fields. The most frequent gossip is about the Kkotjebis (homeless children) who gather just in front of them. As the place under the overpass is crowded with people, Kkotjebis also gather here. Young Kkotjebis are busy searching for travelers who have left food behind or thrown some away. It is easy to see those who are busy with picking up and eating the shells of pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds that passersby spit out. Everyone who sees this sight worries about the children, saying “What will happen in the future? No one knows how long the children can survive and what they will be in the future. Children who need to be well fed and educated under the watch of their parents are instead searching for food in the garbage. What will they be in the future!”

Miserable Shelter for Kkotjebis under a bridge in Ingok-dong, Chungjin
There is a shelter for Kkotjebis under a bridge in Ingok-dong, Chungjin. Because of the heat and severe rain of summer, Kkotjebis made a nest under the bridge. Various waste products are scattered here and there, and the air is filled with filthy odors from nearby puddles and the excreta of Kkotjebis. The waste draws countless mosquitoes and flies. It is so unsanitary that nobody wants to go near the place. The unsanitary conditions mean that Kkotjebis often fall ill. Even in the daytime, the sick children scream and roll on the ground in pain. However, no one pays attention to them.

Kkotjebi Shelter in Sinuiju is like a War Refugee Camp
The condition of a Kkotjebi (homeless children) shelter in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province is so poor that it looks like a war refugee camp. Young Kkotjebi children are dying of hunger or of disease in the shelter. Although the city collects and supplies aid materials to the shelter, it is not distributed to the children properly. Therefore, very few children are eating regularly. The food situation is a little better for the older Kkotjebi children because they are being fed for the work they do, whereas younger children are eating only one meal a day. Shin Jung-hwa (age 38) recently took her sister’s daughter out of the shelter. She heard of the terrible rumors of children dying from starvation. Although she is in a difficult situation herself, she felt so bad about the child she had to take her out of the place. The child herself was nothing but bones and looked to be close to death. The child said four children died while she was there, they were so young they put the bodies in sacks when they buried them.

Children Eat So Much Grass Their Teeth Turn Black and Blue
The hardship of hunger is unbearable for children in the infertile land of Kangwon Province. The children follow their parents to the mountains, to the fields, and to the river to collect things that are edible in order to survive. It goes without saying that they do not go to school. There are no statistics available which describe all of Kangwon Province, but the school attendance rate is extremely low in the countryside, while the attendance rate is below fifty percent in many schools in the city. As children survive on grass porridge three times a day, many cannot even open their eyes properly because their face and the area surrounding the eyes has swollen. The eyes become turgid with blood as well. Due to the grass diet, their teeth turn a blackish grass color, which cannot be removed no matter how hard they brush their teeth. Even the teachers are going to the mountains to collect grass in order to survive. Therefore, the education system in the countryside of Kangwon Province is almost at a stand still.

The Story of an Elderly Couple from Yanji (China) who visited North Korea
An elderly couple from Yanji who toured Pyongyang, Kaesong, Panmunjum(판문점), and Myohyang Mountain described what they felt about their journey.

“Our children collected money for us so that we could visit our motherland where our ancestors are buried while we are still physically able to go. We were happy as we came to our motherland, which we always wished to visit before we die. However, our happiness turned into regret as we entered the North Korean territory. There were so many cautionary instructions such as “Do not take pictures at random anywhere, surrender letters or phone numbers if searching for relatives or friends, South Korean made goods are prohibited, do not contact or talk with people, especially never speak about what goes on in South Korea, and try not to leave the hotel on your own or explore on your own.” All the pleasure of visiting tourist attractions in the motherland was overshadowed by worry and feelings of unease.

We went to Pyongyang first. The hotel where we were staying seemed to be less than half full. The facilities in the guestroom were simple and modest, and smiling faces were hard to find among the guides or employees. We tried to take a shower after dinner, but the water cut off after a few minutes. We could not even watch television in the evening because of the nightly power outages. We tried to have conversations with people in the same tourist group, but we were told to be careful because there is a wiretapping device in the guestroom. Therefore, we could not share the excitement of visiting our motherland with others.

We got up in the morning and looked out the window. There were a lot of people trying to get on the streetcars or on a bus during the morning rush hour. Some streetcars or buses passed by without stopping because there were too many passengers, and I could see people shouting out of frustration. Some streetcars started with the rear door open because people kept getting on board. People who watched the scene were afraid that there would be an accident.

We could see some people in small groups carrying bundles or backpacks on our way from Pyongyang to Panmunjum. It looked like they were carrying wild vegetables or potatoes. They were mostly women and the backpacks seemed too heavy compared to their body size. Because it was a hot summer day, everyone’s clothes were wet with sweat and their faces were perspiring. The sign of suffering was evident in their faces.

We could see many teenagers carrying packages, backpacks, or bundle of woods in Kaesong city as well. Every so often some children would zoom by on bikes and add some liveliness to the view. Nevertheless, as we moved from Kaesong city center to the outskirt of the city, there were countless children sitting in front of houses or staying at home during the school hours, making me wonder how many children go to school.

At Panmunjum, we felt sorry for the soldiers of the People’s Army who were on guard facing the soldiers of South Korea, because their uniforms looked shabby. The colors of their shoes, belts, and clothes were faded from years of use. We understand that they are having economic difficulties. However, we felt that they could have provided new uniforms at least to those soldiers so that they could look good in front of the South Korean soldiers.

We saw many coal-burning cars that People’s Army uses on our way back from Panmunjum to Pyongyang. We noticed that the car we saw in the morning was still at the same spot, probably because it had broken down with some mechanical problem.

On our way from Myohyang Mountain to Pyongyang, we saw only 2-3 cars coming from the opposite direction during the half-day period. There was no monk in Myohyang Mountain and I was heartbroken to see many severely damaged relics exposed to the rain and wind. The Myohyang Mountain shop and foreigner’s shop did not carry many local souvenirs and the prices were high. The most regrettable thing during this tour was the fact that we did not have an opportunity to meet fellow North Korean people and have conversations with them. Nevertheless, we are pleased to have someone to talk to before we go back home. We would be very happy if our motherland could overcome its economic hardships and become a developed country just like South Korea. We hope that the wall that is dividing the North and South Korea will soon be demolished.

The customary practice for Koreans living overseas visiting North Korea is to go on a prearranged guided tour with people from the Unification Bureau of the Worker’s Party (통일전선부)or the Overseas Korean Reception Bureau(해외동포영접국). However, according to this elderly couple, their tour was not as rigidly controlled. There were some restrictions during the tour, but they relaxed during the return journey. Therefore, although we were not able to talk with the residents, we could tell someone we met by accident our feelings about the tour before we return home. The elderly couple summarized their feelings about their visit by saying, “The poverty in our motherland is not a problem because we believe that the economic conditions will improve in the future. However, it is frustrating to see them living in such a closed society. The whole world is changing every day. It is regrettable to see that things are standing still only in this country.”

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