GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 332 February 2010

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.]
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[Hot Topics]
The Central Party says, “Reopen the market as it used to be. No questions asked.”
Commoners Suffer because of Mistakes made by Economy Leaders, Inmin (People) Unit Meeting, Sinuiju

[Food]
In Sinuiju, the Government Distributes the Relief Provisions to Save the Poor

[Economy]
Food Distribution Price Readjusted, but Meaningless because there is no Distribution
Despite the Price Cap, the Frozen Market does not Respond

[Politics]
A Woman Arrested by the Security Department for saying “National policy went too far.”
Arrested Pyongsung Female Border Crossers to China Talked about Everyday

[Society]
Many who Died from Hunger had Pulmonary Tuberculosis
Frustration at 2.16 Holiday without Provision in Chungjin, Gimchaek Steel Mill
No mood to Celebrate Holidays
Construction Continues on a Holiday in Hoeryong City
Same Amount of Electricity Given During New Year Celebration in Sinuiju

[Women/Children/Education]
Number of kkotjebi (street kids) Keeps Increasing in Wonsan

[Accidents]
Fire Accident in Osandong, Hoeryong City

[Investigative Reports]
Background to Cabinet Prime Minister’s Apology

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[Hot Topics]
The Central Party says, “Reopen the market as it used to be. No questions asked.”
The Central Party Committee permitted the reopening of markets after it examined the report from the Economic Policy Investigation Bureau of the Central Party regarding the food situation and the conditions of residents across the country. The statement said, “Open all markets without any conditions as they used to be until the food distribution from the central government improves.” The statement also informed every law enforcement authority about “no restrictions or arrests regarding food-related circumstances.” Following the announcement, the Peoples’ Police Agency issued a special order to every police station in each province, city and military security office. “No control should be exercised over markets other than over illegal products. There should especially be no control over food.” The order included an instruction, “The police should not get into any altercation or provoke a quarrel with merchants. The police should also try to reconcile the merchants without getting involved in their arguments or arresting them.”

Commoners Suffer because of Mistakes made by Economy Leaders, Inmin (People) Unit Meeting, Sinuiju
In the morning of February 7, Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, each inmin (people) unit in each district office held a meeting in which the topic was “With a sincere mind and optimistic view, each of us should be actively engaged in the battle to improve peoples’ lives.” After the currency exchange reform was announced, residents said, “The mistakes made by some economic leaders created unstable prices and insecure food situations, which brought suffering to peoples’ lives and led to economic trouble as well.” Therefore, it was announced that the price of food and necessities would be lowered as much as possible. In addition, the police said that they would not control food sales in markets until the lives of people became stable. They would also lift the ban of food outflow in each city and county. As a result, residents can sell food in markets openly as they used to do and go out to country farms to get food.

[Food]
In Sinuiju, the Government Distributes the Relief Provisions to Save the Poor

In Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province, the government expanded the investigation of actual food conditions of the residents to other villages because of a rapid increase in number of people who died of hunger in Soo Moon village. The results of the investigation showed that many households did not have grain at all, so the government distributed about 5kg to 25kg of the relief provisions to each neighborhood unit. However, there is no food rationing at all for the general population. The residents in Sinuiju clamored that “we can barely see grain now. I hope there would be food rationing by the February 16th holiday.”

The food crisis occurs in workplaces as well. Special institutions carried out full food rationing for their workers and households with mixed rice, corn, and beans, but regular workplaces failed to secure provisions to do the food rationing. For example, teachers in the Sinuiju University of Medicine still do not have food rationing this year. Workers in towel factories received some rice imported from China in December and January for their food rationing, but the amount is still unreasonably small. Gye-soon Lee (alias), who lives in South Sinuiju, said that eating is the most difficult problem. He said, “One of my neighbors has nine family members, but none of them receives food rationing. It is rare for my neighbors to eat small amounts (1.5kg) of rice. About half of my neighbors in our apartment complex eat corn noodles.” The Sinuiju City Party ordered that all confiscated foods after the currency exchange measure was announced must be returned to the original owners, but the police officers found it hard to implement the measure. A police officer said that there is no food left to give back. He said, “How foolish is it to believe that there are still confiscated provisions left? All of them were gone as soon as they came in.”

[Economy]
Food Distribution Price Readjusted, but Meaningless because there is no Distribution

Food distribution prices have been readjusted as follows: per kg basis, 24-25 won for rice, 9 won for corn, 13 won for crushed maize, and 10 won for corn noodle. It is reported that the Central Party recognized the reality of severe food crisis experienced by people so they wanted to stabilize people’s lives as quickly as possible by at least redefining and readjusting the food prices. Readjusted food prices are significantly lower than the current sales prices, but it is meaningless because there is no food distribution. Even in South Pyongan Province, Hwanghae Province, and South Hamgyong Province, which are the granaries of the country, people could not receive food distribution. The food shortages in inner regions aggravated because they had to meet the planned army provisions despite the poor harvest in last year. At present, only public enterprises affiliated with military and military families receive food distribution. Even for them, except for certain special classes, they suffer from the food shortages due to increasing food leakages during the food transportation and the class standing. Except for them, there is no food rationing to the general population.

Despite the Price Cap, the Frozen Market does not Respond
The Central Party nationally posted the price cap of more than 100 goods in each market. However, goods are actually sold in much higher prices despite the city and party officials’ vigilant efforts to enforce the Central Party’s instruction. In addition, since the goods are in short supply due to illiquid trades since the ban on the market operations, they even allow sellers selling previously unsold or defective goods. At present, more and more market transactions use foreign currencies such as Chinese Yuan and American Dollar instead of using the new domestic currency. The value of the new currency keeps on falling. Even if the price cap is lower than the current sales price, people still cannot afford to buy. The situation is not much different in government procurement stores; they also have difficulties selling goods because goods are in short supply and the prices are too expensive for goods entrusted by individual sellers. In Pyongsung, there are many government procurement stores that cannot even achieve 10% of the planned sales. Managers of some the government procurement stores request refunds in exchange for entrusted goods to the individual sellers because “they are too expensive to sell.” At present, individual sellers also do not have money so they respond that “just keep them there until sold.” Goods are still poorly circulated due to the chilled commerce, and the people also are having difficulties with buying foods since they are not earning money in their businesses. Since the enactment of the currency exchange measure, the market was only crowded when the government gave the relief money to the people so that they came out to buy household goods. Now, it is rare to find people who come to the market to buy something.

[Politics]
A Woman Arrested by the Security Department for saying “National policy went too far”

In Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province, there was an incident where a female merchant in Soonam market was accused of being a political offender for what was considered an inappropriate statement regarding the difficulty in trading caused by the currency revaluation. The female merchant has not been seen since she was called to the security department on February 3 after saying that people do not make purchases after the national measure because the prices are too high, and the high prices and slow business have made life even more difficult. Fellow merchants thought (the authorities) arrested her as an example to warn people to watch their words saying, “she thoughtlessly criticized the government, and (the authorities) are trying to track down reactionary words and handle this incident as treason as the first example.”

Arrested Pyongsung Female Border Crossers to China Talked about Everyday
In Jurye dong, Pyongsung City, South Pyongan Province, the story about the females arrested after crossing the border comes up in daily conversation. Kim Myonggeum (alias) from Jurye dong was arrested on January 20, two days after she crossed the border to China with the help of a relative. As her food ran out and had to skip meals frequently after the currency revaluation, she accepted a suggestion from a relative to be introduced to a man in China. Hearing that even dogs eat steamed white rice in China, the woman managed to borrow some money and went to Hoeryong. However, she hesitated because she had to pay too much money to cross the river. Eventually she crossed the river, only to be caught in two days. About 40 women and families have returned to Pyongsung for similar reasons. All of them were deported to a rural village near Pyongsung on the afternoon of January 31. People who watched them leaving to be exiled reported, “It appeared that they have been beaten so much that even walking was painful for them.”

[Society]
Many who Died from Hunger had Pulmonary Tuberculosis

According to the health department, most of those who died of starvation had pulmonary tuberculosis. Those who lived below the poverty line tended to have more cases of pulmonary tuberculosis, common cold, and influenza (flu) that were the cause of death. The death toll had reached 47,000 as of January 22nd based on the collected reports from each city and county. It is speculated that there are more people with pulmonary tuberculosis who haven't been diagnosed. The central party requested drugs for tuberculosis from the overseas enterprises. The medicines for tuberculosis were offered by a pharmaceutical company in Hong Kong. However, it has been put on hold due to a delayed process in China.

Frustration at 2.16 Holiday without Provision in Chungjin, Gimchaek Steel Mill
The workers of Gimchaek steel mill in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province, expected some provision. But it turned out that no provision was distributed, which disappointed them. They complained that, "No provision was distributed even on the birthday of Kim Jung-Il. How could we survive? Is our county going to be bankrupt? How would this country remain without its people?" Some of the workers in Gimchaek steel mill were unable to purchase foodstuff to cerebrate the New Year holiday. Nearly every household barely survived with only two meals per day. In the meantime, Sungjin steel mill in Gimchaek City, North Hamgyong Province provided workers with a bottle of alcohol, 1,500g of wheat flour and 200g of corn oil.

No Mood to Celebrate Holidays
Chungjin market was quiet, with few people on the day before the New Year holiday. People were in no mood to celebrate the New Year holiday. The lack of enthusiasm about the New Year holiday can be attributed to the fact that residents barely survived because of the governments’ failure to distribute provisions. Many had tried to eat meat soup to celebrate the holiday even if they couldn't afford it, so meat used to sell relatively well. However, it was difficult to sell 10 kg of beef this year. Residents who used to purchase 1kg of pork, however, rarely buy even 500g of pork. Those who could afford it purchased at most 1kg of pork this year because of the increased meat price due to inflation and economic distress.

Construction Continues on a Holiday in Hoeryong City
The government criticized Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, for delay in the completion of construction of kitchens. Therefore, to speed up work, the construction continued even during the holidays. The soldiers from the Army Corps of Engineers and Youth Special Labor Brigade mobilized to work took only the New Year holiday off and resumed their work on the 15th. Soldiers who had family were given beef stew, white rice, tofu soup, and 200g of alcohol at least one meal a day. The rest of the soldiers in low ranks were given a mix of corn and white rice in the ratio of 7 to 3 along with cabbage soup. The workers claimed staying on the construction site was harder than having the holidays taken away. Sleeping on the floors with no heating or thick blankets, they could not fall back asleep after 2 -3 am due to the freezing weather. Before, they could at least get by with help from the city council or factories. However, they do not even have that support anymore.

Same Amount of Electricity Given During New Year Celebration in Sinuiju
In Sinuiju, Northern Pyongan Province, no special electricity distribution took place during the New Year celebration. Normally, electricity runs between 6am -7am in the morning and between 9pm to 11pm at night. However, even during the holidays, electricity only came on around the same time, between 7pm-9pm or 9pm-11pm and no more. The citizens of Sinuiju finished their meals according to that time and spent the rest of the holiday in a dark room talking with family. One University student on Sinuiju claimed that he received 1kg of pork for 1000 NKW, which is cheaper than the usual market price of 1,200 NKW. Some affluent families had a nice holiday gathering with beef stew, but other families with no money could barely enjoy the New Year. Life is not easy for these poor families to begin with, but they expressed that they are becoming even more hopeless during the holidays.

[Women/Children/Education]
Number of kkotjebi (street kids) Keeps Increasing in Wonsan

The authorities of Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, are experiencing difficulties dealing with increasing number of kkotjebis (street kids) in train stations, bus stops, and other public places. One worker in Wonsan said that 70 or more street children are showing up at restaurants and either begging for food or stealing it from others. With so many street children there is not enough room in the homeless shelters for all of them and unfortunately, the number is increasing. The majority of the children are from the ages of 9 to 13, and the number of younger children is slowly increasing.

[Accidents]
Fire Accident in Osandong, Hoeryong City
On February 13th at 11:00pm, a fire began at Mr. Kim’s home on the 3rd floor in Hoeryong City, Osandong, North Hamgyong Province. Kim’s children jumped out off the back porch with fortunately no injuries, while Mr. Kim was burned when he tried to take his money from the closet, leaving him with 3rd degree burns. He was quickly taken to a hospital but his life was already in critical condition. The fire occurred when Kim’s gasoline container accidentally caught on fire. By the time the fire department got there it was too late to do anything. The fire was almost out and it had affected other homes around it. There are a lot of damages done, but there is no compensation plan for this situation.

[Investigative Reports]
Background to Cabinet Prime Minister’s Apology
In early February, the cabinet minister made a public apology at a plenary meeting with the heads of Neighborhood Unit and People’s council officials that “From the time currency exchange until early New Year, prices of goods at state-run stores were incorrectly set and that caused confusion and instability in people’s lives.” The cabinet minister’s statement was an official announcement on the part of North Korean authorities asking for people’s understanding on societal confusion caused by currency exchange.

1. The Background to the Statement: Commotions on the part of provincial party officials and people
The series of new economic measures such as prohibition of foreign currency after currency revaluation and closure of general market can be viewed as an attempt to regress toward centralized planned economic system. This is putting a break in a type of decentralized economy where provincial parties established on their own after going through the Arduous March in the 1990s. Provincial parties could not simply sit and watch their own people starving, so they allowed schools, hospitals, and enterprises to do small patch farming and overlooked people trading in the market as well. They enforced crackdowns whenever the Central Party intervened, but all for the sake of a formality. As a result of allowing people to make a living with their own effort, the provincial economy became stable as well. Since the 7.1 economic measures in 2002, provincial economy continued to be strong and in the name of practical socialism, production and distribution in each factory and enterprise became market driven. However, the new economic measure rapidly deteriorated people’s lives and the provincial party official who relied on them also took the blow. This is the situation where people’s and officials’ ideological commotion should be of concern. Since the failure of normalization attempt in October 2005, the Central Party’s control has been strengthened through closure of market, ban on patch farming, ideological inspection of provincial party officials and import-export officials. Nevertheless, considering the fact that the power of central control has been weakened, the commotion among provincial party officials and people is a serious problem for the Central Party. Moreover, under the current situation of serious food shortage not during the time of spring lean season, the commotion in people’s mind is serious enough to cause a feeling of crisis on the part of the Central Party.

2. Questions on the part of Provincial Officials
There was a need for the Central Party to listen to problems of provincial officials and to impart confidence to them. The provincial officials questioned on two major issues in the meeting as well.
First, was that really a well thought-out measure?
The provincial party officials focused on the issue of the feasibility of the centralized supply system after closing the markets. They have the suspicion that deterioration of people’s livelihood and the ensuing societal chaos was because the cabinet closed markets without sufficient prior preparation.
Second, is distribution of food possible?
The question is whether distribution is really possible. Not receiving distribution for a long time resulted in the number of people dying of starvation each area and people’s reaction is getting stronger. Therefore, the provincial party is under enormous pressure. If things go wrong, there is a possibility of recurrence of tragic food shortage that happened in the middle of 1990s. Also, breakout of starvation among poor people in urban area leading to social unrest cannot be ruled out. This is a burden to the provincial party which is responsible for maintaining the control of regional area. In the case of Pyongyang, the rationing system will become normalized, but the food situation is uncertain in the Province. As such, their agony deepens.

3.The Central Party’s Position: “We admit the confusion, but the direction is right.”
The position of the Central Party is that they admit the rapid deterioration of people’s livelihood and the confusion, but the direction of the new economic measures was right. The Cabinet Prime Minister, Kim Young-il said in the meeting, “There was an element of radical enforcement, but the direction was right. We can resolve the problems soon. So, please be more patient.” It was a plea for understanding and trust for the Party because they will soon alleviate the food problem and revitalize the goods supply system. Previously, their attitude was “once the Party makes a decision it will be carried out.” Now, the new attitude is that of solacing people’s sentiments, saying “The Party’s direction is right. Please be more patient and follow our direction.” Despite such unprecedented effort, the Central Party is unable to regain the trust of provincial party officials and people who did not receive clear answers to the issues of food distribution and securing of food.

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