GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 337 March 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]
Business in Pyongsung Has Been Hit the Hardest Due to the Blocking of International Trade
Starvation in a Cosmetics Manufacturing Factory in Sinuiju
Order to "Only Import Rice" Received with Much Disagreement

[Food]
Number of Households Dying of Hunger in Chungjin Rapidly Increasing
Gimchaek Steel Mill Makes Food Distribution to Workers in March

[Economy]
Foreign Currency Rate Drops Temporarily Since the Second Week of March
Merchants at Soonam Market Challenge Market Control
Only Police Officers are Gained by Strict Control of the Market

[Politics]
Hoeryong, “Do not roam around unnecessarily after 7pm”
ChungJin, Helpless at the Continuous Occurrence of Murder Cases

[Society]
“Do Not Get food from Someone Else’s House”
The Poor Need Help, but Everyone is in the Same Situation

[Women/Children/Education]
Many Children Abandoned in front of Hamheung City Orphanage

[Accidents]
Two Pyongyang Residents Murdered at Wonsan Station

[Investigative Report]
Four Reasons Causing Deaths by Starvation in 2010


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[Hot Topics]
Business in Pyongsung Has Been Hit the Hardest Due to the Blocking of International Trade
After the ban of the foreign currency use was implemented across the country in January, business in Pyongsung has been hit the hardest due to the sharp falls in the amount of imports to Sinuiju. Those who maintained their livelihood after the closure of the Pyongsung market last June cannot do business anymore because they have nothing to sell. Pyongsung has been functioning as a wholesale market that supplies imports across the country. However, after the new ban, no products were available in Pyongsung, making the residents suffer from difficult livelihoods. Because Pyongsung did not manufacture its own products, it has been developed as a wholesale market in which the products from Sinuiju or Pyongyang are distributed across the country. The ban on foreign currency use and the rising prices of imports are exacerbating the situation, leading to an increase in starvation. One Pyongsung executive official estimated that a great number of people must have starved to death in Soonchun, Dukchun, and Pyongsung combined.

Starvation in a Cosmetics Manufacturing Factory in Sinuiju
The biggest cosmetics manufacturing factory in North Korea is located in Sinuiju, North Hamgyong Province, and has a great number of workers as such. The food distribution at the factory was not usually stable. However, the distribution was discontinued after the currency reform, which has resulted in starvation among the workers. The Neighborhood Unit asked the community to help those suffering with food shortage. However, the residents coldly responded to the request. They explicitly expressed their anger toward the head of the Unit by saying, “Even we have nothing to eat right now. How can we help others in these hard times?”

Order to "Only Import Rice" Received with Much Disagreement
Sinuiju customs authority and party officials are currently conducting an inspection. Due to the shortage of rice, the country has been instructed to ban imports of fruit and to only allow strategic materials for manufactured goods to be brought into the country. They implemented this measure to make food import a number one priority. The citizens are saying this order is “nonsense.” Kim Jae Kook (alias), a wholesale dealer from Pyongsung said, "We need other goods besides rice to keep the market open. If rice is only imported, it won't help the market." Cho Bong Il (alias) from Pyongyang also had a similar opinion. "(Trade) businesses are searching for rice in Dandong, China, but there is no hope. In the past, Chinese immigrants went to China and brought rice back on credit, but now they are not allowed to do this. No one wants to sell things on credit. We need other goods in the market so that people will bring out their rice. It’s difficult enough as it is to import any goods, so restricting the import to rice is ridiculous.”

[Food]
Number of Households Dying of Hunger in Chungjin Rapidly Increasing
Stricken by hunger, the number of households that cannot even manage to eat an ounce of soup is rapidly increasing in Chungjin City, North Hamgyong Province. Chungjin City estimated that since February, people have been dying of hunger in all the districts. Death tolls have reached highs of 20 a day and the number of households that do not have anything to eat continues to increase. In enterprises that employ 350 to 500 workers, 50 to 60 laborers on average are absent due to starvation. Despite the severity of the current food crisis and the significant impact it has on the operation of these enterprises, not enough measures are being taken on part of these businesses.

Gimchaek Steel Mill Makes Food Distribution to Workers in March
The Gimchaek Steel Mill in the North Hamgyong Province was finally able to make the food distribution for March. On the first two days of March, before Chairman Kim Jong-Il began his site visit, the rations were distributed over two days. The steel mill put in a lot of effort to distribute the rations. There was a significant amount of loss occurred in transporting food, but the mill was able to give the ration for the first and last ten days of the month to the laborers. However, the report that the rations were normally distributed was a false report. The only rations that were given out were lunches for laborers with physical work such as the steel mill workers. Other than soups prepared with about four to five pieces of pork, no other meals were distributed. Despite this, reports went out saying that normal rations of food were being given out, putting the laborers in low spirits. Currently, even with the rations for March having been distributed, at least seven to ten people per company are still unable to go to work.

[Economy]
Foreign Currency Rate Drops Temporarily Since the Second Week of March
The foreign currency rate has been fluctuating all the time these days, but recently it went down temporarily since the second week of March. In Pyongsung of South Pyongan Province, the rate was 1,630 won for 1 US dollar in the evening of March 11th; it went down to 1,450 won the next day, and went down even further to 1,400 won on 13th. Although the downtrend did not last as the rate went up to 1,550 won on that evening, the severe fluctuation, which went up to 1,650 won in the early March, is temporarily stopped. In addition, 1 yuan was dropped from 240 won to around 200 won.

Merchants at Soonam Market Challenge Market Control
Price regulations on market good have started to be enforced in Soonam Market in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province in light of continued price instability. However, the merchants are showing greater resistance to the regulations. On March 11th and 12th, regulators cracked down on merchants selling rice at "very high" prices; however, they were met with anger where the merchants raised their voices protesting that rice was not supposed to be controlled. In response to this, the Safety Bureau took drastic measures in banning resistant merchants from selling their goods at all, effectively punishing merchants selling sugar, side dishes and other processed foods.

Only Police Officers Are Gained by Strict Control of the Market
The Soonam market in Chungjin was regulated on 11th and 12th. On 13th, an administrative officer picked up a megaphone in front of the market and warned that “people should enter the market only when it opens in the afternoon and the peddlers who are not allowed to use the sales booth cannot sell goods in the market”. On this day, 20 peddlers who were not supposed to sell goods inside of the market were caught as they spread goods and sold them around the market. After each is fined with 500 won, the regulated goods are supposed to be returned back according to the rules, but the police officers are pocketing some of them. On 14th, Joo Mi-Young (alias) was caught while she was peddling food, and approximately 40 kilograms of rice, 20 kilograms of glutinous rice, and 40 kilograms of crushed maize were confiscated. Later, she received them back and checked them to find out about 5 kilograms of both rice and glutinous rice were disappeared. She went to a police officer to ask about it, but only to be hurled vulgar abuses, such as “this OOOOO vixen dares to run amok here”. This type of case in which Ms. Joo had experienced occurs to 30-40 people per day on average, and if one includes peddlers who came from local regions, sometimes it occurs to more than 50 people. Once a violation is discovered upon inspection, a fine is imposed and a report is made, but if they receive 40 cases, they report about 20 cases only to the superior authority. Then they siphon off the fines and divide them among themselves. In such a way, the police officers are earning 5,000 to 10,000 won per day on average. If the siphoned commodities are added here, a daily earning of police officers is pretty substantial. People are just infuriated at this news.

[Politics]
Hoeryong, “Do not roam around unnecessarily after 7pm”
The Security Bureau of Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province announced residents through the heads of Neighborhood Unit to restrict outdoor activities after 7 pm in response to increasing crimes of robbery and murder. According to the Security Bureau’s announcement, robbers specializing in fraud from Chung-Jin infiltrated to the city, so residents should take precautions by refraining from roaming around and checking the doors. The Bureau official also emphasized that those who offer accommodation to non-resident relatives and strangers for money will be punished by being sent to the reeducation center.

ChungJin, Helpless at the Continuous Occurrence of Murder Cases
The Security Bureau of Chungjin, North Hamgyong is bogged down with the rapidly increasing robbery and murder cases on top of the extreme poverty rate. Around 9p.m. on March 4th, a murder occurred in Songpyung district. Myung-Chul Kim of Nam-Hyang Town, Po Hang District was discovered dead, beaten hard on the head. According to his family, Mr. Kim left home on his bike and the missing bicycle seems to indicate it has been stolen. Although the police officers of the Security Bureau of Songpyung District have issued warrants to catch the murderer and started investigation and interviewed ex-convicts in the area, there has been no progress. Furthermore, due to the inundation of murder cases, there are many cases that are left untouched. As they recognize lack of manpower as the cause of this problem, the Security Bureau of North Hamgyong is looking for solutions with which to increase the number of patrol officers per area as well as adding more patrol units.

[Society]
“Do Not Get food from Someone Else’s House”

Jeoung-hee Lee (alias) is a middle school teacher living in Soonchun, South Pyongan Province. Seeing that school attendance has been decreasing due to food shortages, she took a simple survey in her class, asking her students to raise their hands if they eat porridge at home for sustenance. Half of the class raised their hands. Lee said that she urged her students to never beg for food at someone else’s household during a time of crisis. She taught her students that it is now unscrupulous for one to even eat at a close friend’s house. Lee said “although it is meant to be a joke, there is a saying that men nowadays may drink liquor at their friend’s house, but not eat a grain,” and reflected on the direness of the food shortages.

The Poor Need Help, but Everyone is in the Same Situation
The heads of the neighborhood unit are having troubles as the national government ordered to help the poor. They complain "Everyone is on the same boat. Who can help whom? We take all the blame from people because we have to urge people to contribute to help the poor." Han Sun-wha (alias), the head of the neighborhood unit in Soonchun City, South Pyongan Province, said that she feels uncomfortable by the fact that she is in charge of collecting non-tax payment given that most households are poor. Regarding the situation of her neighbors, she comments as follows:

"There is one of the poorest families in my neighborhood whose head of the household died last night. He had starved for many days and died from hunger. Officers were shocked with how poor they were when they visited the family. The household is so poor that their daughter could not visit them after giving birth. She instead survived with boiled corn. At the village office morning meeting, the officer ordered to provide 80Kg of rice and some coal to the family. We also confronted the officer, 'We have nothing to give away. How could we manage to survive if we continue to help the poor? We'd better let them find the way to survive by themselves. We do not have enough food for ourselves. How could we help others?' Central party officials give orders to village office, and the village officer to the head of the neighborhood unit. However, the head of the unit cannot help but doing nothing because they have nothing. Those who died recently did not have any health problem. They just died from hunger. There is no way to help the poor as we are all in the same situation. The other day, we helped the poor by providing 5Kg of crushed maize, but they kept expecting more help later. It is like filling a bottomless jar. How could we keep helping others in this situation? I helped them even though I was in a bad situation as well. I felt bad when they asked us more help. I would rather quit the position as the head of the neighborhood unit."

[Women/Children/Education]
Many Children Abandoned in front of Hamheung City Orphanage
The orphanage of Hamheung City in South Hamgyong Province has seen a rise in the number of women who want to leave their child. The orphanage says that although they understand the mothers’ dire situation, due to the food shortage the institution cannot take care of the additional children, some of whom are infants or toddlers. The orphanage accepted seven infants in the last month already and the number of applicants continues to increase. The orphanage began to insist that mothers not leave their young children, saying “We cannot take infants.” Since starting the strict policy of refusing to accept young children, mothers have begun leaving their babies in front of the orphanage without entering the building. Between mid-February and early March, nine babies have been abandoned in this fashion. Older children are becoming kkotjebis, homeless young people who have no choice but to beg and try to live on their own. Beginning in January, the number of Kkotjebis near Chupyong Market began to increase. As of the end of March, there are around 30 such homeless children.

[Accidents]
Two Pyongyang Residents Murdered at Wonsan Station

On the night of February 26th, a man and a woman from Pyongyang were murdered in front of an outdoor restaurant at Wonsan Station in Kangwon Province. The man was killed immediately after being deeply stabbed with a knife and the woman died two hours after she had been rushed to the hospital. Investigation has shown that the victims were merchants who sold roll films and picture printing papers, and were likely to have been robbed of approximately three thousand dollars worth of merchandise. The local safety bureau is currently looking for eyewitnesses, and at the same time investigating people who had contact with the victims, thinking it might be possible for an acquaintance to have committed the crime. However, the case has yet to be solved.

[Investigative Report]
Four Reasons Causing Deaths by Starvation in 2010
North Korea is undergoing a difficult period this year with food shortages and a lack of resources, unstable prices caused by excessive inflation, and soaring crime rates, especially robbery and murders. The most troublesome issue is that people are dying from starvation even before the lean spring season begins. Why is this happening? This report aims to identify the reasons and summarize them in four major points.

1. Ban on small plot farming and trade
The first reason causing starvation among North Koreans is the continued ban on small land patch farming and peddling activities. Since the Arduous March, city workers managed to survive without a salary and a food distribution system by cultivating small land patches for private farming or conducting small scale peddling. As they were able to support themselves without government help, the government began confiscating private land and tried to restrict trade, citing the need to control workers who no longer went to their employment sites. In 2005, the government announced that it would start food distribution again, but in 2006 it confiscated small farm land patches and prohibited private six-month farming in 2007. The ban on private farming was not easy to enforce, but it continued throughout 2008 and 2009.

The ban on peddling and markets continued in the same manner. The government introduced an age restriction on peddlers in 2007 and expanded the ban on markets from last year, exemplified by the closure of the Pyongsung market. Moreover, the 150-day battle was extended into another 100-day battle, restricting the market and private farming by mobilizing people to serve in various labor stations. City dwellers survived by small private farming and trading, but all such activities were prohibited.

Households with some cash managed to survive, but poor households ran out of food as early as June and July 2009. On top of this, the currency reform exacerbated the situation, pushing the middle class and traders with capital into poverty. Everybody suffered from the situation, and nobody was selling food in the market. Food became scarcer, and death from starvation spread nationwide starting with the poorest households.

2. Farmers with cash withholding rice from the market
Second, cash was distributed to farmers, but there was still no food distribution to workers in cities. Farmers encountered great difficulties because of disastrous floods in 2006 and 2007. As a result, many farmers in rural areas died while others suffered from diseases and malnutrition in 2008.

By distributing 15,000 NK won per person to farmers, the government tried to raise their living standards. However, this had negative consequences in the rice market. Farmers used to sell in the market some of their food rations they received after the harvest to buy some necessities. This year, however, farmers did not have to sell their food in the market thanks to the cash they received after the currency reform. Now that they have free cash to buy items they need, there was no reason for them to sell scarce food. This explains why there is no food at all to be traded in the city. The cash distribution helped farmers who did not have money to buy necessities, but the consequence is the market imbalance that has hurt city workers disproportionately.

3. No fertilizer and discontinued foreign aid
The third reason is the discontinuance of foreign aid and a low agricultural yield caused by a lack of fertilizer and bad weather conditions. After the Arduous March, North Korea received hundreds of thousand tons of foreign rice and 300,000 to 400,000 tons of fertilizer from South Korea. If the fertilizer received from China and Russia is counted along with the supply the North government bought itself, the North had over 800,000 tons of fertilizer every year.

However, the newly inaugurated Lee Myung-bak administration in South Korea in 2008 suspended its fertilizer aid to the North, which greatly affected North Korea’s agriculture. The North was dependent on the South’s fertilizer aid, and now it could not fill the gap with its own fertilizer production. The North tried to distribute whatever it managed to collect from human manure and green scrap, but such supplies did not help much. Moreover, the cold spell last spring delayed the sowing season, and the summer drought culminated in a much lower yield than the 2008 level. Discontinued food aid from South Korea and the U.S. and a reduction in international food aid exacerbated the food supply.

4. The currency reform accelerated the rate of death by starvation
Finally, the recent currency reform can be seen as the direct cause of all of these problems. Even without the reform, widespread hunger and deaths from starvation was anticipated. The currency reform triggered starvation deaths earlier and contributed to its spread across the nation. It worsened serious problems so that there is no other way out of this situation unless a special measure is implemented.

Park Nam-gi, Minister of National Planning and Financial Affairs, advocated the currency reform following his analysis of national reports from all regions. He concluded that the country had sufficient food stock and ration materials for three years. The North’s official estimate of last year’s agricultural yield is four million tons. However, this was a flawed estimate because it was based on false reports in the first place. Officials in agriculture understand that the true yield of last year was much lower than the estimate.

The four points outlined above illustrate that the situation in North Korea is reaching a boiling point. The desperate food situation in North Korea is causing people to turn their backs on the government and threatens to become dangerous. Social disorder with increasing rates of murder, robbery, and collective protest is also on the rise. The North Korean authorities should reflect on their problems closely and find solutions quickly.

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