GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 341 June 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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“The grass porridge season is back.” - Starting of Spring Lean Season in its Full-swing Puts Farmers at Hightened Risk of Death by Starvation
The Starvation Crisis in Big Cities Spreading Out to Farming Areas
Farm All-out Mobilization Troubled due to Absence of Starved Farmers
14 Residents of Hoeryong Nursing Home Died of Starvation
More than One-Third of all Residents in Chungjin City Live Daily on Watery Gruel
Seriousness of Coal Miners’ Starvation Reported Several Times as “No. 1 Report”, Woonjun County, North Pyongan Province
[Editorial]
You can give up on providing food, but you can’t give up on people’s lives also.
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“The grass porridge season is back.” - Starting of Spring Lean Season in its Full-swing puts Farmers at Hightened Risk of Death by Starvation
Now it is the season for farmers to go to the mountains, not farm field. The spring lean season started and they need to survive by making the best out of food shortage with wild greens and grass. In Yanghwa-ri Cooperative Farm in Sinpo City, there are 8 households currently suffering from starvation and the total of 70 households ran out of food across the whole farming work group. The number of starving household is likely to reach over 200 in July without outside food aid.

The death toll from starvation in cooperative farms is most rapidly increasing in rural areas of South and North Hwanghae Provinces. Situations are particularly severe in Taetan, Byeokseong, Jangyeon and Ryongyeon Counties in South Hwanghae Province and Eunpa, Seoheung and Bongsang Counties in North Hwanghae Province. In addition, reports are being delivered to the Central Party saying that death from starvation started to occur in farming households in Pyungsung and Sooncheon in South Pyongan Province and Jeongpyeong, Gowon and Hamjoo Counties in South Hamgyong Province. Even other cooperative farms in a better condition show signs of worsening food situation. In Chollima County in South Pyongan Province, with the largest cooperative farm nationwide, approximately 10% of the farmers were having food difficulties in mid-May. Ten in 100 households survived on wild greens and 2 to 3 farmers were absent per team unit. However, beginning in June, the number of absent farmers has increased to 3 to 4.

The Starvation Crisis in Big Cities is Spreading Out to Farming Areas
The absentee rate among farmers has been noticeably increasing. The rapid increase is due to the fact that the farmers have nothing to eat and thus are unable to go to work. The number of people dying from starvation has been increasing as well. Due to the currency exchange policy, the number of starving people in the cities has continuously increased during January and February. Now, this situation has spread out to the rural areas. According to the Hwanghae Province Party Investigation Report, approximately 60% of the farming families in Ohyun-li, Poongchun-li, and other areas in Yeonan County and Chungdan County are suffering from food shortage. Last year, these areas produced low harvest yields due to poor weather conditions. Moreover, the amount of food rations residents actually received was greatly reduced because so much of the rations, including 3-4 month military food ration, was taken out from the original food rations. However, with 15,000 won provided by the government during the currency exchange policy period, some residents could manage to live during January and February without selling their food stock. On the other hand, those households that already ran out of the money had no other choice but to sell their food stock. The farm households that received the smallest amount of rations last year were the first to run out of food this year.

The farms in the South Hwanghae Province are experiencing the same circumstances. At a workplace, one team consists of 13 to 15 people. However, the number of people who come to work in the team including the entry-level official is about seven or less. Kim, a worker at a cooperative farm in Baechun County, says, “The difference between the full-day worker and the regular farmers is that the full-day workers are people who already saved every bit of food by using any means possible.” Kim says that most regular farmers are unable to come out to work. “There are twelve people in my work group, but not even four people show up for work. Four people alternate to come to work three times a week. The rest of the farmers are suffering from starvation and are roaming around to collect grass for food.” If such absences continue to increase, the amount of ration at the end of the year will be subtracted. Therefore, Kim adds, “the poor will continue to be poor while the rich will continue to be rich.”

Farm All-out Mobilization Troubled due to Absence of Starved Farmers
Many farms including the ones in Jaryung and Baechun counties in South Hwanghae Province are experiencing difficulties in farming because more than half of the farmers are not coming to work due to starvation caused by food shortage. Currently, it is the farm all-out mobilization period. So, many urban laborers or students came to farm villages in large numbers, but there are not enough farmers who can guide them through farm work. A cooperative farm in Baechun County has 15 members, but only 5 people are working while the other 10 are absent. As many farms are unable to provide food for mobilized workers the plenary meeting at the South Hwanghae Province Party assigned college students and professional school students who could provide their own food. However, their farm work skill is very clumsy because they are from relatively well-to-do families. Farm members are assigned in every rice field so that they can work together with students and transfer the farm work skills, but there are not enough farmers who can teach the students so things cannot be corrected even when the work is not done correctly. Students do not really care about the quality of work because all they need is filling the time assigned to them everyday. The farms are deploring that this year's harvest won't be a good one because in many areas corn seeding and rice planting have not been done very well.

14 Residents of Hoeryong Nursing Home Died of Starvation
Amidst food shortages throughout the country the nursing home in Wonsan-ri, Hoeryong city, North Hamgyong Province has already experienced 14 deaths last May attributed to starvation. Before the currency exchange last year, the nursing home housed a total of about 50 residents. However, after the last survey which took place on May 3 only 35 people remain. Up until last year the nursing home had served porridge of grain flour mixed with corn and rice to its residents. As the food shortage worsened due to last year's currency exchange measures, rice porridge was replaced with thin soup almost to the level of plain water with a small amount of crushed maize and ground corncob. Moreover, even this was rationed to two scoops per person at a time. Hungry and desperate, the elderly with their stomachs clenched, are forced to go begging around town. This has become a very common scene. Wonsan Nursing Home had placed multiple requests for food to the People's Committee and also to the City Party for them to be rejected every time. All they received were corn flour, soybean paste, and soy sauce; in very small amounts that are never enough to cook anything. The situation gets even worse as no medicine is supplied. Considering the people have to eat wild plants and food from begging, it is not surprising that they suffer from digestive disorders, but they lack the simple pills for even settling indigestion. Aside from the lack of food and medicine, the shortage of drinking water is an even bigger problem. People drink dirty water, and therefore many suffer from colitis. The worst part is that the elderly and the young are the ones who pay most dearly for the general lack of what are basic necessities for survival.

More than One-Third of all Residents in Chungjin City Live Daily on Watery Gruel
According to the provincial party in North Hamgyong Province, it has been reported that one-third of the population in Chungjin City live on one to two meals of watery gruel which consists of corn powder and wild greens. From a recent survey conducted in Chungjin City, it has been found that on average 15 to 17 people die from starvation each day. Merchants operating in the Ranam and Songpyong areas can at least afford to eat crushed maize soup for breakfast and corn noodle for dinner. However, many of these merchants have reported that even if they were to sell all of their goods, it would still be impossible for them to earn enough money to buy 1-Kg of rice. Moreover, residents of Northern Chungjin put all their efforts in small plot farming by going to mountains just to farm on small plots of land, which they desperately depend on since they have no other means of living. At an emergency meeting, the executive members of Chungjin City harshly criticized the party for having fed the crisis with their passivity and failure to respond promptly and properly. Gimchaek Steel Mill, which is still operating, is not able to acquire enough food for the residents; and even if they were most of the food would not be distributed efficiently. Although, some food support is provided for the more needy families in each neighborhood by the executive members to rescue people from near death; these efforts only cover on average two to three households in each neighborhood unit and are not vast enough to lessen the ordeal for the majority of the starving residents. More than half of the residents are starving in each neighborhood and the impact of the food shortage is rapidly reaching more people throughout the country.

Seriousness of Coal Miners’ Starvation Reported Several Times as “No. 1 Report”, Woonjun County, North Pyongan Province
In early April, there was a serious hunger crisis in Woonjun County, which was reported as ‘Number 1 Report’ several times. Many coal miners had died from starvation. Thus, the Central Party urgently distributed corn for the early April food ration. The coal miners and their children received food rations, but their wives were excluded. However, the rations had run out by late April. Even during the food distribution, many families had to rely on porridge as the main source of food. But when the distribution stopped, the absentee rate in the workforce drastically increased. The government attempted to encourage people to return to work by claiming they will give 15 days of rations toward the end of May, but to no avail. Laborers who were infuriated by the lack of food are saying, “If you’re going to punish us, then punish us. The most miserable and lowest-class job is coal mining. What other job would be worse than this one?” They protested that they would be happier if they were sent to rural farms.

[Editorial]
You can give up on providing food, but you can’t give up on people’s lives also.

“… Ah, we can’t let these flies die. That’s because the poor people who died of starvation turned into these flies. Ah, the tragedy of being born in these unfortunate times. Huge famine left behind its sad devastation last year, followed by the cruel winter cold. Disease ravaged through the people, already victimized by brutal exploitation. Countless people died. Mounds of corpses dotted the roads, while straw mats used to wrap them covered the entirety of the hills. When spring came and warm winds blew over these bodies without coffins or even burial clothes, frozen flesh thawed into decay. Little rivers of water streamed out of mounds of melting flesh, kneading and congealing until they transformed into maggots at least ten-thousand times more numerous than the sands on the river beaches yonder. Maggots developed wings and, turning into flies, took flight and promptly flew back into those houses from whence their previous incarnation came. How could anyone deny that these flies are us? I cry over your lives. Now that I prepared this food and invited all the flies far and wide, please come and partake in my humble offering…”

This was written in 1810 (10th year of King Soon Jo of Yi Dynasty) by Dasan Yak-yong Jung while living in exile. It is a part of his work called, “Condolence to Flies,” expressing his deep sorrow and heartfelt wish to console the untold deaths of everyday people who suffered greatly in the famine of 1809 and 1810. He was describing in unconventional, poignant terms the horror of the swarm of flies that sprouted from the litter of untended bodies of the victims of famine and disease. And he makes the point of condemning the corruption of the officials and their brutal exploitation as reasons for the pitiful deaths of the people.

Unfortunately, this is also the reality of North Korea today. Although millions of people died during the Arduous March in mid-1990’s, the survivors at least could make their living – however tough it was – by doing everything they could to find food. But now in 2010, due to the failure of the currency reform and deterioration of the North-South Korea relationship, they are once again facing the end of the line. We have already heard that the 2008 famine situation – due to the consecutive annual floods of 2006 and 2007 and stoppage of inter-Korean aid – had resembled that of the Arduous March. However, we are now hearing the alarming news that 2010 will be even worse than the Arduous March years. North Korean authorities went as far as admitting on May 26th that “for a while, the government cannot solve the food problem at the national level,” and urging the local units to provide for themselves.

This has never happened before. No matter how bad the food situation became, the North Korean government would always tell the people to hold on because it will soon get better. Well, not this time. This time, the government is telling the people to take care of themselves in whatever way they can. The May 26th announcement is de-facto admittance by the government that they are giving up when it comes to food shortages. That is how serious the food shortages are, which also means that, unless there is some extraordinary development, many people will inevitably die. The desperate situation calls for urgent humanitarian intervention by the international community.

In light of the fact that the North Korean government has officially abdicated its responsibility to feed its own people, it falls to the shoulders of the international community, including South Korea, to help the North Korean people survive. The choice is stark, but it is our choice to make. Do we provide food aid and try to save as many people as possible from starvation, or do nothing and watch as countless people die of starvation? We cannot save the people by blaming the incompetence of the North Korean government. That is why the international community, including South Korea, must quickly provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

Although inter-Korea interaction has screeched to a halt over the Cheonan sinking, we need to reiterate the long-held principle that humanitarian assistance not be linked to political considerations. Granted, North Korean authorities have in the past used South Korean humanitarian aid as propaganda to burnish its domestic image by spinning the aid as the result of negotiations with the South. But at the same time, South Korean aid also brought about a fundamental shift in how North Korean people viewed South Korea. Further, the days are long past when North Korean government could use humanitarian aid for regime propaganda purposes. South Korean humanitarian aid to the North today represents a key opportunity for the South to show its moral superiority to not only the people of North Korea but also its officials. It could also provide the impetus for inter-Korea dialogue to resume more in line with the South Korean agenda.

As for the North Korean government, it must not give up its diplomatic efforts to invite international humanitarian assistance no matter how difficult the food situation becomes. The most important work of a government is to safeguard the lives of the people. Although in-country food has run out and food imports are difficult because of lack of foreign currency, the door to international humanitarian aid is still open. If the North Korean government were to proactively seek out international assistance, it will be helped. It must not equate request for international humanitarian assistance to begging. North Korean government must understand that its regime becomes more secure the better off the people’s lives become.

Now is the right time for the Koreas to come together, not to argue over past faults and lay blame, but to come up with a peace-building plan to lessen tension on the peninsula, agree on a humanitarian effort to stave off famine in North Korea, and concur on a plan to allow the divided families to come together before more of them die of old age without seeing their long-separated families.
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