GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 345 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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Eight Passengers Died from Starvation on a Stranded Hyesan-Pyongyang Train
Hyesan Train Tragedy Could Have Been Avoided
Packing Food is a Must on Train Trip Because of Frequent Blackouts
Residents Shocked over Death of Hoeryong Party Cell Secretary
Kyung-seong Kim, a Cell Secretary of the North Korean Rail Authority, a Casualty of Starvation
Kyung-seong Kim’s Death Introduced at Public Lectures as a Moving Story
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Eight Passengers Died from Starvation on a Stranded Hyesan-Pyongyang Train
Unreliable railroad power is no news, but eight people died from starvation due to an unexplained railroad power failure which left the people trapped in a deep mountain. On March 25th, right after passing Baekam station, the train number 1 connecting Hyesan and Pyongyang stopped deep in the mountains far away from villages for nine days. The passengers had no choice but to rely on small snacks they packed for the trip. By the end of the third day of power outage, there was nothing left to eat. With the train still not moving, the hungry people waited patiently. Passengers who were physically strong took the food from the weak people by force. Especially soldiers took the food away from passengers and shared it among themselves. Some of the impatient people left the train to walk on foot. They left hoping to find a house in the vicinity and get something to eat. Some of them backtracked because they were afraid of losing their way in the deep mountain. Some of the people luckily made it back to Hyesan City after days of walking. After fifth day of the power outage, a couple of people began to pass out. After nine days of power outage, total of eight people lost their lives due to starvation. Among the dead were three soldiers who took the food away from passengers. By the time the train began moving, there were about 20 people left in each car. Many others had left the train by the time the power was restored.

Hyesan Train Tragedy Could Have Been Avoided
With better response to the railroad power outage at the initial stage, the deaths of eight people could have been prevented. The most critical problem is that there is no communication system in case of emergencies. Four days had passed by the time the news of passengers trapped on the train reached the City Party of Hyesan City in the Ryangang Province. By this time, the passengers had run out of food and had begun to starve. There was also the problem of delayed response. Although Ryangang Province Party ordered the Hyesan City Party to come up with a rescue plan, the City Party did not respond immediately. They did not make attempts to locate the train in the mountains or try to move the train through emergency power. Furthermore, their attempt to communicate with the conductor came much later. By the time the City Party started their rescue efforts, nine days had passed since the railroad power outage. Many lives were lost during this time. When they arrived at the train, they had to first bury eight bodies. Many of the remaining passengers were severely weakened or in a coma. Although they transported the passengers to the hospital, there were already casualties. If they had responded efficiently, lives would not have been lost.

When they heard the news, citizens of Baekam County and Hyesan City criticized, “When you see the operation of the railroad, it seems like our country is headed toward Powerless and Declining Nation, rather than Powerful and Prosperous Nation.” Some citizens raised their voices, “You can tell about the whole by looking at a few samples, a tragedy like this is an indication of how poorly the whole country is managed. After they pushed for the currency exchange, our lives have only become harder. Yet they do not have any plans for correcting the problems. They just tell us to survive on our own. So, how could they have a plan when an accident like this happens?” After the currency exchange, many citizens are showing strong distrust toward the government.

Packing Food is a Must on Train Trip Because of Frequent Blackouts
Accidents on the Hyesan-Pyongyang train are quite unfortunate, but blackouts are now unavoidable given the poor state of North Korea’s electric power system. A recent train accident at Hyesan occurred so deep in the mountains that it took time for news of the accident to be reported to officials. The accident was a tragedy because it was difficult for passengers to save themselves. Unfortunately, blackouts on trains in Pyongyang occur so frequently that they are considered to be of little importance. A roundtrip that used to take two or three days now requires a minimum of one week and as long as 10 days to complete. In 2009 railway conditions were much better. In 2010 as power conditions continue to grow worse, passengers are boarding cars with prepared meals. The train sometimes makes whistle stops and stay at a station for a long time, but it also stops in remote areas such as Hyesan.

This provides opportunities for residents who live near rail lines to earn income. The residents are selling all sorts of products to stranded passengers on the trains. By bringing a caldron, water, fire wood from their homes, residents prepare meals next to the railways and sell food to hungry passengers. One meal costs 200 NKW and corn meal costs 600 NKW per kg. Some nearby residents began to sell water for washing with soap and towels while others sold bread. The sight of “kkotjebis” or homeless children begging in the area is a frequent sight. A factory worker who frequently takes business trips to Pyongsung said, “(The train system) is a lot like the 1990s again. They used to repaint the trains, and for the past few years they ran quickly and on time. Since the end of 2009, the trains began to slow down all over again. Party officials issued orders to secure the railways, but complex electrical problems are making it difficult to fix the problem.” Electricity shortages are having a wide-ranging impact on all services.

Residents Shocked over Death of Hoeryong Party Cell Secretary
In the city of Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, residents were shocked by the death of Kyung Sung Kim, 52, the former Division Operations Conductor of the National Party Cell Secretary. Kim’s death by starvation was not what shocked residents most. Lee, one of Kim’s co-workers said, “You can easily put food on the table by working for the railway, but these days, it is even hard for us to make a living.” Railway workers received rations from the state and had plenty of business thanks to traveling merchants who bribed the workers. There is even a saying that workers with the Department of Railroads can make a living off by selling a wheel from a train. Following the currency exchange revaluation of 2009 and the prohibition against private markets, fewer merchants are using the railway. As a result, railway workers have fewer sources of income. Kim was not just a labor worker, but a Party Cell Secretary who possessed higher status, thereby attracting more attention to the food shortage situation.

When reporting this incident to the Central Party, the North Hamgyong Province Party did not mention that the cause of death was starvation. Instead they praised Kim as an “Excellent Member of the Party.” The report states that no matter how difficult his personal situation was, Kim was never motivated by self-interest and should be remembered as “an upright worker of Kim Jong Il”. However, the reaction of the Central Party proved embarrassing to local officials because the department did not send care products in condolence as they customarily did in the past. People have formed a shared understanding that this lack of response highlighted both the state’s economic difficulty and the party’s decline in status and power. Like this, the death of the party secretary made an impact on residents and officials in several ways.

Kyung-seong Kim, a Cell Secretary of the North Korean Rail Authority, a Casualty of Starvation
Kyung-seong Kim was an honest man so his family did not have much. Because the railroad is a special unit, he received food ration for a certain period. Since this was only enough for him, it was up to his wife to support their family through paddling. However, with the currency exchange, all the money his wife had made through the business became worthless. Then his wife also became sick, and she was no longer able to run the business. Furthermore, his food ration decreased in February, so his family often missed meals. By April, the family survived on ground corncob porridge. Yet Kim never missed work. When he returned home hungry, he told his wife that he ate at work so that his starving wife and child could have the corn porridge. Many days, he would not eat a single meal, and his malnutrition became worse.

On May 20th, while he was on a night duty looking around the water supply, he fell from a height 4 meters high. When a train arrives in the station, the station must provide the passengers with drinking water. Kim was looking at the water supply because it often failed to work. He was walking in the dark without a light when he realized that there was a big hole. Although he tried to avoid the hole, he became dizzy and fell into the hole. Because he had starved for many days, he had no strength to get up once he fell into the hole. He was discovered by his friend who came to look for him when he failed to return. His colleagues pulled Kim up by tying a rope around him. When he realized that Kim was still alive, Kim was taken to the hospital. The doctor said Kim was suffering from malnutrition and gave him an instillation. Although Kim had no physical wounds, he died from malnutrition. When his colleagues visited his home to find some clothes for his funeral, they found no suitable clothes. The only thing they found in the house to eat was 300g of ground corncob. In the end, the stationmaster put one of his outfits on Kim for his funeral. Kim’s funeral was held on the morning of May 21st at the Hoeryong station.

Kyung-seong Kim’s Death Introduced at Public Lectures as a Moving Story
The Central Party has used the story of Kyung-seong Kim’s death for its propaganda. His story was sent all over the country as a touching story to be told during public lectures. The story states that Kim died while performing a railroad repairs for the passengers, not from starvation. It also painted a better family life for Kim. The story stated that his family had 200kg of rice, not 300g of ground corncob. His sick wife was also portrayed as a housewife who had been ill for a long time. The story also stated that Kim did not go home for three months because he was a hard worker who worked tirelessly day and night. The story praised Kim as the image of a hard, loyal worker in Hoeryong City, the hometown of mother Kim Jeong-sook (Kim Jong-il’s mother). However, people who heard the news were surprised and said, “The country’s economy is so bad that even the railroad workers have nothing to eat.”
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