GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 355 July 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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Soonchun Heads of Neighborhood Units Making Efforts to Stop Starvation Deaths
Crackdown of Illegal Recordings in Hoeryong Reminds of a Battleground
[Table] Exchange Rates and Prices of Food in Chungjin and Hoeryong, July 15

[Investigative Report]
A Clue to Solution for North Korean Food Crisis through Small Land Patch Farming
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Soonchun Heads of Neighborhood Units Making Efforts to Stop Starvation Deaths
Five people died from starvation in three regions in Ryunbongdong, Soonchun, South Pyongan Province during the ten days from the end of June to the first week of July. The number of deaths due to malnutrition will increase if the deaths in other regions are added. After the City Party received the report on the number of starvation deaths in the Ryunbong-dong region, it instructed the District Administration Office to prepare relief measures to stop such deaths from occurring. The District Administration Office has concluded that it needs to clearly identify how many households are starving and how serious the starvation crisis is. However, since the Office does not have a clear plan on how to come up with the relief measures, it has decided to let the District Administration Office officials set an example for others such that each official chips in some food as relief food for those who are starving. Hereafter, the heads of neighborhood units and the District Administration Office officials have begun to donate at least 1 kg of food to donate and support the hungry.

However, there are some people who have doubts about the District Administration Office officials’ gathering food. Some say, “How long can they gather food? The food gathering can be done once or twice. However, even if they can generously donate 1-2 kg of food, it is not as if the starving people can quickly recover. Also, because the number of hungry families continues to grow, such an effort seems to be meaningless.” Although it has been helpful that the executive leaders have been donating their own food and giving it to the poor since the beginning of March, many people argue that the fundamental food problem hasn’t been solved. The argument is that there is a limit on helping the starving families because the situation of poor households, who will not be dying right away but have already reduced their three meals a day to just two and are eking out a living on porridge instead of eating rice, will become worse after they donate food to save the starving 2-3 families.

On this situation, the Ryunbongdong Dong official says, “Now is the time when even the food in one household needs to be used to save another. The situation would be different if only one or two people were starving to death. However, more than eight people have died in our region in less than ten days. I don’t know the situations in other District Administration Offices, but the number of starvation deaths in Soonchun is probably much higher. The City Party’s plan is to prevent any more starvation deaths from occurring, and we are doing whatever we can to follow the Party’s plan. The food gathered from the Unit No.3 will be given to the starving people in the Unit No.2. Likewise, the food gathered from the Unit No.2 will be given to the starving people in the Unit No.1. The plan is to keep the food moving.” The official said the plan can’t be a fundamental solution to the starvation crisis, but asserted that the plan is the most realistic. However, the official did not clearly mention how long the food collecting process will continue.

Crackdown of Illegal Recordings in Hoeryong Reminds of a Battleground
Recently on July 10th, the Propaganda Department of the Provincial Party in North Hamgyong Province sent the joint censor teams to regulate the illegal recordings in Hoeryong City. It did not give any prior notice to the Hoeryong City Party. According to the expression of an officer from the Provincial Party, they “just barged in.” It was on the pretext of regulating illegal recordings including movie CDs from South Korea, but it was actually an ideological censorship on the residents with the series of recent political affairs in mind. The censors of the Provincial Party began to wield the power of regulation from the moment they entered into.

In Nammoondong of Hoeryong City, because the censors barged in suddenly without any notice, the residents were harassed in various ways since the morning of the 11th, such as bringing out every electric appliance in the house to be inspected. The censors examined whether the VCRs in which the residents brought out were registered, and thoroughly checked whether the televisions and the radios had fixed channels. In addition, they examined one by one whether there are CDs, and if so, how many and what kind, and they collected every small equipments such as MP3 and MP4. Other Dongs (districts) had a similar situation. On the first day of the regulation, total of 9 households were detained for possessing South Korean movie CDs.

The residents are outraged by this censorship saying that this is “a shameful robbery that belittles the people.” Lee Kum-Hee (alias) who lives in Saechundong raised her voice, “I heard that the Propaganda Department of the Provincial Party has commanded to regulate everything to get rid of the elements of illegal crimes, because the political affairs have occurred recently and the residents in the city are allegedly problematic. Nevertheless, I never knew that they would ruthlessly sweep out everything like this. A law like this grinds the people and compels them to live in a steel-barred prison.” Although the number was a few, there were some residents who expressed their opinions even more enthusiastically by saying, “Unless they are trying to transform the people into dummies by shutting off from the circumstances of other countries, shouldn’t they allow these things at least?”

However, the residents’ complaints do not appear on the outside because there is a dreaded fear in the inside. It is because the entire residents of Hoeryong City are suspected of ideological problem due to the series of recent political affairs, and they are under great stress as they are watched by the superior party. There is a rumor going around that many families are dumped into a vehicle as a whole and transferred to somewhere in the middle of the night without knowing why, and many residents are shaking with anxiety and fear as they have actually witnessed such occurrences in their neighborhood. The regulation of mobile phones has tightened up and the lodgings are censored more frequently; as the overall censorship has tightened up in Hoeryong City, the pressure in which the residents are feeling are likely to be continued for a while.







[Investigative Report]
A Clue to Solution for North Korean Food Crisis through Small Land Patch Farming
During the Arduous March (the massive famine of the mid 1990's), patches of farming land on deforested mountain hills were one of the major symbols of North Korean food crisis. For those who survived the famine, small land patch farming was the greatest resource for their food supply. Upon the celebration of the Party Foundation Day in 2005, however, the North Korean authorities, despite having condoned it thus far, started the ban on selling food in the market and initiated land reform as part of a plan to resume the national food ration. Although the measure was meant to reinforce the socialist order by providing regular food ration, it failed due to the lack of food supply. In the summer of 2006, the food basket areas of North and South Hwanghae and Pyongan Provinces were devastated by severe floods caused by rainstorms, which resulted in a dramatic decrease of yields.

The rumor of the ban on the small land patch farming had been circulating since 2006, and it finally materialized in 2007. In the cause of restoring forests and preventing deforestation, the order was issued to “confiscate and revert private small farm lands to collective farms and restore forests.” As the authorities took the farm lands they had cultivated, residents expressed their discontent; some people in the border region even set fires on the mountains. In order to curb the unrest, the authorities intensified the ideological education while raising land tax to discourage people from private farming. The land tax soared from 10-12 NK won per pyong (1 pyong is 3.954 sq. yds) to 50 NK won, enough to force people to give up, who were already facing the high cost of fertilizer.

Meanwhile, another big flood overwhelmed the country in July 2007. The crop yields sharply dropped due to consecutive floods, and it became quite difficult for the authorities to force the confiscation of private small farm lands. In result, deaths from hunger broke out in the spring of 2008. North Korean government tried to ease the problem by releasing the army provisions, but the amount was far from enough. Consequently, the ban on private farming was not well forced; on the contrary, the authorities began to condone it.

The consecutive floods in North and South Hwanghae and Pyongan Provinces, the greatest food basket areas of North Korea, seriously challenged the security of the army provision. In the food basket areas, the priority always had been to secure the army provision. Therefore, the farmers suffer from food shortage when the yields are low. The food crisis in 2008 was different from that of mid 1990 in that farmers suffered most from starvation and many of them died. However, due to the remote location of the farmers, their calamity was not easily noticed by outsiders. On the other hand, private farming tended to be overlooked in border areas due to the worsened food situation. Some factories collected the harvest from individuals and made it look like they executed regular rations to the workers. In 2009, the North Korean authorities strictly prohibited private farming as they launched the 150-day and 100-day battles. Mobilized to the campaigns, people simply did not have time to do any farming. The reduction of private farming resulted in the worsened food crisis in 2010 and became one of the major causes of hunger deaths.

This year has seen many deaths from hunger across the country since January. The blockage of food circulation due to the ban on the market prompted the outbreak of hunger deaths in urban areas. The authorities were baffled by the unanticipated events. In addition to the extremely tight control on farming, the closure of markets, and the severe controls on trade, the currency reform almost completed the deprivation of the people’s rights to live. Domestically, North Korea suffered from the previous lean year; internationally, it suffered from the decreased food import due to the halt of humanitarian food aid and trade. The domestic food stock in North Korea was extremely low in absolute terms. On top of that, the ban on food circulation exacerbated the food crisis from the beginning of the year. Incidents of hunger deaths were reported nationwide.

The small land patch farming, one of the facets of North Korean food crisis, has multiple problems. It exacerbates deforestation and thus causes floods and droughts. The skewed labor investment in those poor and barren remote land patches instead of rich and fertile lands at hand is doubtlessly a loss, also from the national point of view. However, people do that only because they can claim the yields as their own. If the amount of labor wasted in the barren hills was invested in collective farms, the yields might double or triple. Despite all these problems, the small land patch farming is the only possible way for ordinary North Koreans to survive on their own in the current food crisis.

In this context, the case of Onsung County in North Hamgyong Province is noteworthy. Last year, the country made an exception and condoned small land patch farming to soothe the resistance of the people strongly voicing against the confiscation of small farm lands after the serious food crisis in 2008. The Party organizations and County People’s Committee went further to allocate small patches of land to workers by their units. They encouraged fertilizer and farm equipment imports from China. In result, the harvest was relatively good compared to other regions. All these factors contributed to the fact that there is no hunger death outbreak in Onsung County so far despite the worsening national food situation and increasing number of deaths from hunger nationwide since the currency reform. The food prices also are kept at a relatively low level.

Then, can the problem of chronic food deficiency be solved by allowing private small land farming? It is not easy to improve the fundamental agricultural system, and the current problem cannot be solved by improving agriculture only. That is why the food crisis is repeated annually. The only way to solve the problem of chronic food deficiency and deforestation is to allocate the land belonging to collective farms to individual farmers, let them grow whatever they want to on their land, and allow them to sell excessive produce freely. The old maxim says “Farmers are the foundation of the world.” Providing enabling environment for farmers to grow freely and safely is the way to resolve the problem of food shortage and reduce the harmful effects of small land patch farming.

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