GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 369 October 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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Yanghwari Farmers in Shinpo Survive on Grass Porridge
“If not for the currency reform, I would not have dropped out of college,” said a college student in the Kangwon Province
A Patient in the Family is a Recipe for Bankruptcy
Electric Rice Cookers Forbidden in Order to Reduce Electricity Usage
[Investigative Report]
A Society that Generates Human Traffickers: The Story of Kim Kwangho
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Yanghwari Farmers in Shinpo Survive on Grass Porridge
Farmers of Yanghwari Farm in Shinpo, South Hamgyong Province, are still living on grass porridge. The food that had been distributed to them last year has long since run out, and crops, including barley, potato, and corn, planted this year have been ruined due to frequent storms. The managers of the farm claim that they have no more food, because last year’s ration was only enough to sustain farmers through September. The farmers say that not much was left after the army took their rice and pork to be used for army provisions. Although another food ration is coming up after the harvest, the farmers are already grieving because they believe that it will not be enough.

The mangers are keeping a close watch on the attendance of farmers as the harvest season is approaching because the amount of ration they receive is determined by their attendance. Farmers who did not come to the farm during the recent time of hardship to search for food are now helpless. Those who received a doctor’s note, however, are excused for their absences.

“If not for the currency reform, I would not have dropped out of college,” said a College Student in the Kangwon Province
A growing number of college students in the Kangwon Province are leaving school this year. Although incidents of dropouts have been sporadic in the past, they are currently rampant in every Kangwon Province College. The problem has to do with the currency reform act which severely devalued money overnight and left many households, particularly those engaging in business, in economic shambles. Accordingly, many students decided to discontinue their expensive educations as their families struggle to buy enough to eat in the midst of the ongoing food shortage. In April and August, sixteen and fifteen students, respectively, of the Jogunsil College of Education in Wonsan City left school voluntarily. Although Professors were not happy with the situation, their attempts to dissuade students from dropping out were unsuccessful. Students had to endure various school-imposed social fees (non-tax payments) and inadequate dormitory meal plans that left them hungry. Free education is one of the nation’s central propaganda tools, but in reality, the actual cost of education is significant. The situation is similar for students of Jungjuntaek College of Economics in Wonsan City. Sunghee Lee (alias), a Jungjuntaek sophomore reported that “people are surprised that students, whose living conditions were stable in the previous year, are now leaving.” She added that “many students blame the government and complain that, if not for currency reform, they would stay in college without quitting in the middle of their studies.”

A Patient in the Family is a Recipe for Bankruptcy
A medical doctor at North Hamgyong Province People’s Hospital reported that there was a rapid increase of patients this May and June. He suggested that the reason might be the food situation that is worse than last year and the spring lean season. Once a family member falls ill and becomes a patient the family has to pay for all the expenses. Therefore, people say that bankruptcy is only a matter of time for a family with a patient. Those who are hospitalized need to buy medicines themselves because hospitals do not have them. First, people use up their seed money pay for medicines, and then sell their furniture, and finally end up going into bankruptcy. Despite all these efforts, patients who get discharged from the hospital after complete recovery are mostly from officials’ family.

Those who can afford to keep a patient hospitalized in the Province hospital and provide financial support are better off. Patients in a critical condition are sent to the Province hospital, where they are screened at the registration. The hospital asks the patients’ family, “Can you pay for all the medicine expenses after being accepted?” and allows only those who can afford them to register. After all, it is treatment for free only in name.

No ward cafeteria in the hospital also is a burden for patients’ family since they need to prepare food for themselves while staying with the patients at the hospital. Unstable supply of electricity makes it difficult to cook. So, most patients’ families usually use a portable gas stove.

After the currency exchange measure, hospitals see more patients hospitalized but the time they spent there decreases. In September, increasing number of patients could not afford the expenses and had to leave the hospital even before they spent a week. Since April, the supply of basic medical necessities such as disinfectant, antibiotics and dressings stopped, and a trivial scar is often left without disinfected properly and aggravated to the level of critical condition and even death. Families of patients express grievances that there is no benefit of hospital treatment and incompetent doctors only ask for bribes. The frustrated families are losing hopes in hospital treatment.

Electric Rice Cookers Forbidden in Order to Reduce Electricity Usage
Beginning in the first half of the year, the North Hamgyong Province People’s Assembly’s Supervising Department of Electricity has been strictly monitoring all electricity usage in order to eliminate unnecessary waste. Every sector, with the exception of the “second economy” factories and public enterprises, are to be evaluated and if found suspect may face austere measures such as being completely cut off from power. For citizens, the use of electricity is only allowed for certain purposes, including lighting and television and is strictly prohibited for cooking and heating which may result in fines. Although citizens generally use coal for cooking, electric rice cookers or frying pans are preferred for the sake of conservation of coals whenever power is available. Their already difficult situation, originally only allowing two to three daily hours of access to electricity which is difficult to harness from transformers, has been accentuated by this initiative. In addition, although not profiled, the “second economy” factories and public enterprises have also been suffering from government actions. From July to August, power lines have been completely cut off to more than 200 locations in North Hamgyong Province. This has resulted in over 100 reports of broken transformers due to the great amount of electricity overflowing into remaining power lines.

[Investigative Report]
A Society that Generates Human Traffickers: The Story of Kim Kwangho
Kim Kwangho, a 33 year-old single man, lives in Nammun-dong, Hoeryung City, North Hamgyong Province with his father and a younger sister. They come from lower social and economic background and have always been very poor. After completing his military service in the People’s Army for 10 years, he came back to his family and earned very little money by doing some chores for others in the village. Since he did not have any economic foundation, he was exploited like a slave only to be paid a little amount of food barely enough to survive, according to his friends. His father did some small land patch farming in Soonan valley in Daeduck-li, but the yield was not enough to support the family of three.

Being so poor, he could not even hope to get married but only wished to earn a bit more money. He used to ask people around him saying, “For money, I can do whatever I need to do, even if it is something huge against the national law. I just do not know how to do it.” About one year ago, he was asked to find missing persons. He would be paid to go across the country and find the people. Actually, it was not a simple matter of finding missing people. It was a job within the chain of human trafficking brokerage, and his job was doing a marginal part of it – doing the leg work and getting paid a small amount of money. At first, he was not assigned with very risky work. They gave him small and easier task to see if he could get things done he was responsible for. He was so grateful to earn some money and did his best for whichever job he was assigned. He proved himself useful and received riskier assignments.

This year, he received several assignments of locating South Korean prisoners of war and those who had been abducted to the North Korea. In June, Kwangho got an assignment to find Lee Hogu (age 68), living in Kangan-dong, Suncheon City, South Pyongan Province. In early 1970s, Lee was drifted to the North Korean sea by a typhoon storm while fishing in the West Sea and got arrested, never to return. His son in South Korea contacted a human trafficking broker and commissioned them to find his father, Lee. That was the assignment Kwangho received this time. He searched for Lee everywhere in Suncheon for a month and found him. The surveillance for the abductees was so tight that it was very hard to go unnoticed. He had the letter and photos sent by Lee’s son, other letters of introduction, and some drug he was given to commit suicide to protect other brokers in case he got arrested. He was promised that his family will be taken in a good care even after his death. After completing his assignment successfully, he also made it to another old man living in Ryunbong-dong for his next assignment. While he was trying to take him, he had to kill a police informant who was watching him. It was the first time he killed anyone. According to his friends, it was about that time when he became very aggressive and his family became noticeably better off.

During the past one year, the brokers who gave him assignments took most of the commission, giving him only a fraction of it. However, since he made a success in Lee’s case, he started making a lot of money. “The day of blooming flowers and beautiful scent in life” finally arrived. He bought TV and VCR sets, a second-hand bicycle, and wore Chinese-made ready-made suits purchased in the market instead of the old rugged clothes. To avoid other people’s suspicion, his father pretended to keep farming on the small patch of land. If he had stopped farming, people would have wondered how the family kept doing well when nobody earned any money. However, this cover was not enough. Everybody’s life got worsened after the currency reform, but people could smell cooking oil coming from Kwangho’s house whose family might as well be dead by then from hunger. The police department in charge of his neighborhood especially thought it was abnormal. Starting from July, police officers went to the workplace where Kwangho belonged to and checked if he was coming to work regularly. He was not – he had been paying 12,000 NK won per month to be condoned for not showing up. The police began an investigation how such a poor family could afford paying such a large amount of money and questioned his friends who hung out with him. In mid July, a neighbor slipped a word of warning about the police investigation and Kwangho’s family got very nervous.

In late July, his father and younger sister were summoned to the police station. The officers questioned them hard about Kwangho’s older sister who was said to have crossed the river to China seven years ago. They pointed out the TV set and VCR and asked how the family could live out of their means. The father said he really did not know anything about his older daughter and he had been saving money by farming while his son was in the Army. The police officers did not believe him citing the recent currency reform, and the father said he had kept money in Chinese Yuan. The police officers thought it must be the older daughter in China who gave the money and continued questioning him about her and the money. He kept denying everything, and the police issued a warrant to search his house. No evidence about the older daughter but 120,000 NK won in cash was found.

Meanwhile, Kwangho, hiding himself in a mountain, received another assignment. A woman who escaped from North Korea nine years ago and now settled in South Korea wanted to bring her son left in the North back to South Korea. With the photos and letters from her in his hand, Kwangho went to her home in Eunduck County. However, the father of the child would not let him go. The mother left them when the child was five, and the father had been raising him alone in a hardship. The father insisted he could not let him go unless he himself accompanies him. Even though he was saying it was not that he wanted some compensation, he confessed that he would like getting some help because life was so hard. Kwangho was ordered to bring the child only, but he had never been in this situation before and brought the father as well. The father, however, changed his words while talking on the phone with his wife. He threatened he would not let his son go unless she sends 10,000 Chinese Yuan. In the process of several long phone calls, they got caught in the police surveillance. They had been making phone calls from Eunduck County and the surveillance for cell phone calls near the border area was especially tight. Despite their caution, they got spotted.

Not realizing they were being watched, Kwangho kept bridging the broker and the father of the child. The father negotiated the deal for 8,000 Chinese Yuan. On his way home with the cash, the father got arrested by police. The child got arrested while attempting to cross the Tumen River with a human trafficker. Kwangho was hiding in a mountain, but he also got arrested while dropping by his home. They were all sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Suseong Re-education Center in Chungjin City. The news was announced in public as “a horrifying evil human trafficking: father sells his son for 8,000 Chinese Yuan”. Kwangho’s friends and neighbors who know the situation lamented that an ordinary good man fell victim by doing some errands for others just to make a living. They bemoaned that what is bad is not Kwangho but the society that made him do such things. It seems to be widely believed that the anti-revolutionary people are not originally bad but put into such situations by the society that went wrong.

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