GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 377 November 17, 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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N. Hamgyong Residents Complain, “Are We the Only Ones Supplying Military Provisions?”

Speaking on China’s Advancements: Is It A Crime?

Travel Hindered by Identification Card System Change Delay

Military Ordered to Adopt CNC System

Collectors Unwilling to Sell Pine Mushrooms to the 39th Chamber

China Visiting Passes Being Issued Immediately

Motorcycle Craze Among Security Institution Agents

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North Hamgyong Province Residents Complain, “Are We the Only Ones Supplying Military Provisions?”

Despite the news that the responsibility for citizens to supply military provisions will be annulled nationwide, North Hamgyong Province residents are still waiting for this proclamation to come into effect. Due to the abnormal climate and minimal flood damage in the North Hamgyong Province, both Hoeryong City and Onsong Village have had bountiful harvests this year, with the latter distributing its surplus to residents. Accordingly, the government has focused on exclusively collecting provisions from the North Hamgyong Province, since the Ryangkang, Kangwon, North Pyongan as well as the North and South Hwanghae Provinces were projected to have significant harvest decreases. Actual declines in these provinces, however, were minimal. Citizens have voiced their concerns over the matter, including an Onsong village manager, who stated that “if the government continues to impose this task solely on the North Hamgyong Province, residents will suffer from starvation next year.”

Speaking on China’s Advancements: Is It A Crime?

Young-Gwang Kim, a retired professor at Mine University in Eun-Duk, North Hamkyong was a well-liked and respected faculty member by co-workers and students. Professor Kim had recently returned from a visit to relatives in China whom he had not seen in 10 years. Upon his return, he expressed to friends of his surprise at China’s vast economic growth:

“After China ended their public distribution system and opened up their markets, the lives of the people started improving every year. They are receiving funds and importing skills from advanced nations and are rising to the same level as them in many aspects. People are allowed to earn money overseas or at home at their will. I was surprised at how self sufficient the people have become, no longer solely relying on the State. Additionally, everyone was free to express their thoughts and refer them directly to the Central Party. There was no need for a certificate of travel to go anywhere nor security checks; China wasn’t the same.”

It was no surprise to many because they have already made frequent trips to China for various reasons, but the people still listened intently to what Professor Kim had to say for he was an honest and faithful person to the Party and focused on his studies. Professor Kim’s accounts spread through the town and Professor Kim was called in by the Security Department to be questioned on the validity of his statements. Others would have panicked, but Professor Kim answered calmly:

“China is also a socialist country and an ally of our nation so I told the truth. Is it a crime to objectively express what I have seen and heard? I have never gone against the Party’s word to this day. I even fixed the signal for my radio and TV to view only our nations programs. What I have said about China is what I have experienced. What is wrong with that? Didn’t our Leader highly rate the advancement of China and was happy about it? After going to China, I realized that our Leader was right. It is as if I have seen, heard, and memorized the words of the Leader but why am I being questioned?”

The guards were at a loss for words, and after ordering him never to speak on the subject again said they would send him home after he signed an oath. Despite the concerns of those around him, he came out unscathed; however, Professor Kim continued to question how commenting on the well-being of another country can be the same as complaining about [North] Korea’s state of affairs?

The Security Department is concerned that if the people continue discussing and learning about China’s advancements that they would naturally question their current state with respect to China and engender calls for reforms to open their own country. The Security Department is countering through propaganda asserting that China’s advancement is attributed to its abundant resources and large workforce rather than to changes in their socioeconomic policies. Moreover, they seem to suggest that China only appears to have changed by claiming that visitors have only been to the wealthy parts of China.

Travel Hindered by Identification Card System Change Delay

The national initiative to change the identification card system, which started in the beginning of the year, is still in the works. Many, including Kim, a resident of Baekam County, Ryanggang Province who often journeys to Hyesan City on business, are discontent over the issue because sufficient identification is required for citizens to pass through safety agencies when traveling domestically. Nevertheless, the largest complaint concerning the change is that new regulations are stricter than ever before. Hyesan resident Young Guk Chang claims that people are discontent with having to constantly present identification cards to authorities in order to prove their citizenship. He further notes that, since the livelihood of security guards is contingent upon the amount of transgressors they apprehend, guards randomly question anyone walking in the streets, particularly when the new residential developments in the Yu Pyong Labor District of Baekam town, Baekam County were under construction. Identification cards in North Korea are comparable to social security cards in South Korea. People receive them when they turn 17 years old. While this system has been under constant reform for the past 10 to 15 years, the previous attempt for change, which was halted due to a lack of funding, occurred in 2004.

Military Ordered to Adopt CNC System

There was a recent movement in North Korea to adopt the computerized numerical control system (CNC), primarily driven by the regime’s order for the CNC system to be used in all economic construction fields. Orders have even reached military bases to adopt the CNC system. A Central Party official said the goal of this initiative is not to modernize the army by creating state-of-art equipment; it is to enhance and improve the ideology and policies of each base by 10%. This indicates that CNC is more than a simple machinery operation method. The regime promotes CNC to be embedded in the regime's system to represent change and development.

Collectors Unwilling to Sell Pine Mushrooms to the 39th Chamber

Last September was the season for collecting pine mushrooms. Since the pine mushroom business is particularly profitable, the government maintains a monopoly on purchases and requires that all collectors sell to the Fifth Management Department under the 39th Chamber. Collectors, however, prefer to sell on the black market where they can receive 2,000 won per kilogram of mushrooms. This issue came to the attention of the Fifth Management Department who responded by dispatching agents to collecting regions. Agents go directly to people’s residences and even patrol streets to ensure that mushrooms are not black marketed. Their methods are almost forceful, so when people return home from collecting, they typically do so late at night or through mountain path detours. Mushrooms are then sold as soon as possible. Jeonghak Jang, who has collected pine mushrooms for over 10 years, states that “if the party sets proper prices, I would not go this far [to sell on the black market].” He further notes that “mushrooms of the best quality are purchased [by the government] for only 1,000 won per kilogram. Everyone knows their actual value nowadays, so who would give their mushrooms to them? Although [collectors] do not expect black market prices, the government needs to evaluate the situation and pay us properly.”

China Visiting Passes Being Issued Immediately

The anticipated “Residents’ Border Pass” will be issued immediately this year. In the past, travel over the northern border first required approval from job officials and district agents for workers and non-working civilians, respectively. Applicants then visited police stations for background checks and, afterwards, had to receive final approval from city and county secretaries as well as the heads of their particular provincial security departments. Accordingly, receiving authorization typically entailed a wait of at least three months, and in some cases, several years. However, the process will be dramatically shortened by the new issuance of visiting passes. Residents to be issued passes have been attending a series of lectures over three days where they have been encouraged to bring back whatever new items, rice and money they can obtain with no restriction. Although the process involves offering expensive bribes to police officers, security agents and other related officials, the number of people submitting applications is on the rise.

Motorcycle Craze Among Security Institution Agents

With the ongoing shortage of gasoline, fuel efficient motorcycles are now the preferred mode of travel over other types of vehicles. Accordingly, the number of motorcycles in Baikam County, Ryanggang Province has been increasing. In the Hyesan Department Store in Hyesan City, an employee attests that motorcycles are difficult to buy because of a supply shortage. Nevertheless, their main customers are police officers and security guards coming from Nampo City, South Pyongan Province and as far as Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, who purchase several motorcycles at a time. The employee hinted that these purchases are “for business purposes” as it is a growing practice to resell motorcycles for profit in areas of demand.

The most popular brand is the “Haoz,” also known as the Haoz Suzuki Bella. In Hyesan City, a 125cc Haoz sells for 6,000 Chinese yuan, which can be resold for 1,800 U.S. dollars in cities like Nampo or Wonsan. Hyesan City exchange rates are typically 250 and 1,800 won to the yuan and dollar, respectively. One who purchases a Haoz for the equivalent of 1.50 million won can thus resell it for 3.24 million won and more than double one’s initial investment. Despite these exorbitant price markups, sales are growing as demands are also increasing in the lower provinces (e.g. Hwanghae, South Pyongan and Kangwon Provinces).

Motorcycle wholesale businesses are generally controlled by security institution agents (e.g. police officers and security guards) who are relatively unhindered by regulations. This was found to be the case on the 30th of October, when Cheolryong Cho (alias), a Hyesan train station employee, reported seeing more than 10 motorcycles in a Pyongyang bound train, all of which turned out to belong to security institution agents. One can also commonly hear calls for motorcycle orders in the Hyesan City post office, according to a worker, who recently heard one officer ordering 125cc Haozs for 2,000 U.S. dollars each. Not long ago in Hyesan City’s Kanggu district, a security officer head was caught by the border patrol for conspiring with smugglers who attempted to bring 6 motorcycles (2 for him and 4 for the smugglers) in from China. After losing his job, the former officer was expelled from the Party.

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