GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 385, January 11, 2011

[“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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Rice is Just a Window Display
Miso Soup with Corn and Rice Mix Meal Makes a Decent Holiday Meal
Overseas Chinese are Best Off in the National Border Area
The Prevalence of Acute Malnutrition among Children Patients in Hamheung City
Children Suffer from Malnutrition and Indigestion
Pyongyang Pediatricians Marvel at South Korean Most Popular TV Drama Series
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Rice is Just a Window Display
Food price stays high, and residents are still unhappy after the holiday season. In Hanheung City in South Hamgyong Province, rice price was 1,500 won/kg on January 1st, which was an increase from 1,400 won/kg at the end of December. Hyonseon Seo (alias), who came out to Sapo Market to shop, posited that “rice is just a window display” to those who cannot afford it. In the second week of January, the rice price stayed at around 1,500 won/kg and did not show signs of falling. Even those who are better off are buying corn in place of rice due to the decreased income since last year; those who had secured more than 6 months’ worth of rice are exchanging their rice for corn in preparation for an expected longer struggle. On the other hand, rice merchants are enjoying a high demand for rice that remains strong despite the price rise. The rich have gotten richer, and individuals or organizations that are affluent always prefer rice to corn.

Miso Soup with Corn and Rice Mix Meal makes a Decent Holiday Meal
This New Year, it has been particularly cold for some cities of Hamkyong province. Normally, all the preparations for New Year’s food would have created a festive atmosphere, but it was as chilly as the cold north wind. Scenes of large food purchases from the grocery stores were rarely seen, and most would make a single purchase of 1 kg of unglutinous rice. When asked how many they could feed with the rice, they replied, “of course we had to mix it with corn.” For them, a decent New Year’s meal can consist of plain miso soup devoid of vegetables, eaten with steamed corn meal. 1 kg of unglutinous rice can be a luxury for some households, so most in the community avoid asking each other how their holidays went for fear of embarrassing each other.

Yeyoung Kim (alias), who came to the city of Hamheung from Hamju County to see in the market, said “No matter how hard the situation, I expected to make some money for the New Year. But it ended up not so successful.” She brought some chickens she raised, and eggs, only to find that her profit came out to no more than the transportation cost to Hamheung. She went on to say, “I continuously hear people saying they cannot live like this anymore. They all suffer from the food shortage”.

One official from Hamheung City Party said, “There are many arguments in the City Party over food issue aimed at the central party. Since they said that people need to find their own way to survive, they need to let them do it, without forcing other impositions.” It is becoming so hard to survive since the Central Party mandates contributions to construct Heecheon power plants and others without granting anything. In addition to this, the central government has many restrictions on the issue. The Central Government might proclaim ‘all for the enhancement of people’s lives once again’ all it wants, but the people will complain more loudly if the food problem is left unsolved.

The case is not so different in the cities of North Hamkyong Province. Cheong Inguk (alias) who lives in Dongmyoung-dong, Hoeryong city, answered hesitantly regarding food over the holidays. Instead, he told us that he wants to eat corn rice with miso soup at least, and that is his only hope for this year. One official at Pohang division in Chungjin city said, “In many households, it was fifty-fifty rice (corn rice mixed with unglutinous rice) and Tofu soup for New Year’s day. Fifty-fifty is just a saying, for in reality, they mixed corn rice with less than 1kg unglutinous rice, and it was only for that day. We cannot see rice anymore.”

Overseas Chinese are Best Off in the National Border Area
The overseas Chinese are faring well these days along the border area. The standard of living for ordinary overseas Chinese is even higher than that of high-ranking North Korean officials. The power brokers of the Party used to do better than even the most successful overseas Chinese, but this changed drastically after the failed currency exchange. The overseas Chinese can trade with China legally, and they can receive aids from their relatives much more easily - it’s actually difficult to find an overseas Chinese who does not save several tons of rice stored at home. The house storage is packed with rice and various goods that can be sold in the market at any time. Since the value of the NK won has plummeted and is not credible as a currency, the overseas Chinese only deal in Yuan or dollar. The residents at Hyesan City of Ryanggang Province are astonished, saying that the storage of an overseas Chinese is better stocked than the 1st Department Store at Pyongyang. It is an exaggerated statement, but it shows how range of goods that they are stocking up on. It is because the Chinese trust the overseas Chinese counterparts more than the North Korean trading companies, so the influx of goods is much more stable for the overseas Chinese.

As the trade between North Korea and China by the overseas Chinese becomes brisk, increasing number of North Koreans are getting hired by the overseas Chinese living in the border area. Usually, the overseas Chinese are connected with the ‘transport trucks’ so they load and transport the goods, and each house hires approximately 10 to 15 people. Although the terms of the employment are fair - with 2,500 NK won per day and meals provided – the workers are treated with extreme contempt so the relationship is like that of a feudal landlord and servant. For example, the overseas Chinese have a full-course meal inside of the house and the workers just finish the meal hurriedly in the front yard of the storage shed. As the status of the overseas Chinese went up, they became snobbish. There are loud voices of discontent among the residents and they say the overseas Chinese humiliate people without money, do not bother to acknowledge most party officials, and only treat with dignity high-ranking officials or security agents.

The Prevalence of Acute Malnutrition among Children Patients in Hamheung City
In Hamheung City in South Hamgyong Province, it is reported that there is a sharp increase in malnutrition cases among children patients. Myong-ok Lee (alias), a pediatrician with 20 years of practice, said that among 150 children whom she saw in the last three weeks, 80 were diagnosed with malnutrition and did not have serious diseases. The situation has worsened over the last two years, with some month recording 100 out of 180 children suffering from malnutrition. Parents bring their inert kids to the hospital worrying about the possibility of medical problems, and the kids only turn out to lack nutrition. Some of the children who can be treated with simple antibiotics are too weak to take the medicine. The doctor said she is cautious about prescribing antibiotics since there were some cases where the patients suffered from the side effect or their conditions exacerbated, due to their already weakened status. In those cases, the doctor recommends the caretakers to feed the children with nutritious food for one or two months before coming back for examination and possible treatment. Needless to say, parents are responsible for providing for their children’s medicine. Dr. Lee regrets, “It is sad to see families who cannot afford simple medicines and have to let the kid suffer. I wish I could buy the drugs for them, but there are so many cases like that and I mostly end up giving up. As a doctor, I feel as much pain as the parents watching children suffering and dying without being treated.

Children Suffer from Malnutrition and Indigestion
On December 22, Hyangmi (alias), a six-year old girl living in Sapo-gu, Hamheung Province, was rushed to the People’s Hospital on her mother’s back. She had been suffering from diarrhea for days. The doctor said he was “surprised when he first saw Hyangmi because she was so dreadfully skinny.” When he asked her mother what caused her to be so weak and frail, she could not answer immediately but only managed to cry. Because of financial difficulty, Hyangmi’s family had started a business in the summer with the money they received from selling their house. But after the business failed, they had trouble providing Hyangmi with even one or two meals a day. Only on holidays could she eat rice with corn, and normally she ate grass gruels and other food substitutes. The mother cried, saying that she is to blame for her child’s illness. The doctor could only console her with a pat on the back.

Pediatricians say that children ranging from newborn to ten years old who come to their hospitals are suffering from severe malnutrition and underdevelopment as in Hyangmi’s case. Indigestion is also a problem. Although children must make a smooth transition in their diet from milk and baby food to the next stage, they are fed indiscriminately in impoverished families, which result in undernourishment and various digestive problems. One pediatrician in Heungnam Gu reassures guardians of his/her patients that “their child is not as bad as others” and that “they should buy some rice instead of medicine and feed their children.” “I don’t tell them that out of spite; it’s the truth. If they could afford medicine, they should instead use that money to buy food and nourish the child, which is most important. If a child is malnourished while growing, he or she will face consequences not only in terms of body, but intelligence as well,” added the pediatrician. The pediatricians all grieved for the children who were born during this time of food crisis. “The innocent children suffer for being born in such difficult times.”

Pyongyang Pediatricians Marvel at South Korean Television Series “Daejanggeum” and “Huh Joon”
According to a pediatrician in Pyongyang, his fellow doctors consider South Korean dramas “Daejanggeum” and “Huh Joon” as the best historical medical dramas. He exclaimed that “the dramas depict the medical practices of our ancestors so vividly and accurately.” He added that most medical school professors in Pyongyang watch them and lament that they cannot watch them again. One professor at Pyongyang Medical School said that “some of the most renowned professors in our school speak very highly of ‘Huh Joon.’ They even think it should be used for educational purposes.” The professors and doctors showed the most interest in the folk remedies that were portrayed in the series. They were greatly dismayed that they could not share these dramas with local doctors since they all watched the dramas in secret.

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