GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 386, January 19, 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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Skyrocketing Food Prices
The Grain Price in Pyongyang (KPW/kg)
U.S. Dollar Up 60% in Over One Month
The Grain Price and Exchange Rate in Chungjin
Gimchaek Steel Mill Only Distributes 10 Days’ Worth of Corn This Year
Food Ration in Gimchaek Steel Mill in 2010
Police Officers Afraid of Psychic Fortune Teller in Hamheung City
“I’d rather Send my Son to Jail than to the Army”

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Skyrocketing Food Prices
The price of rice in Pyongyang has exceeded 2,000 won/kilogram since the New Year, compared to its previous rate of 1,600 won/kilogram at the end of last year. On January 7th, rice traded at 2,100 won/kilogram. Yet, following the recent first bimonthly ration, prices dropped to 1,500 won/kilogram. Although it is presumed that holiday (Lunar New Year) ration distribution led to the decrease, prices are still surging in areas where food distribution has not taken place. In Hamheung, the price of rice was 1,500 won/kilogram on January 1st. By January 7th prices were at 1,800, 1,750 and 1,800 won/kilogram in Hamheung, Chongjin and Sinuiju, respectively. Ten days later in Chongjin, prices again rose to 1,980 won/kilogram.

Meanwhile, one kilogram of corn traded at the rate of 950 won in Pyongyang on January 7th, a record high, as well as 780 won in Chongjin and 850 won in Hamheung, Sinuiju, and Pyongsung. For the past ten days, prices were still between 750 and 800 won, with the exception of Pyongyang and other areas where food distribution had taken place – rates have rested at 600 won/kilogram. In order to explain the skyrocketing prices of grain, some government officials have blamed delays in imports as well as the strength of the U.S. dollar and renminbi against the North Korean won (KPW).

The Grain Price in Pyongyang (KPW/kg)

U.S. Dollar Up 60% in Over One Month
The exchange rate for the U.S. dollar (USD) and renminbi (CNY) against the North Korean won (KPW) has made a sudden upswing. In Sinuiju, Pyongyong, Chungjin and Hamkyong, rates were between 2,600- 2,700 KPW/USD and 430-435 KPW/CNY from January 5th to the 7th, in comparison to 1,800 KPW/USD and 290 KPW/CNY at the end of last year. In the case of Chungjin, the rate was 3,510 KPW/USD on January 16th, dropped down to 3,300 KPW/USD on the following day and settled at 2,800 KPW/USD on January 18th. Overall, the respective values of the U.S. dollar and renminbi soared 160 and 150 percent respectively from last month.

The Grain Price and Exchange Rate in Chungjin

Gimchaek Steel Mill Only Distributes 10 Days’ Worth of Corn This Year
A monthly food distribution in Gimchaek Steel United Enterprise in Chungjin of North Hamgyong Province is still less than 10 days’ worth of food. It has been already several years that the form of the food distribution was changed from rice to corn; the amount was reduced continuously from 1 month to 15 days and to eventually 10 days, and now, 10 days’ worth of food is fixed as the maximum amount. Still, this is the situation of the workplaces such as steel factory or forging factory that ranks high enough to receive attention; the situation of weaker-positioned factories such as steel casting factory is even worse. Sometimes they are skipped over while others receive 15 days’ worth of distribution. In order to solve the food problem of the workers, the United Enterprise discussed the matter with the Ministry several times, but they could not come up with appropriate measures. The Central Party has instructed they resolve the food shortage by selling Juche Steel.

However, there is still no sign of relief in food problem even with the coming of the New Year. As the food distribution becomes problematic, an increasing number of laborers are setting out to find other sources of earning such as working on small land patch farming or squid fishing where they can receive a wage instead of going to work. For the state factories, every bit of help counts, so they look for the absentee workers. On December 10 of last year, they convened a joint emergency meeting with the local police because of the absenteeism problem and discussed the possible resolution. They came up with measures to compel the absentee workers to come to work; absentees without leave for more than a month must go through the forced labor in a discipline center for at least 3 months, and for the absentees without leave for more than 2 months, the period in a discipline center is doubled to 6 months. On the other hand, people keep stealing the equipments of the factory. On December 5 of last year, 3 welding machines were stolen and 5 culprits were arrested shortly after the incident. The arrested were the laborers of Gimchaek Steel Mill. “If you dismantle the welding machine, it reveals a transformer made of copper, and we sold it to the copper smugglers. We bought and ate food with this money,” they confessed.

Food Ration in Gimchaek Steel Mill in 2010


Police Officers Afraid of Psychic Fortune Teller in Hamheung City
At the beginning of every year, there is a tendency for people to visit fortune tellers. This year is no exception. However, due to the arrest of a reputed psychic at the end of last year, Hamheung City residents have been discouraged from taking part in this tradition. The individual in question is 43 year old Seonghee Kim, living in Sinheung 1-dong of the Seongcheon River District. After being arrested on November 29, 2010 for her superstitious practices, the police conducted a thorough search of Kim’s residence and confiscated books allegedly used for reading the future. Since a bible was among the items seized, the police have also been investigating whether her work was political in nature. Nevertheless, it is reported that the officers in charge of questioning Kim are impressed by her purported abilities and are thus very cautious in dealing with her.

Kim, a psychic practitioner since childhood, became famous during the peak of the Arduous March in 1999, when people visited her to inquire about lost family members. She would inform clients the status of their loved ones—whether they were still alive, and if so, where they could be located. As rumors of Kim’s ability spread, the number of clients increased. Question topics ranged from potential profitability of items to be sold in the market or prospective yields from land patch farming. A number of those following her advice achieved a level of success, making her more famous. Although the police eventually took notice of Kim and brought her in to force her to write a self-criticism as punishment, she continued her practice, partly because she did not have any other means of self-support, but also because her clientele included high-level officials. Even when she was detained in the police station, Kim impressed officers with facial readings and dream interpretations to the extent that they released her immediately. She then began to be known as the most powerful psychic in the city. Afterwards, Provincial Party officials and other officers from Police and Security Departments often visited Kim for consultations.

As Kim’s fame grew, so did her income. Established merchants paid her 50,000 North Korean won or with a few large sacks of rice (80kg per sack) for a fortune telling session. Less affluent people paid her whatever they could afford–1,000 or 5,000 North Korean won or a few kilograms of rice. The very destitute offered her a few eggs as a token of gratitude. Her popularity not only revolved around her perceived fortune telling ability but also her accommodation of her client’s financial status. At the end of last year, when the Central Party issued an order to “destroy superstition,” the City Party refused to comply. This spurred the Provincial Party to intervene and arrest her. According to a police official, Kim cannot avoid a minimum sentence involving seven years of re-education. On an interesting note, the judges in charge of Kim’s case are said to be reluctant in questioning her because of their fear that it would bring them bad luck.

“I’d rather Send my Son to Jail than to the Army”
Everyone in Wonsan City, Gang-won Province was angered by one soldier’s story told on his first vacation in seven years since being drafted into the army. After hearing his story, parents with sons all claimed they would never send their sons to the army. Suk Chool Kim (alias), who for seven years had been trapped in a ravine blocked off completely by mountains digging for coal without a single day of rest, recounts his experiences in his own words: “The only time I held a gun was at the boot camp. Since then, I worked with a hoe every day and night for the last 7 years. I couldn’t stop working because there was so much work; sometimes I even slept in the break room in the shaft. Once I get to the shaft in the morning, I normally stay there until evening because it is too far from the surface to exit it in the middle of the day. We are not able to rest even during our break. I usually have to relieve myself and eat my meals in the same room. The meals primarily consist of steamed rice with corn and pickled radish. People are always hungry given only balls of steamed corn-rice as nourishment. In the pit of the shaft, people wade in their excrements that immediately poison their skin (Mr. Kim’s feet, legs, and buttocks were so poisoned and have blackened and decayed; it no longer looks like human skin). The skin initially swells to a reddish color and continued exposure to this environment without proper treatment makes the skin crackle, then eventually the skin develops necrosis and turns black. We eagerly wait for the holidays because that is when we get at least a soup with a hint of pork and steamed rice.”

In 2007, due to so many tuberculosis patients, they were given half a bottle of vodka upon finishing their work. Among the 80 people in his company, around 10 people died as casualties of accidents or from malnutrition every year. Mr. Kim did not want to go back to that place because it was a living hell. He said “I felt like I would go crazy” because they were provided no support and were instead deluged with slogans like “the death-defying defense, the all bomb spirit”; “be a true warrior of revolution”; and “being a soldier of the General is an honor whether alive or dead”. He said that he was lucky to have survived like this and kept expressing his unwillingness to return. The neighbors were angered by the story and at Mr. Kim’s miserable appearance and said “I’d rather let my son commit a crime and send him to jail than to the army.”




















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