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North Korea Today No. 394, March 16, 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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Honored Soldiers in Soonchun Die of Starvation

Buyoon Laborers District, the Poorest Area in Chungjin

Interview with a Central Party Official about Food Shortages in North Korea

An Official in Pyongyang, “Possibility of Collapse? Rubbish!”

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Honored Soldiers in Soonchun Die of Starvation

Seven employees of a daily necessities factory died of starvation in Soonchun, South Pyongan Province this January. Three out of the seven were unable to work for more than 10 days because they had nothing to eat, and finally starved to death. All were honored soldiers with physical disabilities sustained during their military service. Since the food supply is not sufficient, the honored soldiers have not been given their guaranteed provisions. Their physical impairment prevents them from pursuing conventional business opportunities. Without government aid, they are unable to support themselves. Although they were conferred the title of “honored soldiers,” they have starved to death without any financial support or provisions from the Party since their deployment into factories.

Kim Hyunchul (Alias), a resident of Soobook-dong expressed that he and his wife have been living hand to mouth, just getting by with his wife’s retail of Chinese general merchandise. Kim was pronounced an honored soldier ten years ago, when his left leg was injured in a coalmine during his military duty. During the first few years, the Party accommodated his special needs by providing food aid. After being deployed in a daily necessities factory, however, the food provisions have been few and far between. Kim has yet to hear from the provision agencies since the factory has not been running well.

Since there are no wages or provisions under Kim’s name, Kim’s wife must assume the burden as the head of household. Once there was a time when she made sufficient money, but ever since the currency reform, they have been deploring the loss of their entire fortune. An entire day’s worth of selling merchandise in the market only earns 1,800 to 2,000 North Korean Won. This amount of money cannot purchase even one kilogram of rice. Buying rice becomes out of the question, and the people have been eating corn and corn noodles. The elementary school that Kim’s third- and fourth-grade children attend has been pressuring the students to pay for firewood and coals.

The Neighboring Units insisted on the Kims to pay for farmyard manure assignment almost every day. Kim conveyed his burden and pain, stating, “I am not shameless enough to request disability benefits. It is too greedy of me to ask for special treatment in this nationwide destitute condition. My hope is rather that nobody requests money from me. I cannot pay all the charges with my wife’s earnings. The seed money for my business has been decreasing. I have no idea how to make ends meet. At the present rate, I am concerned that I will run out of the seed money before April this year. If the government doesn’t want its people to die of hunger, it should leave us alone. Otherwise, we will have to follow in the footsteps of the people who’ve already died.” At the same time, Kim noted that he was lucky to have his wife support him. He expressed his remorse for the other honored soldiers, who would be fated to starve unless they found work on the side, or had wives who could support them.

Buyoon Laborers District, the Poorest Area in Chungjin

Residents of the Buyoon Laborers District, Chungjin in North Hamkyong Province have stated that they are living in “the poorest and most pitiful area in Chungjin.” The Buyoon District is located in barren highland, and the only major crops they manage to grow on the small patches of farmland is potato and small amounts of millet, bean, and maize. The potatoes are small in size because they are grown in a barren field. Potatoes have become a staple food, as they are the most produced crop in the region. There are no special products that could sell in the market, and most residents lack experience in doing business. Poverty has been the consequence. Those who consider market business resort to selling livestock such as geese, chickens, and ducks, at best. Most households are in difficult situations, and hence, their meals are plain and poor. They make ends meet by eating brewer’s grains and lees, or tofu settlings.

People who are working in factories are no better off than others. They have not been paid a single penny since last year. There are numerous workplaces in which people have not received even one kilogram of provisions. In the Buyoon District this past January, among the deceased were seven elderly men and five laborers who died of hunger. Although there are those who died from natural causes or disease, the majority starved to death over several days. Chung Taesan (Alias) residing in Buyoon 1 dong recommended his daughters to cross the border, for there were no food provisions to be had even on February 16th (the birthday of Kim Jong-il), one of the biggest holidays. There are no lingering grains for him to scrape out of his rice jar. With heartfelt fatherly love, Chung told his daughters, “There is no way but to die of hunger, no matter how hard you struggle to survive. If we have to die anyway, it might be better to die after experiencing eating heartily at least once in life. You have to survive after crossing the border.” Despite their father’s earnest request, Chung’s daughters were not able to cross the border. Crossing the border requires some amount of financial ability. Those who are extremely poor, like Chung, wonder whether a world where “even dogs live on rice as in China” could really exist. There are residents who cannot finish their words, confessing, “The current difficulties are different from last year’s. People are practically starving to death. It seems like—that—I—waiting for my death.” The hardship faced by the Buyoon District residents is just barely managed, one day to the next.

Interview with a Central Party Official about Food Shortages in North Korea

[The following is an excerpt from an interview of a North Korean Central Party official concerning the current food shortages in the country.]

Question (Q): Tell me about the current food shortage situation in North Korea.

Answer (A): This year’s food shortage is the worst we have seen in the last couple of years. It is worse than the Arduous March (the massive famine in the 1990s). All in all, the government has provided only about one month’s worth of food from the time of the meeting of party representatives in Pyongyang last year to February 16th of this year. Food shortages claimed lives from spring of 2008, but now in January people are dying from the cold. The cold has even killed those without any financial difficulties, and one can only imagine the situation of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. Supplies of food for families of members of the Security Department and police force have been cut. Food supplies are only given to the officials themselves, and in very small amounts. This is the case anywhere you go, whether it be Ryanggang province, Jagang province or North Hamgyong Province. Food has not been supplied since the summer of last year and this has forced members of these families to cross over into China. Interrogations of women (who were forcibly returned to North Korea) show that in many cases, they had a brother who worked at a police station or the head of the household was a security agent.

Q: I am not understanding how even people without any financial issues could be freezing to death.

A: Let me provide you with an example. This year people working for the overseas representatives made numerous trips particularly into Pyongyang. Their explanation for this was that they had to set up funerals for their parents. Their parents had died because of the cold. These older people lived in apartment complexes and because they had trouble going up and down the stairs to their apartments they were forced to stay in rooms where the heating did not work. The parents of these (privileged) people were unable to receive any food from the government from January to the third of February. However, because they received money from their children living overseas they did have food. Their houses were stocked with milled rice and flour, so they didn’t have any trouble eating. Their children would promise to send an electric pad from overseas, but the pads were useless because there was no electricity. One person I know went to his parent’s house and when he saw that electricity was provided only two hours a day, he said that it was no wonder his mother had frozen to death. Given that this is happening in financially well-off households, it is not hard to imagine the situation in households where there is no food.

Q: How did the food shortage become so severe?

A: This is the result of a succession of food shortages that occurred in 2007, 2008 and 2009. On top of that, the negative effects of the recent currency reform have made the situation even worse. The whole country, form Hwanghae Province to Hamgyong Province, is suffering, but South Hamgyong, Gangwon and Hwanghae Provinces are suffering the most. I had thought that South Pyongan Province would be spared, but the most recent farming season there was a disaster. There was hardly anything to harvest after the end of the fall last year. Now North Koreans are saying that while the 1990s was the Arduous March, the most difficult period from 2006 to 2007 and 2008 would be called the More Arduous March, and the period right now is like the Super Arduous March.

Q: In the end is this all because of the damage done by floods recently?

A: The damage done by floods last year was severe. There were few cases of human fatalities, but plenty of damage done to crops. However, this is not the whole story. I mentioned this before, but the situation has gotten worse over a period of several years with floods in 2007 and 2008 and then the currency reform in 2009. In my opinion, the biggest factor has been the currency reform, which has simply stolen the money out of people’s pockets. Remember how many people died in January of last year. Their deaths were not a result of lack of food but because they had no money to buy food at the market.

Flood damage increased last year in the middle of all this. The damage done to military rice farms in South and North Hwanghae Provinces was especially severe. When it seemed like the harvest for military rice was not possible the government announced they would not require it. This was an attempt to gain the support of the local people and the trust of the party. Farmers were ecstatic at the news, but the government attempt to solve the issue by bringing in rice from China was not successful. Due to the fact that China doesn’t tend to provide large amounts of rice all at one time but provides it in small amounts spread out over a longer period, the military food shortage was more or less brought on by the North Korea government itself.

Q: How serious is the food situation for the military?

A: There is no food for the military right now. People starved to death last year and they are still starving. It’s been really serious. However, the difference between before and now is that there is no food even for the military. After the Party Representatives’ Meeting, we had confidence that we would be able to address the food shortage for the military by a new diplomatic approach. As I’ve said before, by not collecting military provisions, we thought we could take a burden off the struggling citizens while we save the face of Kim Jong Un. Due to the low agricultural yield last year, the provisions were directly distributed to farmers, and they got food rations for more than 6 months. But the collection of military provisions was resumed nationwide at the beginning of January this year due to the shortage, and minimum 2-3 months to maximum 4-5 months’ worth of the grains was forcibly collected for the military. Farmers were still okay until now because at least they had some amount of food, but not anymore. Now, they’re also starving as well.

The shortage of military provisions was partially addressed by steady food supply from foreign countries until February 16. Rice was imported by the government through trade and other grains like corn and flour were supplied by trade representatives in foreign countries through China. More than 60% of the grain supplies are corn and the rest are rice and flour. This fulfills the need of the military although it’s still not enough. The problem is, there is no way out for the starving citizens.

Q: Outsiders foresee that unrest could happen if people are growing increasingly discontent.

A: There will be a few people running away to China, but not as many as before. Also, police stations and government buildings won’t be attacked. Internally the society is not as unstable as outsiders may think. Of course people complain about government officials and get into fights with police officers, but it’s like fights among family members. If someone reviles the fighting family, who do you think they will fight again - their own family or the man reviling at them? We are not that foolish. It’s true that people are discontent due to the long-lasting food and economic crisis, but it’s not like what outsiders think.

As the relationship with South Korea is getting tenser, enforcement is getting heavier. When we had an amicable relationship with South Korea, we were able to travel around freely and do business even though it was illegal, but now we can’t do anything. We barely hear news since we are not allowed to travel. The market is no longer active, and we no longer hear what’s going on in other areas. Not only is the enforcement tightened because of the succession, but also because South Korea releases false stories in the news.

Q: It’s understood that citizens may not care unless the hardship is directly related with their personal survival. But we’ve heard that even mid-level officials are increasingly discontent.

A: That’s true. Officials, who used to get rations without any problems, have been anxious since the family ration was cut off last year. It’s true that the communist ideology has degenerated among them, but it’s also not like what outsiders think. It can be seen as an ideological degeneration based on their non-communist behaviors in order to survive, but it’s not fair to say that their patriotism and loyalty have disappeared. Even if they are told to be role models and patriotic, their priority is to ensure their and their families’ survival, regardless of whether the nation makes a political alliance with the U.S. or China. They don’t take responsibility or action unless it would give them benefits. It surely indicates that they are less patriotic, but it doesn’t mean that they would turn against their own country. Those are entirely different matters.

Q: What is the prospect for the current situation?

A: The periodic ration has been cut off even in Pyongyang, except for rations for party officials. Many farmers died from hunger in 2008, and now laborers are again barely surviving. Before the currency reform, workers in cities lived off their small businesses, but they lost most of their money after the currency reform. People with foreign currencies weren’t impacted by the currency reform, but people who had local currency lost their life savings. It will take a long time to recover. Laborers residing in the cities, if they can’t find an extra job, will have a difficult time. This situation is very similar to the Arduous March. Deaths from starvation occurred in the cities first at that time as well. Of course some people will survive by utilizing their resources and lessons from the previous experiences, but I think many people will die from hunger during the spring lean months from April to June if the situation continues. Before this tragedy occurs, the government will try to receive investments on equipments from China and address the food issue.

An Official in Pyongyang, “Possibility of Collapse? Rubbish!”

An official from a major unit in Pyongyang was asked, “There are people who are waiting for the collapse of North Korea. What do you think?” He was startled at the term ‘collapse’, and said not to mention such rubbish. Previously, he has been critical of the North Korean government’s policies, but still he could not bring himself to countenance the word ‘collapse’. When asked for his thoughts, he said that the following was the general opinion of mid-ranking officials. However, it should be noted that it is only his personal opinion. Stated below is his story:

“Our Republic did not collapse at the time of Arduous March even though millions of people died. It is not going to collapse this time even if two or three million people die, just like the last time. Even if it does collapse, it will happen fifty or a hundred years from now. No matter how difficult the situation is, it is not going to collapse now, because the fate of the mid-ranking officials is connected to the leadership. Moreover, China does not want us to collapse. That is why our government has become so closely tied to China. Still, the question is whether the new leadership can be trusted. People are watching how Kim Jong-un, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, deals with the food problem. The next 3-5 years will be critical. In the past, the mid-ranking officials earned money or imported goods into North Korea by trading but now these officials will not take any risks, even though relationships have been formed in China. That’s to say, they do not fully trust the new leadership yet. In the past, there were also incidents where mid-ranking officials who worked hard and became well-off ended up being executed.

The traders are not as before. It is hard to believe that the traders do not have 10,000 or 20,000 dollars. But now, they are reluctant to contribute to state funds, no matter how much it is urged. If 5,000 yuan is demanded for the allotment of army provisions, they just pay the exact amount. They try not to pay more than required, and not to give the impression that they are paying it easily. Even if they have money to pay, they pretend to have borrowed the money from various places. This is because they have seen how other loyal trade officers who successfully completed the task have been praised initially, but always stabbed in the back. They have been repeatedly exploited and purged after earning foreign money, so their sense of loyalty has progressively disappeared. The mid-ranking officials and trade officers used to take care of all expenses, such as the construction of Heechun Power Plant, or the construction of residential houses in Pyongyang. With regards to the current shortage of army provisions, or the distribution problems in Pyongyang, the issues could be easily resolved by the capabilities, or financial capacity, of the Overseas Representatives. However, they will not sacrifice themselves anymore to support national policy. People distrust the leadership. Now, the government has to intervene directly to take care of army provisions.

The experience of Park Nam-ki, director of the Planning and Financial Department, reflects this situation. A director of Financial Department is like a teacher to the traders, but Park died a wrongful death for following instructions from above. People do not come forward to volunteer because they will be harmed if they offer the money that they have earned. The patriotism of these people is required for the new leadership to solve the food problem, but they will never be able to mobilize the people if they work as they did in the past. Too much blood has been shed already so no one will come forward. Branding these behaviors as anti-socialist, and only tightening regulations, may be viewed as the lack of intention to solve the problem on the leadership’s part.

The new leadership must establish a system for stabilizing the people’s living standards. Regardless of whether the General continues to lead the way, or if the leadership is completely changed, we may be able to live on for another 3 years if we are completely subservient to China and sell every mine, land and port. China holds the attitude of “I will only act once you have proved your goodwill”, so we will try everything we can to show our sincerity.

The mid-ranking officials will welcome whatever changes are necessary to secure the lives of their children and themselves. It does not matter whether the changes are in the direction of China or the United States. However, South Korea is not an option. (Their) safety will not be guaranteed if they choose South Korea. China is the current target, and so they follow. They will not have any problems if they follow what the Central Party has chosen. The Republic zealously advocates unification but in truth, it does not want it right now. Our concern is about the next 3-5 years, and our most urgent priorities are national security and resolution of the food problem. South Korea is merely a stepping stone to the United States, and is not our main target.”

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