North Korea Today No. 398, April 13, 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.]
Pyongyang Calling on People to Provision for Themselves until September

Importing Food by Selling Mineral Resources

“At Least Give us Soybean Paste and Soy Sauce,” Pyongyang Residents Complain

“The Revolution is Fizzling Out as It Runs Out of Food”

Nampo City Disabled Veterans’ Factory Making all-out Efforts on Sideline Farming

“Do Not Eat Together Nor Talk for a Long Time”

People Sigh at their Humble Ancestral Memorial Service Tables at Cheongmyong


Pyongyang Calling on People to Provision for Themselves until September

Once the decree fell for the people to provision their own food until September the whole nation knew this meant there would be a halt to all government provisions until September. Their fears were justified at the February 16th (Birthday of Kim Jong-il) Celebration when only executives received a portion of their normal provisions. Nevertheless, the people are still holding onto a thread of hope for the April 15th Celebration, which is the 99th Birthday anniversary of the Great Leader. Many are carrying the hope that they would receive provisions on this auspicious day.

On the other hand, the price of rice in Pyongyang had been steady at around 1,600 Won per kg as of the February 16th Celebration and rose steadily thereafter until it peaked to 2,000 Won around mid March. In April, [the price was] 2,100 Won, which represents a 10,000% inflation spurred by the currency reform that took place a year and a half ago. The average citizen would find it extremely difficult to pay this price. The people are simply looking forward to the April 15th Celebration hoping that the market price would drop due to the flow of food imports orchestrated by the diligent trading companies.

Importing Food by Selling Mineral Resources

The mineral exports have become more active since February 16th. Currently, about 200 out of approximately 300 of the North Korean freighters are assisting in food imports by busily carrying cargos back and forth from China. They mainly export varieties of North Korean minerals in exchange for corn, flour, grains, ramen noodles, and all kinds of food to bring back to their country. Although, food exports have not been officially approved by the Chinese government as of yet, it seems they are allowing the mineral imports from North Korea to be paid in food at the behest of North Korea. The mineral exporting companies and agencies were glad to at least temporarily ease the exigent food crisis. The workers and the officials have received their partial provisions thanks to the imported food. However, provisions for the general laborers are still lacking because if negotiations with China are not successful then China will not pay with food or groceries for the exported minerals. Nevertheless, it appears the imports are improving the supply in the market and helping to bring down the price of rice.

“At Least Give us Doenjang (soybean paste) and Gganjang (soy sauce),” Pyongyang Residents Complain

Due to the lack of ingredients, Pyongyang City has not provided basic food such as doenjang (soybean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce) since February. Kim Jeonghwa (alias), a neighborhood unit head in Rack-rang District reported that the residents are making an outcry saying, “Now we don’t want anything more than doenjang and ganjang.” Lee Choon-sil (alias) from Dangsang 1-dong in Mangyongdae District expressed her frustration saying, “It’s nonsense that they can’t provide doenjang and ganjang. How can this happen in Pyongyang?” Although basic food plants have stagnated nationwide due to the financial difficulties and the lack of raw ingredients and power, Pyongyang residents think, at least those plants in Pyongyang should be in operation.

There has not been food provision since January and residents have received a series of directives instructing them to resolve the situation on their own until September. The halt of basic food provision exacerbates the anxiety that the residents feel. Each household has secured at least 6 months worth of food and they might not be in a dire situation currently. However, they begrudge the money that they should spend for ganjang and doenjang, which used to be provided for free, since they need to save every penny now.

Hamheung City residents are in the same boat. Renovated in 2009, Hamheung City Basic Food Plant has managed to produce various kinds of food until last October. Since last November, however, the plant has not operated due to the ingredient shortages. An official said that it was “because we could not secure beans and salt, the main ingredients of doenjang and ganjang.” He added that it is only natural not to find beans and corns for condiments under the current conditions where the general food provision is not being made due to the bad crop last year. To make things worse, lots of rain caused a significantly low level of salt production in salt ponds in South and North Hamgyong Provinces.

Geum Cheol-ryong (alias) in Hoesang 1 – Dong, Hoesang District, said he has made soups with salt that he purchased from the market since last December. He basically replaces doenjang with salt. Geum also added that he would buy beans and make doenjang himself if his financial condition allows, which seems like a luxury at the moment when he doesn’t have grains to eat. On the other hand, the wealthy, the judiciary, trade officials and cadres in Hamheung do not receive doenjang and ganjang even if the condiments are provided. They would purchase beans and make the condiments home themselves because they don’t trust the sanitation inspection of the food plants and because the condiment provisions are untasty. Those households that make and store a year’s doengang and ganjang are considered rich. One of the must-have traditional foods, doenjang has not become an index of richness.

The Revolution is Fizzling Out As It Runs Out of Food.”

On February 16, an anti-government graffiti slogan, “The revolution is fizzling out as it runs out of food”, had appeared on the wall of the main gate of the necessities factory for disabled veterans in Nampo City, South Pyongan Province. The graffiti was made below the wall hanging stating “The revolution must continue to go on”, a quotation from Kim Il Sung, the former Great Leader of North Korea.

The Security Department carried out an intensive investigation of this matter because it fell on February 16 holiday, the birthday of Kim Jong-il. Every factory worker was interrogated. Their handwriting was compared with the graffiti, and they had to provide an alibi. The laborers were cross-questioned and searched if anything suspicion came up in the course of the interrogation. Despite the intense, days-long investigation, the guilty person was not found. As time passed, the case faded away, and people were relieved from the fear of innocent people being executed without any strong evidence. Factory officials and cadres were also relieved. It was deemed fortunate that the investigation took only a short time, as such investigations have been known to go on for months. This case was dismissed after a couple of self-criticism gatherings were held, where all the laborers were called and told, “Each of us needs to keep a close watch in order to make such incident happen never again.”

Disabled veteran factory workers said that the graffiti represents what they’re actually thinking. They have not been paid for a long time. Even the food ration has now been completely halted. It’s very hard for them to support their families, who depend on them, or to get extra jobs due to their disability. The factory witnessed one of their households starving to death in November 2010 and approximately 10 laborers at the factory have died from starvation this winter. Most of the deceased was ill and barely managed to live on a soup made of powdered hull of corn kernel until they died. “It’s nonsense that we are assigned to the Heecheon Power Station construction duties”, stated Kim Hee-cheol (alias), one of the workers at the factory, complaining about their suffering. Nampo People’s Council didn’t even exclude disabled veterans from the duties, even though they are physically barely able to perform the roles assigned. Mr. Kim and his colleagues are frustrated by the fact that the government continuously tries to collect more money, instead of supporting them, despite their disabilities having been incurred while performing their duty for the country.

Park Hye-ran (alias), who lives in Hoopo Dong, Port District, Nampo City, also described the urgency of the current situation she faces. Her husband had been working at the necessities factory after being discharged from the army after he injured his lower spine, but he is no longer able to work at the factory. They have lived off two portions of soup per day since December 2010, but now on some days they do not even eat one portion. She can’t even start a small business because she has no start-up money. The only asset she has with which to support her family is a sewing machine. She could earn 600-800 KPW per day by sewing if she had sufficient business, but there are many days where there is no work to do. She couldn’t afford the medicine her husband needed for his severe lower back pain. He just lay down all day, and finally he became paralyzed in February due to receiving no treatment and no food. She started asking factory workers for help, but nobody responded.

One of the Nampo City Party cadres said, “The origins of the graffiti are not important. Not just the factory workers feel that way: it represents the feelings of all of us. It will happen again if the current situation is not addressed and improved. It’s imperative to ration food effectively. This is more important than anything else.”

Nampo City Disabled Veterans’ Factory Making all-out Efforts on Sideline Farming

Workers at a disabled veterans’ factory in Nampo City are busy preparing for part-time farm work in the belief that it is the only way to survive. Some time ago, approximately 60 laborers were mobilized to begin preparations to plant potatoes and barley. Judging that the difficult food situation nationwide will reach its height in May or June, the plan is to start harvesting the potatoes and barley early in the middle of June. Each laborer has been tasked with planting and caring for 30 kilograms of seed potatoes. However, the veterans are placing higher hopes on the supply of food on the Korean People’s Army Foundation Day, this upcoming April 25. Without manure or pesticide available, many former soldiers doubt the success of such sideline farm work, and most believe that the government will provide food provisions on Foundation Day. However, opinions do differ on whether or not food provisions will be provided: “They didn’t give us anything during the national holidays this last January or February, so I doubt we will get anything this time’; ‘No, it wouldn’t be right not to give food to former soldiers’. In the end, however, most are hoping for a handout. Every year on April 25, City People’s Council has handed out small amounts of rice, soybean oil, sugar and cookies to disabled veteran households.

“Do not Eat Together Nor Talk For a Long Time”

The internal regulation has been even more tightened. Currently as of April, an instruction was delivered nationwide stating, “Two or more people may not eat together and a person may not talk for a long time when he/she encounters another on the street.” Not only the citizens who attended the education seminar in the Neighborhood Unit regarding these precautions, but also the officials who received the education have been alarmed and said “Something strange is going on these days”. There is increasing number of cases which people are dragged into a police station or Security Department for just saying something wrong and they are either beaten before released or being sent to a Disciplinary Center, and it makes people to be cautious of what they say. People tend to think several times before they say something aloud even if they want to say it, and they are startled by even the smallest sound while they exchange greetings with their close friends.

The National Security Agency has made several statements regarding the domestic situation, and all of them are regulations about citizens and internal order. Among them, there is an introduction on the account of mass protest occurred at Chungjin Market in 2008 and how it was quelled. Women under 45 years old had been prohibited to engage in trade in the market in Chungjin City, and on March 4th of 2008, these women who could not endure the difficulty in living came forward and held a mass protest. “If you do not have any rice to distribute, allow us to engage in trade”, said women who had gathered since 1:00 p.m., and all in a fluster, the police station and the city government temporarily repealed the age restriction and allowed market transaction. At the time, the security authorities did not suppress the incident forcefully, fearing the incident may spread afar.

However as of today after 3 years have passed, the incident has been embellished as a rebellion that was promptly and nicely quelled with an intervention of the Central Party and has been delivered to the Security Departments nationwide as a study material. The mass protest by female merchants in Chungjin Market at the time was labeled as “the biggest counterrevolutionary rebellion in recent years”. A study material introduced this incident as stated in the following: “Without any permission from the Central Party, the Chungjin City negotiated with the rioters who demanded the re-approval of market operation. As soon as the Central Party understood the situation, the Security Department firmly suppressed the riot and resolved the case. At the time, every police stations and disciplinary teams within the jurisdiction of North Hamgyong Province were mobilized as well and watched as the situation had progressed. As defiant attitudes were about to spread among the women in Chungjin Market, the 47 principal instigators who had raised the voices on the front were put down and arrested and the case was resolved. All of them were severely punished. After that, Chungjin Market became peaceful again.”

Since then, the security officials in Security Departments and police stations in each region delivered an instruction to put down the rebellion by force if a similar incident occurs again. An incident occurred more than 3 years ago was repeatedly introduced with an emphasis, and both the officials and the citizens say that the story was told to prevent similar cases from occurring, and that the current atmosphere within the country is extremely oppressive due to the tightened regulation.

People Sigh at their Humble Ancestral Memorial Service Tables at Cheongmyong*

Many people were unable to prepare food for the memorial service to honor their ancestors at Cheongmyong this year. In the past they have prepared food to take to their ancestors’ graves each year, but they were unable to do so this year due to the current strains on living conditions. Nevertheless, their thoughts were with their ancestors. There was increased turnout at the market the day before Cheongmyong, and store keepers anticipated a higher volume of sales. Unfortunately, not many people could afford the memorial service-related items. They asked what the prices were, and returned home without purchasing anything.

Two years ago, most were able to prepare the memorial service table with a bowl of steamed rice, and 2-3 items including octopus, rice wine, pork, rice cake, eggs, or fruit. It was difficult to make even 1 or 2 items this year.

The food prices at Sunam market on the day were as follows: 1kg of rice: 1800 won, 1kg of corn: 750 won, 1kg of pork: 5500 won, 1 egg: 400 won, 1 kg of apples: 3500 won. At Pyungsung market, it was 1850 won for 1kg of rice and 850 won for corn, which was more expensive than that of Sunam market. The other items were selling for roughly the same price. It was very difficult for many, whose daily earnings are less than the price of corn, to buy even an egg.

Those who managed to prepare full memorial services in the border regions, such as Sinuiju, Hyesan, Hoeryong, Onsung, Musan, are from the very few families with defectors, law officials and bundle traders who have access to foreign currency. Those who can afford steamed corn meals prepared offerings of 150g of pork, a small e-myunsu (fish - arabesque greenling), 3 apples, one egg, and a bottle of rice wine. Some also prepared a bowl of steamed rice, tofu, and seasoned bean sprouts for this special day.

Choi YungLim (alias), who lives at Ryonghodong, Songpyung District, Chungjin City, North Hamgyong Province, said he spent the memorial service visiting the graves, carrying only a bottle of rice wine. He typically has two meals a day consisting of noodles, and he was only able to afford to prepare porridge for the service, but deemed this so insufficient as to be inappropriate.

Lee Sunhee (alias), of Songpyung District, sells pork at the market, but was not able to spare any for her ancestral memorial service. She needed to sell more pork than she managed to on the day before Cheongmyong in order to be able to serve it for her memorial service.

Kim Mihwa (alias), a fruit-seller said that business was so bad that she was also unable to prepare food for the service. Two years ago, most people were able to buy 1kg of apples or pears. Since last year, very few people have been able to buy fruit by the kilogram. She could not earn enough money because most people bought just 1-3 apples.

In Hoeryong, it was the same story. Farmers brought 5-6 kg of corn to the market, but were not able to sell much of it. Instead, they exchanged the corn for a small e-myunsu, 1-2 apples, and 200g of pork. Every market was busy with people who came to buy something to bring to their ancestors’ graves, but most left empty-handed. Ju Younglan (alias), who lives in Subuk-dong, sold her favorite, almost-new clothes at a used clothing sales booth. With that money, she bought 500 g of rice, one e-myunsu, and two eggs.

Ju said, “Even though we do not eat abundantly in daily life, I used to be proud to prepare good food for the ancestral memorial service at Cheongmyong or Chuseok**. Since 2010, business has been depressed and I could not prepare as much this year. I am ashamed to meet my ancestors in this state. It is not just me: many other people are in despair because our living conditions have worsened to the point where we cannot even prepare food for the ancestral service at Cheongmyong.”

*‘Cheongmyong’ is one of the 24 divisions of the year. In English, it means “the Clear and Balmy Season”.
**Chuseok is Korean Thanksgiving Day (August 15th in the lunar calendar)