GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 403, May 18, 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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Trading Used Japanese Bicycles for 12 Years, Living Conditions Worsened

Tofu Rice Seller for 10 Years Earns less than 2,000 Won Daily


Fishmonger for 10 Years Can’t Afford 1 Kg of Corn a Day


General Merchandiser, Earning less than 1,800 Won a Day


Clothing Vendor Makes 1,500 Won Per Day


A Handy Tailor, Maximum 20,000 Won per Day Earned if Business is good

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“What’s the life of city residents like in North Korea?”

The current edition looks into the lives of city residents in North Korea during the time of food shortage. Interviews with a number of city residents indicate that many of them are still suffering from the aftermath of the currency reform. The interviewees do not represent the whole city population in North Korea, but they can provide the cases that show the consequences of a wrong policy decision. Following is selected interviews based on the means of living of the interviewees. The editors hope that the present edition helps the readers understand the lives of North Korean people.

Trading Used Japanese Bicycles for 12 Years, Living Conditions Worsened
Mr. Choi, Myung-il (alias), who lives in Galma-dong, Wonsan, Kangwon Province, has traded used Japanese bicycles for 12 years. When he started his operation, his products were very clean and well-maintained. All parts of the bicycles were lubricated with brakes that were fixed like new. His colleagues and friends agreed that Mr. Choi has gifted hands and can fix extremely old and rusty machines. When Japanese ships arrived at the Wonsan Port, he was busy and worked hard without rest. Trading bicycles at the market was his wife’s duty because she had a more friendly personality. Since this couple worked hard, their family could eat steamed rice and their three children received their educations without any economic difficulties.

However, his situation changed due to the North Korean political crisis with Japan which was exasperated with the 2002 kidnapping and the 2006 nuclear experiment. After North Korean ships were banned to enter any Japanese ports in October 2006, the Wonsan Port, which was the main channel for the international trade between North Korea and Japan, was critically damaged. Since his brother-in-law has worked for cargo ships running between North Korea and Japan, Mr. Choi previously had easy access to Japanese bicycles. Currently, times are getting worse and he can hardly get used Japanese bicycles from Russian or Cambodian ships. He lost his savings during the currency reform, but has restarted his business since spring in 2010 with a small amount of savings he had in Chinese currency.

A lot of money is needed to fix a used bike. When he sells a bike for the usual price of about 20,000 won, he cannot make reasonable profit after fixing or replacing damaged parts. When he receives Japanese bicycles, he parts them out these days. Japanese parts are two to three times more expensive than their Chinese counterparts and he keeps the former to resell at the market and uses the latter to fix his bikes. The bicycles that Mr. Choi currently sells look as if they are of Japanese origin, although they are actually made of Chinese parts. Consequently, his bicycles do not work well which has incited the complaints of his customers. Mr. Choi explained his situation by saying, “I did not initially want to follow this immoral way. But I have to feed my family. If I live with good conscience, I will be hungry and no one will take care of my family. Most people act like this these days.”

Tofu Rice Seller for 10 Years Earns less than 2,000 Won Daily
In front of Wonsan Station in Wonsan City, Kangwon Province, there are full of women trying to sell food. Choi Sun-hee (alias) has been selling tofu rice for ten years at Wonsan Station. Sometimes she also takes out to sell dumpling rice, bread, and rice cakes, but she mostly sells tofu rice. Putting rice into tofu that is mashed up into smaller pieces and fried into a sort of pancake, and adding a little bit of spice on top is called tofu rice. Just ten years ago so many people wanted it and Ms. Choi had a quite amount of income. Customers are largely travelers who did not have the time to prepare a meal on the train. Now the number of women selling tofu rice has increased so there is a lot of competition between them. She prepares about a hundred to a hundred fifty pieces of tofu rice a day and she barely makes 2,000 won with them. Due to the decrease of income the tofu pancake is becoming thinner, the amount of rice inside is decreasing, and even the spice that goes on top has lessened. As the quality of the food dropped, it was natural for the number of customers to decrease as well. In the winter it was pretty easy to store the foods that had not been sold, but as the days get warmer Ms. Choi is worried that the foods might get spoiled. Ms. Choi made a complaint saying, “Right now it is so hard to survive because the business isn’t going well. If I was young I could have at least gotten sold to China, but I can not even do that either. Living is very hard.”

Fishmonger for 10 Years Can’t Afford 1 Kg of Corn a Day
Kim Mi-hwa (alias) has been working as a fishmonger for the last ten years in Myeongseok-dong, Wonsan City, Kangwon Province. Ms. Kim began selling fish in 2000 and before the recent currency reform she was able to buy and consume rice, eggs and tofu with her daily earnings. When asked how things are now, however, she replied in annoyance, "Isn't it obvious?" Her tone underlay her annoyance at receiving such a question. It was only after the interviewer explained that they were asking for a friend who was interested in going into the fishmonger business that she explained her current situation. "I am not able to earn enough to buy even one kilogram of corn a day. My husband is forced to work without meals at least three or four times a week. His mindset is still quite old-fashioned, and when they demand that he come to work he works all day without any meals. This doesn't help our family at all. I don't send either of my two daughters to school. Instead they help move fish and look after them at the market when I am away. They haven’t turned 12 yet, but they must live this way or they won't be able to survive. I am constantly harassed by school teachers coming to the house and telling me to send my children to school, but I don't have any choice in the matter. It’s not that I don’t want to educate them. I can spend an entire day at the market without any earnings, so I ask you how is it possible to both feed and clothe my children and also submit the requirements that the school collects? I do take some fish home with me when there is no money, but I can't eat any of the fish I sell unless there is some special event like a holiday or birthday party." She also related the difficulties of having worked as a fishmonger for ten years and then suddenly having her livelihood cut out from under her. "I really don't know if the government is out to save us or kill us," she said, adding that the aftereffects of the currency reform are still continuing to this day.

General Merchandiser, Earning less than 1,800 Won a Day
Lee Young-ok (alias), resident of Buryung County in North Hamkyong Province, retails China-made products obtained from trades with ethnic Chinese living in North Korea. Ms. Lee stated that she earns less than 1,800 won all day in many cases. Although her husband works at Mt. Komoo Cement Factory, it has already been long time that wage and ration stopped to be distributed. It is useless that she outcries to the pain of her throat. Despite all her efforts, she make no more than 1,800 won. Ms. Lee voiced her complaints, saying “There are too many things to bear including assignments from the school of my children and social burdens from Neighborhood Unit, workplace, and Democratic Women’s Union. No matter how hard I work, the sales revenue does not exceed 2,000 won a day, and I cannot satisfy all those assignments. I am almost running out of the seed money for business. If this situation continues, business funds will be used up before May. I don’t know how I can make living if I close up my business.”

Clothing Vendor Makes 1,500 Won Per Day
Ms. Jeong Soon-ok (alias), who lives in Namhyang 1-dong of the Pohang District in North Hamgyong Province, makes a living out of selling clothing at Sunam Market. Though most of the clothes on the market are second-hand imports from China, Ms. Jeong is a retailer of handmade clothing she receives from individuals. Some of the wealthier sellers import textiles from China en masse, employing 30 to 40 professionals to take care of the sewing, and these are the clothes that are passed on to Ms. Jeong. “Sales started to decrease from last year, and nowadays, it is reaching a record low,” she said, “I’d make 1,500 won on a good day, and there are days when I can’t even make 1,000 won. After I pay the market fee, it barely comes down to 600 won. On these days, I can’t even afford 1kg of corn. I have two school-aged children, and on average I think I pay around 2,000 won per month to the school. It seems like I won’ t be able to send them to school anymore from next month. I am very concerned about how to earn money in the future to sustain my family…”

A Handy Tailor, Maximum 20,000 Won per Day Earned if Business is good
There are many merchants that sell secondhand clothing at the Sunam Market in Pohang District, Chungjin City. Their products are predominately Chinese, but sometimes South Korean garments are also available. The most popular sellers are the stylish ones that are made-in-Korea. The reason is that Chinese clothes, which are cut to fit Chinese body shapes, do not precisely fit the general North Korean physique. Moreover, most of them are worn out or falling apart. Thus, North Korean women, who are good with their hands, now support their families with clothing alteration businesses at home using their own sewing machines. Some of them are paid for doing simple alterations for sellers, but like Ms. Bongja Chang (alias), some are well-skilled to do advanced alterations and can transform pieces into completely different styles. Their tailoring skills are almost professional. In the beginning, they sold altered clothes at the market, but recently have been getting more customers at home through word of mouth.

At first, Ms. Chang did simple sewing, but one of the main reasons that she turned into a tailor was the tightened enforcement of the Board Security. “Secondhand clothes were coming in mainly through Hoeryong and Musan. Two years ago, the secondhand clothing business was pretty good, with a high volume of trading. I didn’t make a lot of money at that time because I was doing simple work, but it was a relatively good pay since I could buy 1 Kilogram of rice with my daily wages. The Board Security’s decision to forbid used clothing imports later opened up opportunities to me. Of course used clothes are still smuggled in, but people who didn’t have a network to get supplies started to collect used clothes personally. The condition of those clothes was pretty bad. I mended those as I used to, but so many were not reparable with simple sewing. So I used a little of my own creativity, like cutting out designs and patching new patterns in styles that people liked, etc. I was then encouraged to run my own business by my female customers who were fully satisfied with my work,” she said. She paused for a moment and continued, “This is not even secret. To be honest, I copy South Korean styles. Although the materials are from China, I get more customers when my products are made in South Korean styles.”

She added that there are other people who are doing the same business as well. She is just well-known by word of mouth and has more fixed customers because of her excellent skills. She hesitated to answer the question concerning her daily earnings, but said, “The highest was 20,000 won. I wish it was like that every day. Lately, there are many days where I sell nothing.”

One of Ms. Chang’s customers, who came in for alterations during the interview, confirmed Ms. Chang’s popularity. She said, “(Ms. Chang) knows how to re-make clothes in the latest styles using the sewing machine with her extraordinary tailoring skills. I don’t ask for specific styles since I buy in large quantity, but stylish women in the town ask for very specific jobs. It’s too expensive to buy new Chinese clothes and not easy to get stylish South Korean ones, so they bring secondhand clothes in better shapes to Ms. Chang to alter. She is a famous tailor among most of the stylish women in town.”
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