GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 405, June 1, 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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[Editor's Note] “A Korean Table without Kimchi?”
People Eat Meals with Boiled Salt Water Soup as Kimchi Runs Out
“How can We Live without Kimchi?”
Reasons for Abundant Kimchi in Party Officials’ Homes
Hoeryong City Construction Brigade Ran out of Kimchi
At Least 1,000 pyong of Land is Required for an Affordable Living
Fighting for Survival after 12 Years of Hard Work as a Pushcart Man
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[Editor's Note] “A Korean Table Without Kimchi?”
It is difficult to imagine a Korean meal without kimchi. Koreans would even say that a bowl of steamed rice and well-fermented kimchi would make a good meal without any additional side dishes. Although kimchi is regarded as side dish while the rice is thought as the staple food, kimchi is almost like a main dish to Koreans who eat it every time. North Koreans call kimchi ‘a half-year food,’ reflecting that they consider it as a main dish.
The present edition delivers news on many North Korean people suffering from running out of kimchi that they made and stored last year. Those who barely eat rice sip salt-added water instead of kimchi, while somewhat better off families occasionally eat kimchi just as they eat steamed corn meals. Meanwhile, those who are much better off or official’s families eat four to five kinds of kimchi at every meal. In the food culture with more than 200 kinds of kimchi, whether you can afford kimchi or not now defines your social class and wealth.

People Eat Meals with Boiled Salt Water Soup as Kimchi Runs Out
Many households ran out of Kimchi, which is considered a half year long food. Families who can have Kimchi until June are considered very affluent. Those who are able to have 4-5 kinds of Kimchi such as Napa Kimchi, Chae-Kimchi, or Kakdugi are families of high ranking officers, judges, and money holders. Most families ran out of Kimchi last February. Even though fresh vegetables are beginning to come to market, many families can only afford salted radish. Poor families cannot even afford a piece of Kimchi. The only side dish they can have is soybean soup or salt-added water soup. Ko, Sunduk (alias) who sells household goods in Chaeha market, Sinuiiju, North Pyungan Province said, “It is not that I cannot afford Kimchi at all. It depends on how much I sell for the day. If the sale of the day is good, I can buy a small amount of cucumbers, Napa, or radish and make kimchi. Those who have salt-added water soup are really poor people, and for those who can have 1- 2 meals a day, like us it is not that bad.” She meant her situation is somewhat better than those who eat salt-added water soup, but that does not mean that she eats sufficiently nutritious food.

Last summer, the vegetable harvest was completely ruined by a severe flood in Sinuiju. Each farm was not sure whether they could have enough vegetables for their own consumption.
Those who have a small patch farm also had difficulties with growing vegetables. So, they made far less amount of Kimchi than needed. Kimchi ran out since last February in Rakwon-dong, an area where poor people live. As such, eating Kimchi is a wish of the residents. An official in Rakwon-dong said that about 70-80% of the residents there are not able to eat Kimchi. Residents in Haebang-dong, Chaeha-dong, or Pyunghwa-dong, where relatively well off people live, can eat salted radish at least, regardless of how poor they could be. However, the residents in his neighborhood eat meals with salt-added water soup or soybean soup, or barely live on corn porridge.

“How can We Live without Kimchi?”
Choonhwa Ham (alias) who lives in Jungjoo village, Jungjoo city in North Pyungan Province never had to worry about any shortage of Kimchi in her life thanks to her husband’s job as a police officer. With the money or other types of bribe that her husband brings home, they can enjoy a comfortable life. They can have rice for regular meals and occasionally mix corns with rice. They also eat pork, various vegetables, and fish or eggs once a week. They have stored enough Kimchi that will last until August. The Ham family alternates cabbage Kimchi with Mooche (radish cut in stripes) Kimchi for every other meal. They add Kakdugi (diced radish Kimchi) and cucumber pickle to their meal for a change or variety. The family received one ton of kimchi and 500 kilogram of radish last year. They have preserved six huge Kimchi jars under the ground. In ordinary households, the preserved Kimchi for winter lasts until March. However, the Ham family still has plenty left and they are starting to get worried that it may go sour. “How can a Korean live without Kimchi? If you do not have Kimchi with your meal, you cannot say that you are living a good life. Kimchi is a must dish for Koreans,” said Ham, revealing her affluent life unlike the ones the majority of North Koreans have.

Reasons for Abundant Kimchi in Party Officials’ Homes
What are the reasons for abundant kimchi in Party officials’ homes? Family sub-units allocated to officials’ families are the reason. Collective farms generally consist of 4 to 20 work units, and one work unit is made up of 4-5 sub-units. However, the size of the sub-units allocated to Party officials’ families is equivalent to the size of a work unit. Typically, the wives of officials are in charge of farming, and they get high yields from their large farming lots without much difficulty because they mobilize members of Democratic Women’s Union, students, and factory workers during farming mobilization period. Even when there is a critical shortage of fertilizer, the priority always goes to the family sub-units. No matter how bad the harvest is the farms of officials’ family sub-units generally do much better than the average.

The Hoeryong City Party officials in North Hamgyung Province do farming with family sub-units in the Osanduck collective farm. Last year, they received allocation of 800-1,000 kg of Napa cabbage and 400-500 kg of radish per household. Now, it has been a while since ordinary families ran out of kimchi, but the families of officials still have enough to go until June or July. For them, worrying about kimchi running out is not an issue. A wife of a City Party official said, “When kimchi gets sour in April, we give it to pigs or other animals. Some people with conscience give some away to poor neighbors. As for us, we receive the whole portion of vegetables allocated to us, so we can live well without having to sell things in the market. Since we get all the food and vegetables we need, we don’t have to worry much when it comes to food.”

The City Party and the Committee of City Farming Management run a propaganda campaign saying, “Work as Hard as City Party Family Sub-units”. However, this kind of propaganda only provokes negative sentiments among residents because the wives of City Party officials are farm members only in name who don’t really work in the farm, and the officials themselves only show up during ‘Friday labor’ time. Perhaps being conscious of this fact, an official in Jungjoo City explained; “We are aware of the controversies over City Party family sub-units. However, that is a special arrangement we made for the officials so that they can perform their work well without worrying about problems in their families.” Nevertheless, he did not respond when confronted with these questions: “Speaking of special consideration, don’t you think it is nonsensical to tell residents to work hard just like the City Party family sub-units when the residents are not given any such consideration? Don’t you think they should be given fertilizer and labor as much as the family subunits to get that much yield? The City Party officials eat white rice and a variety of kimchi; they can afford to eat meat once a week. Average households all ran out of kimchi and now they are left with some salt soup.”

Hoeryong City Construction Brigade Ran out of Kimchi
The laborers and the families of Hoeryong City Construction Brigade are eating corn meal and soybean soup because they ran out rice and kimchi. Jung Chul-ryong (alias) said, “Last year we managed to fill one jar of cabbage kimchi. It lasted until last February because we tried to consume as little kimchi as possible, but we have none left now. We sometimes buy cabbage and make kimchi because my wife earns some money from her business, but we have no kimchi when her business is slow.” He said his family is better off compared to others. Those who are worse off live on corn noodle or porridge made of ground corncob. Some of them eat grass porridge. It is hard to afford kimchi unless they grow vegetables in their small patch farm. Often times they are mobilized to road constructions and railroad maintenance work while they have not eaten much. They take about 2-3 days worth of food when they become mobilized to work, but poor people go empty hand. The officials contribute some food in their effort to mobilize as many people as possible. The excuse of not being able to mobilize people due of lack of food is not accepted. It is not an exaggeration when they say, “It is not easy being an official” because even party secretaries and directive officers can be summoned and criticized or even fired. The number of absentees is increasing despite the efforts of the officials. The threat of “sending people to city reeducation center” is no long perceived as a threat. Even those who came to work plead for food saying, “Please give us some food. We can’t do the work because we have no energy” but it falls on deaf ears.

A City Party official boasted that “The laborers at our city construction brigade eat at least corn meal and soybean soup, and they never starve.” He said that is because their city is the historic site of Mother Kim Jung-sook and receives special treatment from the Provincial Party and City Party for that. People in their city have the strongest resolution “to make contribution to the construction of historical site with the goal of dedicating themselves to the great leader” than any other cities. It is quite true that people in Hoeryong are the best fed than any other cities. They have reason to be proud of their city since there are numerous other cities starving in much worse conditions. Nevertheless, the laborers are complaining, “We have to be fed in order to work on the construction of the honorable revolutionary site. The officials will receive credit of making contribution of building the historic revolutionary site during the difficult times, but we can’t even afford to eat a piece of kimchi. The officials should at least spare us some of their leftover kimchi. It is not fair when they can eat anything they want and we are being exploited like a working bull.”

At Least 1,000 pyong of Land is Required for an Affordable Living
Almost everyone in Hoeryong in North Hamgyung Province is engrossed in small patch farming. However, it is not easy for the farmers yield sufficiently to the extent they do not have to worry about food. Most of all, finding a land is difficult for an ordinary person. One has to look for people who have connections to authorities, offering bribes such as tobacco, liquor, and money. Most people create patch farms by excavating a heap of stones, or make vegetable gardens using a shovel and pickax. Even after cultivating the land into a patch farm, they face the problems of obtaining seeds and fertilizer. Typically, those who can yield crops through small land patch farming are the ones who farm more than 1,000 pyong (1 pyong is 3.954 sq. yards)

Kim, Chun-il (Alias), a 65 year old resident in Osan-dong, Hoeryong city, North Hamgyung Province, is doing small land patch farming while working as a forest patrol officer. He has not enough grains, but he does not worry about Kimchi. Last year, he harvested 400 kg of corns, 200 kg of soy beans, and 800 kg of vegetables such as red pepper, Napa cabbage, and radish from a 1000 pyong of land. After sending some of the crops to sons and daughters who are struggling in a town away from home, he sells those crops in the market and barely manages to make living. Nonetheless, Mr. Kim says he is lucky because he is not starving. He added, “Even though I farm all year round working my finger to the bone, my life is far from being a life of abundance. We have to buy fertilizer, and employ one or two farmhands. Then, there isn’t much left for profit. There are many houses which cannot afford Kimchi. I should not be too greedy.” He said he could survive this year’s spring lean season if he manages to save the food until new potatoes are produced. He is concerned that he could not have obtained as much fertilizer as he did last year. Mr. Kim told that he could do small land patch farming thanks to his position as a ‘forest patrol officer,’ but farming is not that easy. Those who did not have a small patch farm because they somehow were able to manage to make living through small business are also beginning to do small land patch farming this year as they feel that this year will be a though year.

According to Lee Sun-ok (Alias), “The domestic food production has been insufficient for almost 20 years in a row. Furthermore, sale revenue has been decreasing since the currency reform. As such, people view small land patch farming as the only solution for the food problem.” Ms. Lee added, “An increasing number of money holders and merchants are trying to obtain lands for small land patch farm as it can be a food source for half a year. All that has to be done is obtaining a good farm field through bribing, and manage the farm well using hired hands.” The number of officials families in Municipal Party or Municipal People’s Assembly obtaining the land for patch farming are also increasing as well as in terms of the land area. Using their authority, government officials can easily obtain a rich soiled farm of 1,000 pyong for themselves. They use workers from public enterprises and they provide only grain seeds and fertilizer. They can do farming even without showing up in the farm. One government official in a municipal party stated, “All I have to do for the farm workers is providing two good meals a day. Then, I can utilize all them in all the works needed for seeding, weeding, fertilizing, and harvesting. We are gaining food from the patch farm field for free. As far as I know, officials in Municipal Party and People’s Council earned 600-800 kg of corns last year. We are putting more energy into small patch farming this year because of decreased yields from last year due to flooding.”

Fighting for Survival after 12 Years of Hard Work as a Pushcart Man
Seok-Ho Kim, a 57-years-old man in Eunduk County, Pyongsung City, South Pyongan Province, has been working as a street pushcart man for 12 years in a market area since his mid forties. He has been working hard regardless of good or bad weather and without any day off. The most money he earned in a day was 12,000 NKW when he was busy, but his average earning per day was about 4,000-5,000 NKW. Knowing that it would be difficult to operate a pushcart once he gets elder, he worked hard and saved some good money for his retirement. However, his saving became worthless because of the currency reform in 2009. He is still furious about the currency reform. Although he could never have known about currency reform, he utters the words, “Why didn’t I think of exchanging the money with Chinese Renminbi. I still regret it till this day.” Furthermore, his business has been impacted by widespread market contraction. As a result, he gets 1-2 customers a day if he is lucky. “I barely get customers these days because there are not many travelling merchants around, and somehow if I get a customer, they usually dismiss me because I look too old to carry a heavy luggage. So I have to offer cheaper fees to attract them. There are many days I don’t even earn 1,000 NPW a day.” he said with a sigh. When he was asked what he eats as a meal in these days, “I am lucky if I could eat corn meal. Mostly, I fill my stomach with either noodle or soup. I need to have proper meal in order to do physical work. Operating the pushcart is becoming more difficult everyday. Think about it! Why would someone hire me to transport a light stuff? They hire me for carrying heavy things they are unable to carry by themselves. I think one delivery load of cart is about 300-400 kilograms. I can’t operate the pushcart without eating some corn meal at least. We don’t even have Kimchi at home any more, so we eat wild herbs and vegetables my wife collected in the field along with salt. I wish we had some bean paste, cooking oil, and salt, but we get to see them very rarely.” he uttered the difficulties he has to face with day-to-day living.
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