GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 408, June 22, 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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Strengthened Crackdown on Skipping Farming Mobilization Aggravates People’s Lives
Illegal Border Crossing in Hike Despite Tight Control Over Farming Mobilization
“I Crossed the Border to Survive.”
Border Patrols Earn Money by Overlooking Border-Crossing
“Dear My Wife in South Korea, Please Help us Out!”
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Editor’s Note: A Society that Drives People to Defect
It is time for farming mobilization and the spring lean season, when skipping meals are no more than an everyday routine. Police officers are waiting in the neighborhood to catch anybody they see and send them to farms. You need at least a pack of ‘cat cigarette’* to pass.

You can barely buy 1 kg of corn with a whole day of hard work at a market in North Korea. At the news that they are now supposed to do business only for 2-3 hours a day, people are upset. It seems so natural for them to cry out, “Do they really want us to die or live?”

People say that on the other side of the Tumen River (which means ‘in China’), even dogs eat steamed rice meal. Hoping to eat as much as they want once in their life, increasing number of people are ‘crossing the river’ (defecting). Who are pushing them to the other side of the river? North Korean authorities need to listen to the outcry of the residents, “I crossed the river since I wanted to live!” If they cannot feed the people, the North Korean government should at least let them make their own way to survive. We call for a generous treatment of the defectors who were forcefully repatriated.

*Note: The official name of ‘cat cigarette’ is ‘Craven A,’ which has a cat logo on the case and a British company sub-contracted North Korea to produce and export to Africa.

Strengthened Crackdown on Skipping Farming Mobilization Aggravates People’s Lives
Death from starvation is still ongoing in Heungnam City and Hamheung City, South Hamgyong Province. According to a party official at the Provincial Party of South Hamgyong Province, in addition to widespread food shortage, which is the primary reason, all-out farm mobilization is also responsible for the situation as farm work consumes much of people's time and energy, which, otherwise, they could have used to work elsewhere and make a better living. Furthermore, the stepped up crackdown on movement makes it more difficult for people to make a living for several reasons.

Ham Mi-Young (pseudonym), from Sapo District in Hamheung City, has increasing difficulty in feeding her five family members. She could not make a decent profit even when she spent entire day selling fish, which she transported from Rak-won Beach very early in the morning. To make matters worse, she can spend only a couple of hours selling fish due to the obligatory farm mobilization work. She must be very careful about making round trips between her town and Rak-won beach to avoid the crackdown. During early June 2011, she was caught by a police officer at the entrance to her town while transporting fish from Rak-won Beach. The ‘cat tobacco,’ which she had in her vehicle to use as a bribe in case of being caught, worked for the police officer and he gave her a pass in return for the bribe. Though she could avoid the worst, being arrested, it was still stressful, because the ‘cat tobacco’ cost her 12,000 won. It tops the list of the best bribing items, because it is more highly valued than other tobaccos, such as Poong-nyon, Go-hyang, and Pyongyang, which cost 5,000, 7,000, and 8,000 respectively. She laments that making a profit is almost impossible due to the high cost, notably bribing police officers. She said, “Purchasing cat tobacco for one bribe is not a real issue. What really troubles me is the police officers who are positioned at every checkpoint. Since I have to risk being caught every time I make a trip, I tend to reduce the number of trips to get fish.” Nonetheless, her business is considered in a better position, given the fact that she owns her own vehicle.

Lee Ok-hee (pseudonym), who operates a small grocery business, makes a profit of just 600 or 700 won a day. She said, “Those who can earn more than 2000 won a day are better off with paying fines for missing farm work, because a fine for absence is 2,000 won. However, I have to participate in farm mobilization, because attendance is thoroughly checked, and I cannot afford the fine of 2,000 won a day. If I am caught by a police officer while moving around for business, I have to offer a bribe, at least one box of tobacco, which amounts to the money which can feed my family three meals. Thus, by all accounts, poor people like us cannot get out of poverty. My husband and kids keep me from attempting to commit a suicide. I don’t know how to endure my life.”

Women who run market stall businesses like Lee complain that “We have only a couple of hours for our own business after being released from farm mobilization work. As soon as business starts to pick up, it begins to get dark. How can we live under this condition?” Because of this dire situation, many families can afford only one or two porridges a day. More than a few die out of hunger.

Illegal Border Crossing in Hike Despite Tight Control Over Farming Mobilization
Hardship of farming mobilization seems to be endless. Police officers are at every corner of the streets and people do not dare to go out—if you get caught, you are most likely sent to the farm. This tight control is especially weighing on resellers (brokers). Since they do not have any financial resources, they need to start their day at dawn, buy whatever they can afford to buy, and sell them in the market on the same day. If you are a well-off merchant, you can bribe the officers and get away from the farming mobilization. However, if you are a reseller (broker), you can do nothing but hiding from the officers. The period of farming mobilization in its full swing like right now is the hardest time of the year for the resellers to do their business. During this season, passing days without food becomes more frequent; some people do not make it through this ordeal and die of hunger. As the government control in the farming mobilization is getting tighter, the number of people who attempt to cross the border is on high rise. “Things are not going well in business and we are always in short of food. We cannot live like this anymore.” This is what you hear from most of the border crossers. When the spring hardship season comes, the condition gets worse. Out of despair and hunger, people decide to leave their beloved hometown and attempt to cross the Tumen River; some of them had already tried to cross the border before. The border patrols around Hyesan, Ryangang Province; Sinuiju, South Pyongan Province; Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, are beefing up their surveillance in the wake of this rise. Along with the tight border control, the authorities keep a close eye on the family of defectors. In Chungjin city, South Hamgyong Province, for instance, there were 70 households that got caught while communicating with their family overseas through cellular phones. They all got expelled to a remote area and 30 of them were sentenced to be re-educated.

“I Crossed the Border to Survive.”
Jungho Kim (alias), who lived in Pung-nyon li, Gimchaek city, North Hamkyong Province, was arrested when he was crossing the border to China. It was not his first trial. He had crossed the border in 2007 and was sent back to North Korea to serve in Jeongurrie Re-education Center for 3 years. He was released last year because of the amnesty. To celebrate the 65 year anniversary of the Community Party, nationwide amnesty was executed from September 21 to September 27 last year to pardon 150,000 people. In North Hamkyong Province, about 9600 people were pardoned. The political-ideological offenders, who tried to escape to South Korea or criticized the social system, and violent criminals were excluded from the amnesty. Kim was classified as a simple border-crosser and was able to receive the benefit of the amnesty. He felt relieved when he first got out of the Re-education Center but could not settle down in his home.

When he first crossed the border to China, he wanted to find his wife who had left home. Without his wife, the poor father and his son did not know how to lead their lives. He just crossed the border when he heard that somebody saw a woman who looked like his wife in Yanji, China. It was risky, but luckily he could easily cross the border with the help of his old colleague, who was trafficking used clothes. He did not find his wife from that trip, but he began to help his old colleague deliver used clothes. Fast and bold, he did not find it too difficult to cross the border.

In 2007, he was able to cross Tumen River with the help of border patrols but caught by the Chinese border patrol. Although he had a connection with some of them, the Chinese border was very tightly controlled on that day and he could not get any help. He was sent to Jeongurrie Re-education Center and his 10 year old son was sent to a welfare institution. After he was pardoned by the Amnesty, he first tried to locate his son, but could not find any trace. His son ran away from the welfare institution and nobody heard from him since. He does not know whether his son is alive or dead. In a cold shabby shack, he was not sure how to live with very little amount of food and without his son. It was also difficult to start a business without any seed money. Finally he decided to cross the border again. It was last February. He still had old connections in the Border Control and some merchants in China. He was able to bring used clothes from China to clothes sellers and earn some money. During the spring lean season, crossing border became increasingly difficult. Anyway, he crossed the border to earn his living only to get caught by Chinese border patrols and was sent to Musan Customs. He was badly beaten since he had a previous record of border crossing. He is currently suffering from the injury without any medical treatment.

When he was asked why he crossed the border again instead of living with the appreciation of the amnesty, he answered, “I crossed the border to survive. There was nothing to do after I got out from the Center. If the government had provided a means to live, I wouldn’t have planned the crossing. I needed money to find my son and to get some food.” It is said that he would be sentenced to 9 years in prison.

Border Patrols Earn Money by Overlooking Border-Crossing
The border patrols are still conducting illegal activities in secret as the time of instability continues due to food shortages. Unlike those in forefront areas who eat grass porridges, the border patrols can at least have some steamed corn meals; however, the food is not enough to eat in abundance, so they cannot stop taking money by helping the border-crossing. In many cases, high ranking military officers and sergeants (noncommissioned officers) form a group and participate systematically. They cannot avoid the judicial punishment in addition to the termination from party membership and workplace if the border-crossing problem is raised, but the prevailing mentality is to earn money first whenever there is an opportunity. The high ranking military officers who receive 4,000 NK won for living expenses and their share of distribution as well as those of their families are not any better. In fact, the greediness of the high ranking military officers is worse than that of the sergeants, since they think they should take a lot of money while they can so they can make a living one way or the other within the society when they are discharged from the military service someday. They think it is much more profitable to just overlook the matter and earn money than receiving one-time compliment by catching border-crossers and smugglers. If there are more border-crossers and smugglers, it is a better opportunity to regulate moderately and earn money moderately. That is why assisting the illegal border-crossing is not terminated no matter how much joint censorship or cross censorship is conducted by the National Security Agency or the Border Patrol Command.

The border patrol military officers in Hyesan City of Ryanggang Province even take a direct part in smuggling goods such as coppers or herbs. The Defense Security Command conducted a censorship from January to March of this year, and 5 high ranking military officers and 7 sergeants were arrested for smuggling. They implored for generosity, saying that they did not just try to satisfy their own interests but they were compelled to do so in order to achieve the military tasks. It is also true that the various military tasks from the high command instigate the illegal activities of the high ranking military officers. This year as well, the high ranking military officers have been troubled with the task of managing guard posts. “It must be resolved using our own money only, but who among the soldiers would have money? In order to carry out the task, smuggling is imperative. Taking a bribe moderately and enforcing regulations moderately became how the border patrols should behave,” they say. On the other hand, the authorities are placing more emphasis on the regulation of cell phone and reporting by residents in the National Border Area as the spring hardship season came. They also make propaganda saying that a cell phone user will be forgiven if he surrenders himself to the responsible authority and turns in the phone. However, the residents who have heard the same propaganda all the time are letting it go in one ear and out the other this time as well.

“Dear my Wife in South Korea, Please Help us out!”
There are many households that have missing family members in National Border Area. Many of them are parted during Arduous March, and some of them moved to China, some of whom continued their way to South Korea. If a family gets to hear from the defected member from China or South Korea, they are exhilarated by this since they did not even know whether the defectors were alive. In the case of receiving money from those missing people, their families would feel extremely relieved and happy. Kim Geum-wha, who lives in Musan city, North Hamgyong Province, gets two million won a year from a daughter in Seoul. Even though the broker takes 20 to 30 percent off from the entire money, the family can live up to 1 year with the money. Considerable amount of money also goes to security agents and security department, but Kim’s family feels so fortunate to eat half corn and half rice meal under the current circumstance where lots of people die of hunger. As the number of people being supported by their families in China and South Korea grows, there is an increasing expectation on the support from overseas.

Cheol Kim, from Chungjin city, North Hamgyong Province, is desperately waiting for his wife’s contact, who has gone to South Korea. Since 2005, his wife has sent the money once or twice a year from China, for her two children and husband to survive. Then she told him that she planned to go to South Korea because of her security, and finally, about 2 years ago, Mr. Kim heard that she arrived at South Korea successfully. He was also told that she received resettlement fund from South Korean government, which afforded her the phone call and remittances. After a couple times of remittance, he was severed from his wife’s contact. He tried to call her through the messenger, and later he tried contacting the Chinese broker directly by traveling to Hoeryong city. However, he was told that his wife was not able to be reached probably due to the change of her phone number. After several months, Mr. Kim starts to be very anxious about it and laments, “My wife must be busy with her life. Maybe she has met another guy and changed her mind. I tried to contact her through many means in China, but there is no way to reach her. I cannot leave for China for the sake of my survival leaving my kids behind. Now I am just waiting to die. So far my kids could go to school and eat rice thanks to their mother. Without her support, we cannot survive afterwards. I can’t even cross Tumen River with two kids, so I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to call for a help. I feel so much pity for my two kids.”

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