GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 411, July 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.]
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[Editor’s Note] Soldiers Are Also Human Beings like Us: If They Do Not Eat, They Die, Too.
Potatoes Stolen by Soldiers, Residents Frustrated
When Will Be the End of “Grass Meal Battle” for the Soldiers?
Hunger Main Cause of Ongoing Boot Camp Desertions
Potato Harvest Eases the Hunger
[Special Series] Conditions for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, 2012 (1)
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[Editor’s Note] Soldiers Are Also Human Beings like Us: If They Do Not Eat, They Die, Too.
It may sound a little dramatic, but the title suggests the undeniable reality that North Korean soldiers face in despair. It has become no news that, due to the severe shortage of the army provisions, soldiers rob farming families. Surviving from famine is becoming a real battle that ordinary soldiers and army officers have to go through every day, with the exception of armed guards and special military forces. In the spring, they battled it out by eating mixed grains with grass. In the summer time like now, they live on potato (5-6 tiny potatoes per meal).

When soldiers suffer from hunger, it is the famers and civilians who have to tolerate the consequences. Even though the government emphasizes the importance of a good relationship between civilians and soldiers, people in the army uniform have become a threat and enemy to the ordinary people. It is a sad reality that parents send off their loving children to the army and later find out that their proud sons turn into robbers stealing food from civilians (sometimes from their own neighbors) instead of protecting them.

Soldiers are also human beings that need to eat to live. It is a simple truth as it is. However, when it comes to the political arena in South Korea, it becomes a sensitive and controversial subject. But if humanism is truly believed and practiced in a society, “any hungry people need to be fed first no matter who they are.” Put aside the ideological differences and save the suffering people first.

This edition and the forthcoming two more editions will focus on the direction that the North Korean authorities have set forth to become the Strong and Prosperous Nation. We hope you find interest in this subject and get to learn more about it; especially what the conditions that North Korean authorities enforce are to become the Strong and Prosperous Nation.


Potatoes Stolen by Soldiers, Residents Frustrated
The season has finally come that people could harvest and eat potatoes. It is the time that cheers people who have survived only on grassroots. The season, however, returned with worry since the amount of potato produced this year was much less than expected. The food shortage in the early spring was so extreme that potatoes were not only cropped soon after they were planted but also stolen by soldiers. Such damage was especially severe in Uiju County, North Pyongan Province because the number of soldiers exceeds that of civilians in this area. The farms were dotted everywhere with traces that soldiers left digging out the ground to steal potatoes. To save crops from soldiers, some farms even harvested premature potatoes ahead of time.

The situation in small-plot farming was very much similar. Jang Jeonghwa (pseudonym) who lived in Sujin-ri, Uiju County grieved over her tough luck, “I farmed 150 pyong (0.1215 acre) land for potatoes like the apple of my eye only to get stolen by soldiers. I had to survive on the potatoes until corns ripe, but now I don’t know what I will do to support myself.” Soldiers also harvested potatoes in their own side-working fields. However, the amount of the potato yields is not as much as satisfactory.

In the extreme cases where soldiers suffer from malnutrition and have difficulty with military life, they are sent to their homes. The soldiers who have some energy to move around are the ones that steal potatoes from farms nearby. North Korean people are now waiting for barley to be fully ripe, but until the end of June, potatoes are what they rely on.


When Will Be the End of “Grass Meal Battle” for the Soldiers?
The soldiers who have been “battling” to supplement their meager meals have recently seen a small change, thanks to the early-crop potato. In the military base of the 5th Army Corps in Pyunggang County, Gangwon Province, the soldiers have eaten grass-meal all spring. The soldiers were sometimes given steamed cornmeal, but most days they ate grass-meal. Gathering seasonal sprouts in the mountains was also an important daily chore of the malnourished soldiers. “How can they expect us to fight when they only give us grass to eat? Although we may be prepared to fight to death and carry out suicide bombing missions, we still need food to have the energy to do so. If we were to go to war right now in this fragile state we wouldn’t even be able to mobilize.” These remarks are not exaggerated. This spring, in the military base of the 2nd Army Corps made the corn meals last longer by mixing in seasonal sprouts. The meals consisted of mostly grass with a little bit of corn meal mixed in. The 700g of daily ration per individual has been reduced to 300-400g, which is around the same amount as last year, but the meals have become more deficient. However, some naïve soldiers are optimistic that things will get better as the corn begins to ripen.

Lee Gook-cheol (pseudonym), a soldier who is in his 6th year of service in Pyung-gang, Gangwon Province says, “I thought I was going to starve to death last winter. In the middle of winter, the mountains were covered in snow, so we couldn’t find any seasonal sprouts or grass roots. We were saved from the brink of starvation when we got our food rations after the holidays. At least in the spring, the grass begins to grow and we can dig up seasonal sprouts, so we can fill up on grass meals. Things are even better now because we can mix in potatoes with the crushed corn in the grass-meal.” When asked whether the grass-meal “battle” would soon be over, Lee shakes his head. “We have survived eating food stolen from farms. However, the amount of harvest is very small and the potato crop is very poor this year. There is not much to steal from farmers, so the grass-meal battle is unlikely to end any time soon.”


Hunger Main Cause of Ongoing Boot Camp Desertions
The ration situation at the 4.25 training facility in Seoheung County, North Hwanghae Province, is not much different. When new recruits first enter the military most of them are 18-19 years old. The body size of the recruits is growing smaller considering that those 160 centimeters high fall into the high end. Since winter recruits have been eating grass porridge using grass roots and vegetables they have picked in the mountains. At a time in their lives where they need to eat a lot in order to grow, there are a rising number of cases where recruits have been unable to overcome their hunger and have fled back home. The authorities at boot camps for new recruits are putting greater emphasis on propaganda campaigns calling for recruits to ‘overcome and endure all difficulties (due to the food shortage).’

Deserters are given leeway if they decide to return to their base, but authorities have warned that those who decide not to return will face strict punishment; for example, being sent to the infamous coal mines. These threats, however, are paid little heed by the starving young recruits. There are some recruits who say that no matter what they do after they leave the army they may be sent to the mines or farms so it is best to run away now. There is little awaiting them once they desert, but many of them just want out.

Once they have made the decision to run, many deserters obtain their meals by invading farms they pass along the way. This, however, has led to unfortunate cases of robbery and murder. The middle of last June saw an incident where a deserter passing through Pyongsan-eup, Pyongsan County, North Hwanghae Province, scrounging for food at a farm. The owners of the farm were killed when they tried to stop him. In the end, their death was all because of a couple of potatoes.

While the issue of rising desertions is a problem in military boot camps, the issue of soldiers committing acts of robbery as seen in the aforementioned case is an even bigger issue. “(The recruits) cause such trouble with the local populations that if a person wearing a military uniform is seen loitering around the entrance of a village, the residents of that village immediately tell everyone around them to be on alert. They form groups that rotate to watch over the suspicious person.” Bearing the brunt of suspicion, however, soldiers are not silent. “What is the use of giving my life for this country? Soldiers are easy prey to disease because they can’t keep up their health and cursed with spending the rest of their life miserably. The really smart ones are those who steal to make sure they keep up their health.”

Troops of the howitzer regiment stationed at the 4.25 training camp at Bongsan County, North Hwanghae Province, have recently begun harvesting potatoes to use at mealtime. Early this year, the commander of the outfit ordered all units under his command to ‘plant a lot of food including potatoes as a part time job’. This essentially meant that each unit was told to solve their food problems by themselves. Troops are provided potatoes at mealtime, but the amount they are given is small. The corn meal they are provided for breakfast is usually less than 120 grams and mealtime potatoes usually number from five to six. This has of course led to complaints among the troops.

Some soldiers have said that their hunger prevents them from going to sleep so they commonly form into groups with other soldiers and head to nearby farms or private farming plots to steal food. Occasionally reports of robbery are reported by civilians or farmers, but the military only pays attention when there are cases where people have been hurt or the situation has become severe.

Park Myeongho (alias) weighed 60 kg when he first entered the military last year, but now his body weight has plummeted down to 40 kg. During this last spring, the military sent home around 20 soldiers who were suffering from severe malnutrition like Park. Unable to provide adequate medical care for such cases, the military simply sends them home before they die. The reaction of parents who see their sons come back from the military on the verge of death is no doubt disbelief. “I offered the son I bathed and fed since he was child as a gift to the state and this is what they do to him. I won’t be sending him (and my other sons) to the military again,” says Park’s mother.

One officer at the howitzer regiment related the following: “I understand what the parents are going through. There are officers whose families are unable to receive rations so they are living apart from each other. My wife is living (off) with her parents. Food rations are only provided by the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces to the officers themselves, which forces their families to farm their own food. Some women newlywed to officers are now asking for a divorce (since the food situation has become so bad). Considering what the officers are going through, I have little doubt that the situation is worse for new and low-ranking infantrymen. Summer training starts in July, but because of the food situation I doubt anybody will have the energy to handle the howitzers. I really don't know if we will be able to do training properly this year.”


Potato Harvest Eases the Hunger
The residents of North Hamgyong Province were disappointed at the dismal amount of potato harvest, but were relieved to be able to ease their hunger. They welcomed the potato harvest especially after sustaining on wild greens and vegetable roots since March. Many farms have been depleted of their food supply because their share of the ration was so small. "My family and I have been living on grass porridge since March. Now we have potatoes we have dug up from our garden to eat, which is better," said Park Kuemhwa, a worker at a vegetable farm in Chungam District of North Hamgyong Province. Unlike city residents, farmers have farming as their only means of survival. Their harvest was diminished by the flood last summer, and they could not stock up food for the summer due to the unexpected collection of army provisions early this year. So they are barely sustaining themselves with grass porridge and potatoes. The farmers who had no choice but to diligently report for work during farming mobilization are beginning to be absent one by one. The farm officials are threatening that they will take account of the work points strictly for the fall distribution, but the farmers don't seem to care. This attitude stems from the notion that they will be better off farming privately than to count on food distribution. "We don't care if they say they will give us a gold mountain in the fall; we cannot stay idle or we will starve to death. What we need to do to survive is farming privately," said the farmers.

At the beginning of this year, Chungjin City Party apportioned a farming side-working field to public enterprises, which was prorated based on a number of laborers at each facility, and exhorted them to farm potatoes. Excluding special public enterprises like Gimchaek Still Mill, most public enterprises welcomed it. However, due to the shortage of budget, each enterprise collected money from their laborers to buy farming supplies such as seeds and fertilizers. Chungjin Bus Enterprise collected 2,000 won for seeds and 3,000 won for fertilizer from each worker. Factory workers farmed really hard, but in harvest they were given only 10 kilograms of potatoes per person. “The money that I paid for seeds and fertilizer, plus lunch that I brought every day, is as much as I could purchase one month ration of potatoes in the market. I’d better not do it next year unless we get better crop,” said workers. With the farming field in poor condition and the lack of farming supplies, it was inevitable to have poor harvest.

Initially, farm officials were discontented with the apportionment of farm land to public enterprises as there was not enough farm land to apportion even among them. Knowing this, public enterprises could not ask for farm land in a better condition. Although laborers were disappointed at the poor yield, the new crop of potatoes released in market is alleviating their hardship with food. Meanwhile, public enterprises have been preparing to plant cabbage and radish in farming land after potato harvest completes. They usually start planting them around July 20th each year.

Even Eunryul County in South Hwanghae Province, which is the granary area, is not an exception when it comes to food crisis. Starving local residents lived off on a grass root soup for the past four months and barely farmed during the spring lean season. Now they are happy that at least they have newly harvested potatoes. Kim, Young-hee (Alias), a resident in Eunryul-eup, said, “The new crop of potatoes helps a lot like a rain during a drought.” Factory workers are also relieved a bit after receiving 7 to 20 days worth of potato ration. In April, Eunryul County Party apportioned a farm land to factories and public enterprises and ordered them to farm potatoes. Some of them, where they managed to purvey fertilizers well, were able to provide 20 days worth of potato ration. However, majority of the factories and enterprises were not that successful. Eunryul County Urban Construction Enterprise, for example, could not give out any potato at all. An officer of County Party said, “The newly harvested potatoes help a lot. If we bear a bit longer, we will have barley harvest at the beginning of July. It will help reduce death starvation. Eunryul County residents are now surviving on potatoes mixed with wild grass.”


[Special Series] Conditions for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, 2012 (1)
Editor’s Note:
The D-day is April 15, 2012. Less than a year left. Can North Korea really open the grand door of the Strong and Prosperous Nation? More than any others, those responsible for it must be extremely anxious under the scrutiny of North Korea watchers. They soon have to come up with something tangible that signals the opening of the Strong and Prosperous Nation to their domestic and international audience. We have asked North Korean officials what the conditions for the Strong and Prosperous Nation are. They mentioned three things in common: food, electricity, and the completion of the 100,000 housing construction in Pyongyang. These are the conditions directly linked to livelihoods and economic development. In principle, the Strong and Prosperous Nation is another name of a rich and solid nation based on the security of the current regime. We are launching a series of three editorials that examine the direction for the Strong and Prosperous Nation the North Korean leadership has set.

We have recently observed a very busy movement of the North’s leadership. It seems that a series of new policies are announced after many rounds of meetings. One can detect some sense of solemn determination in the new orders, but the reactions of the hands-on officers are not really enthusiastic. It might be that it is difficult to complete all the assignments only with the strong ‘protect the Great Leader with death’ spirit. The reign of terror has limitations. What kind of leadership will the North government take to open the door of the Strong and Prosperous Nation? Here, we try to analyze the challenges they are facing from their perspectives. When understanding their contradictions and limitations clearly, we can better figure out our roles for unification.

1. We must solve the food problem.
2. Do every effort to supply electricity.
3. Dream of building 100,000 housing in Pyongyang.

We must solve the food problem.
“By next year, we must solve the food problem.” It is, again, the food. On April 15 next year, the North government is supposed to distribute food from huge grain storages full of rice. However, it is quite unlikely that this will actually happen; especially when less than a year is left ahead. There is the chronic lack of fertilizer and farming equipment, and the climate did not help either with the severe cold weather last winter, the draught of early summer, and the following rainstorms. How about human resources? Many residents, already suffering from the harsh hunger of the spring lean season, are collapsing due to malnutrition while working in farms. There are continuous hurdles on the way to the Strong and Prosperous Nation. Are there any solutions to the food problem?

How much food received from China? “Don’t ask. It’s complicated.”
Aiming the North’s recent busy movement with China, we have asked the Central Party officials how much food the North got from China after Kim Jong-il’s visit to China. Their immediate reaction was: “Don’t ask. It’s complicated.” Those who roughly estimated said it seemed less than 100,000 tons. Some said 50,000 tons were received, and others said 70,000-90,000 tons. All in all, they all agreed that it could not be more than 100,000 tons. This amount of food barely can feed Pyongyang citizens only. That food is now almost depleted, and the lack of food in Pyongyang is the most urgent emergency. The dream of the economic cooperation with China is grand, but the way towards it seems very long.

Overseas representative offices, the last resort?
Are overseas representative offices the only last resort? After consecutive meetings of the core officials of the Party and the government, the Central Party issued orders to all overseas representative offices with food assignment. Overseas representative offices, on the other hand, are in a complete shock by the size of the assignment. “Are they telling us to go to hell?,” some reacted vehemently. Others questioned the incoherent policies.

One official at an overseas representative office said this was so much out of the blue. The winter assignment for military food provisions was so hard to accomplish, and he had to give up at a certain point. And now, the amount of food assignment issued this time is not even comparable to the last assignment. It seems at least 40 times the last assignment, he said. When asked how much the assignment would be, he said, “it is not officially delivered yet, but each representative office must bring 5,000 tons.” “5,000 tons, not even 50 tons! I could not believe my ears and had to ask again”, he continued, saying that this was confirmed information although the official notice had not arrived yet. There are so many kinds of assignment to each official on top of all the work for the office itself, and how on earth one can draw that much money for food purchase, he sighed, saying that this is a mission impossible.

Some officials of overseas representative offices are reacting fiercely. Amidst of the rumor of the recent purge of trade department officials, some suspect this might be a part of conspiracy to fire all the hands-on officials of overseas representative offices. They are used to receiving orders to buy food every year during the spring hardship period. This year, however, since there have been no more orders since February, some overseas officials thought the food situation in North Korea was getting better only to be shocked now. Some say let’s wait and see because there has not been any official announcement from the government yet. They try to ease their anxiety in a disbelief that the government would not give such an outrageous amount of assignment the officials cannot fulfill.

Officials in the domestic departments express their frustration at the belated order of food assignments. “The government has been ignoring all the reports on the dire food situation. After series of reports of hunger deaths, only now are they issuing orders for food purchase. I don’t understand what they have been doing until now and making all this fuss. We might all die before reaching the door of the Strong and Prosperous Nation.” Those within the nation are naively expecting some solution from the officials overseas, and those abroad are vehemently resisting that this is an outrageous order.

Contacting international aid agencies getting easier?
On the other hand, there are movements to expand the amount of aid received from international aid agencies. In the past, some aid agencies upholding the principal of local distribution on the spot would take photos or make records on video tapes. After they left, the officials in charge of those projects used to get punished for that. As this kind of cases were repeated, contacting foreign aid agencies was regarded dangerous and risky, and the number of requests for food aid to foreign aid agencies decreased. There are people who would like to contact foreign aid agencies in secret but less people would deal with them officially. However, only when the security of the officers in charge is guaranteed can the contacts with foreign agencies and the possibility of getting aids increase. It seems that the new policy will take this into account. An official of the Central Party said there would be a division of work in the future: it is likely that the Ministry of National Security will investigate the officials who contact foreign aid agencies, and the Ministry of People’s Safety will monitor the overall aid process. Some say there will be new policies that incorporate the requests of foreign aid agencies. They cautiously interpret this might be a ground work for requesting foreign aids in a full scale in the near future.

Investing in agriculture is the only solution
It seems the Central Party is trying to find a fundamental solution for the food problem, while requesting foreign aids and urging overseas representative offices to import food for next year. The Party’s diagnose and conclusion is: “We have been suffering from food deficiency every year because of our mountainous geography, outdated technology, lack of fertilizer, and limited amount of arable land. Without a continuous flow of food aid from foreign countries, we are bound to suffer in the future as well. In the long run, we must invest in agriculture and resolve the food problem. We must first innovate agricultural technology, invest in equipment and facilities, and improve seeds and fertilizer. The key is electricity in agriculture as well. If we can modernize agriculture and solve the electricity problems, we can solve the problems of agriculture.” This means that they will focus on food import from overseas in the short term and investment in agriculture in the long term to resolve the food problem. The question here is practicality. Who can attract investment in agriculture and how is the key.

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