GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 412, July 20, 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] The Second Condition for the Strong and Prosperous Nation 2012
Preparation of Electing Representatives for Local People’s Assembly on July 24 in Full Swing
After-Election Singing Performance Rouses Displeasure
Reason Workers Can Get by without Rations in Sooncheon Cement Factory
Few Squids to Catch This Summer
Tyranny of Coastguard Adds to Difficulties [Special Series] Conditions for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, 2012 (2): Make Every Effort to Supply Electricity
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[Editor’s Note] The Second Condition for the Strong and Prosperous Nation 2012
As a continuation of the last week’s edition, we have examined the second requirement proposed by North Korean authorities to become the Strong and Prosperous Nation in the current edition. The high profile Heecheon Power Plant construction project suggests that sufficient resources for electricity be one of the requirements. Completion of the plant construction is a top priority for the government—electricity is the fuel for any industries; without it, nothing can even get started. The government has managed to complete the first phase of the Heecheon Power Plant project by injecting considerable non-tax contribution and government fund into the project. However, it has not been able to launch the second phase yet due to lack of financial resources. The government encouraged the unit responsible for the project to raise fund by itself but whether it will be successful remains in doubt. Now most of public attention goes to the fast approaching election for new representatives for the provincial, city, and county people’s assembly. It is expected that new blood will replace the old one in the local governments. Should we have some hope on the newly-elected?


Preparation of Electing Representatives for Local People’s Assembly on July 24 in Full Swing
On July 24, representatives for local People’s Assembly will be elected nationwide. Representatives from city, divisional, and district People’s Committee including cities under the direct control of the central government and provinces will be elected. This is the day to newly elect some members of the local assembly. The North Korean authorities are encouraging the participation in the election by saying, “any citizen who is older than 18 years old in each province and city must demonstrate one’s utmost loyalty and consciously participate, with no exceptions. The election on the day is scheduled to start at 6 o’clock in the morning and to finish at 9 o’clock in the evening. The residents must dress up neatly such as wearing a suit or Korean traditional clothes, and everyone must come out to vote. For the elderly and the infirm who cannot move, the election officials assigned in its division carry the ballot box and visit from door to door. The voting roll was announced on July 9, and election officials in charge of the division were selected to manage voting booth starting July 10.

In North Korea, an election is said to start from control and regulation, and the security authorities are also busy preparing for the election. Once the date of election is announced, they keep the trends of the residents under strict scrutiny and they also participate in the overall progress on the day of the election. A few years ago, there was a big disturbance as a fire broke out in the voting booth of Chungjin and Hoeryong and a poll book was torn apart. At that time, the matter was ended by dismissing all the officials in charge of the voting booth, the respective security agents and police officers, and after this incident, the security authorities have reinforced the vigilant surveillance on the day of the election. Restricting the movement of the residents is also in progress intensively. Tracking down border crossing and smuggling was reinforced in the National Border Area, and steps were taken so the residents from other regions cannot enter. Travel Certificates are not issued at all during the election period. Only the government officials who need to be on a business trip to handle the state affairs can travel by obtaining a ‘Moving Vote Certificate’. In South Korea, an absentee ballot is casted to a candidate of the region that the absentee originally resides; but in North Korea, a ballot is casted to a candidate on the site, and the voter receives a written confirmation that he voted.

On the other hand, there is a rumor going on among the residents in Chungjin City of North Hamgyong Province that on July 24, 5 days’ worth of food will be distributed in commemoration of the Election Day in which the representatives for local People’s Committee will be elected nationwide. “The Provincial Party and the City Party have a plan to distribute 5 days’ worth of food”, says an officer from the Provincial Party of North Hamgyong Province. It means that they will distribute a portion of the food imported by the trade companies to the people. However, whether they will be able to execute the distribution is uncertain because there is not much food imported. Other government organizations are also planning to distribute even a few days’ worth of food in commemoration of the Election Day, but they are also concerned over the similar issue.


After-Election Singing Performance Rouses Displeasure
North Koreans go into a celebratory mode after an election is over. The city and military party gather the members of the Democratic Women's Union and start preparing a singing performance starting July 15th. "We are so hungry, we hardly have any strength to sing. We wish they would leave us alone," said members of DWU, implying that their seemingly skillful singing and dancing are done only half heartedly.

Ilsoon Lee (alias), a resident of Pohang District in Chungjin City of North Hamgyong Province, expressed her displeasure saying "I'm struggling just to put food on the table; I'm not in the mood to sing, nor do I have strength. I'm just doing it to follow orders." "The business is poor already, and if I begin practicing on the 15th, I won't be able to make any money because I would have to put aside my business for at least eight or nine days. This election business is so irksome, I wish it was over," concurred Joo Miyoung (alias), a merchant who lives in the same district.

Meanwhile, middle school students will also begin practicing on July 15th for an event in which they would sing and walk in lines with flowers in their hands.


Reason Workers Can Get by without Rations in Sooncheon Cement Factory
The Soocheon Cement Factory in the southern Pyongan Province has been operating normally since March. The rations have stopped after workers received two weeks’ worth of food in March; however, workers are still receiving their monthly wages. The rate of absence has gone down dramatically. According to Choi Dong-gook (alias), a factory worker, “people come to work voluntarily because they are able to steal cement. The cement produced at our factory is of such good quality that it supplies hydraulic power plants, so it’s in high demand. On a good day I can take up to 100kgs, but on average I am able to smuggle out 30kgs. The 30 kgs gives me enough money to buy cornmeal for my family.” Choi said that this was the reason for the decrease in absences. However, it’s not a daily routine because they cannot evade surveillance and restrictions of the factory security every time. There are so many workers stealing cement that they do not receive severe punishment. They still take caution when stealing because they are subject to public humiliation during general meetings.

Lee Man-soo (alias), who was harassed by the guards when he was caught stealing last month, pointed out that the real thieves were the officials. “Laborers like us are petty thieves who sell the cements for food, while officials steal truckloads of cement to make large sums of money,” he complained and added, “They are left alone while we are reprimanded.” The factory has constructed guard towers to catch big thieves, but to little effect. It’s because in most large scale smugglings the robber corroborates with the guards.

Sometimes the factory supplies the workers with 100-200kgs of cement when there is a severe food shortage. They also distribute cement to encourage the workers who are working under difficult conditions. On such days the workers, in their work units, go out and treat themselves to drinks and tofu on their ways home. At times like these, workers say “We’re in a better situation.”

One official at the cement factory said that it reopened to supply building materials to Heechun Power Plant. “Heechun Power Plant is an important national project. Officials from the central government have come down to supervise the company in order to produce more cement. We told them that they need to alleviate the food shortage problem to work more effectively. The central government is telling the people to wait a little longer, and they promised to provide some rations in July. We don’t completely believe them, but they might give us some priority since our factory is special,” he said hopefully.


Few Squids to Catch This Summer
There has not been such a hard year as this year for fishermen in the East Coast. They should be happy with their fishing work at this time of the year, which is a time for catching squids, but they can hardly find any to catch. Moreover, as access to the sea became stricter, it gets even more difficult for them to operate fishing.

Mr. Go Chang-hyuk (alias) from Yeonjin-dong, Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province is an owner of two ships. He has been going fishing with 6 to 8 fishermen per one ship for the last several years. It is an extremely dangerous work, which is even quoted as “carrying the bottom lining board of a coffin on the back”, thus it is rare to find older people to go out for sailing. Ship owners let reliable fishermen sail out at around 2 pm, and they return at 9 am next day after fighting against the sea for approximately 20 hours. It is of certain the fishermen go exhausted after the squid fishing without sleeping. The owner and the laborers divide the squids by a ratio of 7 to 3 in general, but Mr. Ko treats them by 6 to 4 since they have been working together for more than 7 to 8 years. Among 10 squids they catch the ship owner has 6, and that was considered a proper amount.

Mr. Ko raised his share from 6/10 to 7/10 this year, and the fishermen accepted it without complaints. They know this year is the worst of the worst, and in fact, they would have to accept it even if they do not receive any share at all. They need to go further into the sea as they are not able to find any squid in the near sea, increasing the fuel cost to an unbearable amount. The entry to the sea is monitored strictly, and the cost of bribe is also on the rise. They need permission from police and security office, city and the armed force party for admission to the sea, and it is more than a couple governmental offices to go through. Mr. Ko already gave almost 100,000 won to officials including coast guards. He or his fishermen can be nitpicked at any time, and he will have to pay additional bribes. Mr. Ko is enduring all these difficulties since squid catching can be done only in summer and if the summer passes, they can fall into hunger throughout the year. Mr. Ko is considered as a bold guy, but he is disheartened these days to see fewer than 10 squids caught a day. When asked the reason of the situation, he said that the sea temperature is too low. Squids live in warm water at around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), but the water is abnormally cold this year so it became extremely difficult to find them. They are in a dilemma because if they travel further to search for the squid, it costs them more fuel.


Tyranny of Coastguard Adds to Difficulties Corrupt coastguard units are worsening the already difficult situation for many fishermen. “It will be difficult for owners of fishing boats to earn money if this severe crack-down continues this year,” said Kim Cheolnam (Alias), who has been fishing squid in Yeonjin-dong, Chungjin, for 15 years. Security agents investigate the identity of fishermen as part of their normal routine. They have been prohibiting siblings and other relatives from getting on board together in an effort to prevent fishermen from fleeing to South Korea. However, for the fishermen, this is the best case scenario. Sometimes the security agents allow fishing boats to go out to the sea and then, after they have returned, conduct a search of the boat and confiscate all the squids the fishermen have caught for the entire night. The fishermen suffer from disadvantages when their passes are not clearly presented. Some time ago, one of Mr. Kim's colleagues had a similar experience. “It is understandable that he would go crazy when the soldiers took all he had caught with less than one hour of sleep. He picked a fight with the soldiers and was beaten up so bad he is now in a hospital bed. The soldiers are said to be those of the Great General. However, what they are doing is no better than daylight robbery. This whole mess is a tragedy for his family because they completely depend on him. Would he say he felt like committing suicide if it weren’t that bad?” said Mr. Kim.

Coastguard officers also make outrageous efforts to steal what they can during the squid catching season. “It is better that they are taking squids, because it would be much worse if they deprived a fisherman of his boat. If fishermen catch enough squids, they can give some to the coastguard as a bribe. However, squids are difficult to catch these days. The fishermen do not have what it takes to bribe the authorities. Therefore, the fishermen lose their boats when they rub the soldiers wrong way,” said Cha Myeongcheol (alias). Fishermen fill up the fuel and replace the parts and fishing equipment on credit. When they lose their boat, they find themselves in a sea of debt.

Lee Sunghak (alias), who lives in Bangjin-dong, Chungam District, has been harvesting squids since May. He says that he has been unable to catch anything and, recently, has been caught in crackdowns more frequently. He has been working in the fishing industry for the last six years, and this year is the worst in terms of harvesting squids. He says that this year’s crackdown has been the most severe. “I was waiting for the squid harvesting season after I ran out of food to eat. However, I haven't been able to find any squid since the season has started. At the same time, the coastguard is becoming more vicious. The soldiers take what they please through a variety of pretexts. Not only boat owners, but also employed workers are complaining that they have no sources or means to get food and their life has become very difficult,” said Mr. Lee.


[Special Series] Conditions for the Strong and Prosperous Nation, 2012 (2)
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 are the conditions for the Strong and prosperous Nation. 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 through their views. When understanding their contradictions and limitations clearly, we can better figure out our roles for unification.
1. We must solve the food problem.
2. Make every effort to supply electricity.
3. Dream of building 100,000 housing in Pyongyang.

Make Every Effort to Supply Electricity
The electric power shortage is another urgent issue as the food shortage. As the food shortage directly affects people, the power shortage directly affects the economic development because electricity is the basic element of production. That is why the government is fully supporting the construction of Heecheon Power Plant in Jagang Province. The Central Party emphasized the importance of electric power at the meeting of the Party and the government officials last June: “Until when do we have to rely on food and consumer goods imported from China? We need to make our own goods without being dependent on Chinese and other foreign resources. We need to complete the construction of Heecheon Power Plant and then construct three more hydropower plants of the same size of the plant. Only then can we meet the demand for electricity without any problem. Once we get there, we can open the door of the Strong and Prosperous Nation in 2012.” Following the meeting, an order was issued instructing to focus on the completion of Heecheon Power Plant construction. It stated to give a full support to the construction of the plant with needed materials and food for the workers.

Reality check: The second phase of Heechon Power Plant construction stalled
Then, what is the progress on the Heecheon Power Plant construction, a dream project of the North Korean government? The first phase of the construction is completed, and the second phase is stalled due to lack of funds. The government ordered each unit to contribute, but all the units feel it too much burdensome after paying their duties for the first phase of construction. Except for the Trade Department or the Security Department, all organizations and business units cannot afford any more duties. Finally, the government ordered the Heecheon Power Plant construction unit to raise funds on its own. While hardly any progress has been made in the fund-raising, the exterior construction is roughly finished, waiting for the equipment for the second phase construction. Nobody knows how long it would take to resume the construction.

“Didn’t they say they built hundreds of hydropower plants?”
Residents cannot really understand why they still have to suffer from power shortages. “There are supposed to be hundreds of hydropower plants recently built every corner of the nation. Why are we still suffering from power shortages?” They question where all the money went collected for the construction of so many small and medium sized power plants as well as the largest Heecheon Power Plant. Even when some of the power plants are completed, they supply power only to several special factories and armament factory complexes. The electricity produced from those plants is not enough to supply for agricultural purposes. Despite the reiterated emphasis on agriculture, all they can do is to re-channel the electric power supply from households to operate the water pumps in the field. Even that is not enough most times, and the water pumps are often left idle due to the lack of power. Farmers have to see their rice seedlings drying up without irrigated water. For residents whose scarce 2-3 hour-a-day electric power supply is taken away for agriculture, the saying “holidays are the days when you get the electric power in your house” certainly resonates with them. “When they collected non-tax duties for the construction of those power plants, they made a lot of empty promises that they would supply electric power right after the completion of the power plants. In reality, we are getting nothing. They just deceive us to take our hard earned money from us. I doubt if there is any country in the world that suffers from the power shortage as much as my country.” Is the North Korean government listening to the sigh of its people?


Electric power shortage undermines the prospects of attracting Chinese investment
The power shortage is one of the major hurdles in attracting investment from Chinese corporations. There is no power to operate factories, and the railways are too slow to accommodate large scale business transportation. That pushes away Chinese businessmen who visit North Korea in search of business opportunities. The poor infrastructure and frequent power shortages in North Korea are not unknown to them, but when it comes to investing their own money, they realize the overwhelming scale of problems. That is why they usually end up focusing on importing anthracite coal and iron ore from North Korea at the border areas.

An ethnic Korean Chinese running a trade company in Tumen in China expressed his frustration with the railway system in North Korea. “I got on the train in Pyongyang, and it took three days to get to Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province. We were stuck in a rural train station in nowhere for about 20 hours. I had no idea that the power shortage in North Korea was that serious. As soon as the train moved, it stopped again. It repeated moving and stopping so many times that people said a bicycle would get us faster to our destination. I heard people saying the railway condition is better between Sinuiju and Pyongyang, but it was awful in that part. Poor North Korean passengers ran out of food and had to starve. Half of them looked mindless, maybe because they were extremely hungry. This is the situation of passenger cars, and I doubt wagons are any different. Through this experience, I realized the situation of North Korea really went backward to the time of the Arduous March,” he reported. Usually the travel on the railway between Sariwon and Rajin-Sunbong takes about 27 hours, but these days it takes 56 hours or up to 4-5 days due to the power shortage. The humidity and high temperature of summer add more troubles in preparing food on the way. Some people with money carry the cooking equipment so that they can make a fire to cook rice whenever the train stops. Others with no money just have to starve.

Railways are the arteries of the national economy. Upon realizing such poor conditions of the railway system in North Korea, Chinese trade companies in need of large scale transportation and speed cannot make a decision for full investment. However, the story is different if the Chinese government gets involved. In December 2010, the Chinese government decided to invest a record scale of 2 billion dollars in Ra-Sun Special Economic Zone. Sang-ji Gwan-gun Investment Company (Shangdi Guanquan Investment Company) of China signed a memorandum of understanding with Choseon Investment Development Association of North Korea for 10 items of investment. The agreement is that the Chinese company will build roads, a petroleum refinery, an iron mill, and a thermal power plant to North Korea in return for the rights to mine mineral resources. In Jilin Province of China, two hydropower plants with a capacity of 314 Giga Watt per year is being built in the upper middle part of the Yalu River at Mangganglu and Munak in an agreement between China and North Korea to use them together. The inclusion of power plants construction in the investment agreements with China will ease North Korea’s energy shortage a little, but the grand year of opening the Strong and Prosperous Nation is just around the corner. The diagnosis is right that “the bright lights powered by electricity will signal the opening of the Strong and Prosperous Nation to people who live in a complete darkness at night. The key is to solve the power and food shortages at the same time.” However, it does not seem to be easy to materialize their vision. In the end, is showing the completion ceremony of Heecheon Power Plant the only way to prove their success? Supplying electric power smoothly seems to come only after that.
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