GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No.409, June 29,2011

[“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] Nostalgia – No Exception for North Korean Defectors
DPRK Government on Edge Following Defection of Family
Innocent Citizens Oppressed by the Enforcement on North Korean Defectors
“Illegal Border Crossers will be Considered as Traitors.”
“Throw out your Illusions about China.”
“Everyday Feels like a Traditional Holiday in Restaurants in China.”
“Fed up with the Propaganda that we will Prosper”
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[Editor’s Note]
Nostalgia – No Exception for North Korean Defectors; They Long for their Homeland
If life is good in their home land, then people don’t think of leaving for better lives in foreign countries. When people experience endless misery at home, it is natural for them to turn their eyes to the abroad. This is what is happening in North Korea. Even though unbearable living conditions force people to leave the country, they are often condemned for betraying their country and are labeled as traitors. Defectors who underwent hardships and were treated inhumanly back home remain bitter and resentful towards North Korea; the wounds are too deep to be healed. Nevertheless, ‘home is always home.’ It is normal that people develop emotional attachments to the land in which they were born and grew up. North Korean defectors dream of the day that the South and the North become reunified so that they can return to their homeland. Instead of emphasizing the political aspects of this issue, the North and South Korean governments should approach this matter with a humanitarian perspective. Six decades ago, a war separated families on the Korean peninsula, and now a wave of family separations is being created by the extreme harshness of life in the North. Defectors already suffer a great deal because of the separation from their homeland and families. Isn’t that punishing enough? Do they really deserve more criticism or mistreatment?

DPRK Government on Edge Following Defection of Family
The defection of a South Hwanghae province family to South Korea on June 15 by barge has led to the firing and investigation of two government officials charged with controlling the area. The defection has caused the government to order a strengthening of security around all shorelines in the country to prevent similar escapes. Only those who have gone through heightened security checks are allowed to access areas situated near the water. Operation of barges in the West Sea has been shut down because they provide an easy way to cross the military armistice line. The heightened security is now threatening the livelihoods of fishermen who fish in the area. The NSA (National Security Agency) has released an order 'for the nation-wide prevention of defection' to all cities and towns in the country, and security has been especially strengthened in the border areas with China. The government has also stopped issuing passes to enter the border region. Entry into the country from the border areas is still possible; however, it has become practically impossible to move from the interior to cities situated along the border with China.

The government is placing more importance on political lectures conducted locally by city and town people's committees and the NSA. However, most citizens are uninterested in the government's ceaseless propaganda campaigns. There is little chance that people struggling to survive on 'grass porridge' have any interest in political sermons. Haeju city, South Hwanghae province resident, Jeong Ilyeong (alias), has been unable to eat one plate of corn meal from April to mid-June of this year. He has only been able to eat grass porridge, which is made out of collected mountain herbs and mixed together with powdered corn. Adults are able to survive somehow, but they are forced to watch the plight of children only four or five years old suffering from malnutrition. "No matter how hard one works, it’s always the same…this same terrible situation. I think about escaping to the South at least 12 times a day. All those who actually have left for South are the smart ones," says Jeong. The gap between the government's propaganda against defection and the real feelings of everyday North Koreans is only growing larger day by day.

Innocent Citizens Oppressed by the Enforcement on North Korean Defectors
With regard to the increase in North Koreans defecting, the North Korean government has forced law enforcement agencies to turn their attentions even on innocent citizens. In addition to farming mobilization, the government made it obligatory that citizens attend the neighborhood unit political education sessions for ‘mental armament’ in the evenings. People complain of their exhaustion from having to make obligatory attendances to the lectures on top of their time spent seeking food and collecting grass roots in the wild. Most fall asleep during the lectures, although the officers aggressively shout phrases such as, “You will be punished if you try to defect.” It’s a worsening situation in areas bordering China. Law enforcement agents periodically ambush residential houses. If it is known there was a defector in a family, the rest of the innocent family members are relocated in an isolated area.

Lim, Song-Yi (Alias), living in Musan, North Hamkyong province, said that “It’s a natural phenomenon that people relocate to where food sources exist. The defectors are indeed the smarter ones who know how and what to do to survive. Plus, not everybody is capable of running away. What is the point of telling the remaining people, who have no means to defect, not to do it? By the time we finish the day, it’s usually midnight; we then go to farming mobilization sessions early in the morning, do a bit of selling in the evening and housework when we come home, prepare for next day, and take care of children, and so on. Between such heavy schedules, we have to attend the political education session and the neighborhood unit meeting, where higher-ups preach the message that defecting is like betraying the country. I gain nothing from the lecture. I just want to come home.”

Not only are women stressed by the warning of punishment for defectors, but laborers are as well. People are already tightly controlled, but if they absent themselves from work for a couple of days, they will get a visit of the agents right away. Households that tried previously to defect, or households in which one of the family members is a defector are subject to strict monitoring by government authorities. Those people are not allowed to go anywhere unless they report to the group which they belong to. These series of measures are, according to the National Security Agency’s directives, instructed in order to systematically tighten the monitoring and control of those with a record of border-crossing. Additionally, the city and county parties are also being submissive to NSA these days after the recent case of a high-profile family defecting in Hwanghae province. Police officers and security agents who used to overlook illegal border-crossings are also now sparing themselves for fear of getting fired.

“Illegal Border Crossers will be Considered as Traitors.”
Now, how does the North Korean authority convey its anti-border crossing message? It does so by stigmatizing the border crossers as “traitors of the people who conspire to bring down the Socialist system.” This statement is no less than a threat to one’s political life. A heavy penalty is levied on the border crossers following the order to “strengthen the punishment by giving a sentence of five years in jail to anyone who attempts crossing the National Border.” If one’s family member has been discovered or suspected to have fled from North Korea, the family will be forced to move to the inner rural area, regardless of whether they are likely to flee or not.

Before, one could avoid the punishment for border crossing by bribing the judiciary officials, or be released using sick bail. These days, however, even a large sum of money won’t convince the authorities, who have begun to fear severe consequences of receiving bribes and disobeying orders in the long run.

Re-education centers are becoming flooded with prisoners as the crackdown on border crossing grows more severe. Jeongurrie Re-education Center, which was relatively unoccupied after the act of amnesty last September, is once again filling to the brim as both the criminals who committed crimes to survive the economic difficulties and the border crossers are being caught.

As for Musan district in North Hamgyong province, the border crossers who have been caught since January 6th tally up to thirty, and more than 80 percent of them were sent to Jeongurrie Re-education Center. In June, three women from Chungjin city were caught in the midst of their escape led by a Musan resident, and they also will be sent to the center. As of June 20th, six people are waiting their sentences, and it is likely that they will end up in the center as well.

“Throw out your Illusions about China.”
The Democratic Women’s Union (DWU) Committee has been warning against its people’s crossing the borders. As the food situation gets worse in North Korea, increasing number of North Korean women are crossing the borders by marrying to men residing in China. The DWU says, “People should root out nonsense of crossing the borders. Throw out your illusions about China.”

Because of the heightened crackdown on defection, the absentees from farming mobilization get caught in the cross fire. In addition to being warned against the neglect of the duty, they are strictly interrogated whether they have an intention to go to China. Diverse reasons exist for not going to the farming mobilization. Some people go for small land patch farming; some people have to go to collect some edible grassroots; some people collapsed and do not recover; and some people have to do business to pay for medicine if there is anybody sick among their family members. People don’t show up at the mobilization struggling to survive but the DWU committee frequently drags out, humiliate and hurl abuses at the absentees at every meeting. The committee also calls them “traitors and betrayers,” which incites backlash from the women. People no longer believe the propaganda that says, “If people put up with the situation and do farming diligently, the doors for the Strong and Prosperous Nation will open.”

Eunduk county has indeed seen many female defectors. A police officer explains the situation as follows. Eunduk county produces the poorest crop in farming; it is densely populated by manual laborers who work at the military factories and mines; and it has poor transportation system since it is remote. Few people runs large business and poverty rate is high in the county. Families with a daughter who crossed the borders can eat steamed corn meal with help from the daughter. For these reasons, females who cross the borders have increased, and the DWU has intensified the political lectures to their members. Between January and June of this year, the number of people who crossed the borders comes up to 35 in the county.

26 year-old Shin Hye-rim (alias) is a laborer at Oh-bong mine. She had never thought of going to China before, however, this year she has changed her mind. She said, “I am willing to go to China through the arranged marriage since my family is so badly off. I would like to help my family and relieve my parents’ burden. I myself also want to live a better life.” Men hardly dare to cross the borders unless they have clever brothers or meet someone who experienced crossing borders. However, women are in many cases want to take the option of getting married to go to China. The security authorities are intensifying the control system for detecting and getting reports of suspicious activities of the local residents.

“Everyday Feels like a Traditional Holiday in Restaurants in China.”
People are told to rid themselves of their fantasies about China, but more and more North Koreans are embracing that fantasy. They are told by private travelers, as well as traders who visit China regularly, that China is a completely different world from North Korea. First time visitors say that they were dazed by China’s economic advancement. Even the frequent visitors say that the rapid speed of progress makes them dizzy.

Choi Jin-ryong (alias) of Musan, who said he visits China once or twice a year because of a relative in Helong laments, “China is virtually a paradise on earth. Every day feels like a traditional holiday in China. The restaurants serve dizzying amounts of food every day, while we can’t even eat to our stomachs’ content on steamed corn meal even on traditional holidays. Also electricity is so plentiful in China that it is as bright as day even during the night. However, it is so dark at night in North Korea that we can’t go anywhere after the sun has gone down. How can two places with just a river between them be so different? I am just so envious of the Chinese people.”

Ko Chang-woo (alias), a laborer from Pyongsung who visited Dandong via Sinuiju this year for the first time said, “I am 50 years old. I haven’t been able to use toilet paper since I got married. Instead, I have used newspaper or notebook paper that my kids have thrown away, and in the countryside even that is rare. I found out about shampoo for the first time looking over the items that flowed into the market from China. I saw so many goods there that I had never seen before. Some of the goods are obsolete items in China but they are things that I have never seen before in my life. The rate at which China is growing went beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. The Chinese people do not understand that a person can die of starvation. Aren’t we the only people who eat grass porridge, which even dogs won’t eat, to survive? I don’t understand how we are still living in a matriarchal clan community while other countries have made such great progress?”

When asked why he thinks that he is living in a matriarchal clan community in North Korea Ko answered, “Women are bringing in the bread, aren’t they?” Also, seeing none of the manufactured goods sold in the North Korean market have been produced in North Korea and most of them have been imported from China, Ko commented, “With an exception of a small percentage of its citizens, North Korea is like a country of beggars.

Fed up with the Propaganda that we will Prosper”
Residents in Eunduk county, North Hamgyong province are fed up with Party propaganda, which is disguised as lectures about politics. They have a common complaint: “The Party forces us to hear propaganda all our lives—from cradle to grave. There is no way to get around it. It is just cliché. Like a rider who uses a whip and a spur without thinking about the horse’s condition, the Party keeps a tight rein on us with no regard for our living conditions.”

On July 7, Kim Kil-nam (aged 58) a munitions-manufacturer laborer said, “Reality is far from the propaganda that promises prosperity. Despite the Farming Mobilization, government can’t afford to provide us with any rations, including corn porridge. People are starving. Young women say that making a living by ‘being sold to China’ looks like a better option than living in North Korea. I wonder how many of us can survive this dire situation and whether our country can survive this crisis.”

Mr. Kim overheard a fellow worker say, “The Party had better stop spreading the false propaganda that promises prosperity within a year. The person who writes the propaganda also must be sick and tired of it. He either does not know what he is saying or knows that he is lying.” In the past, somebody would have reported the fellow worker for inflammatory or reactionary language; for example making a statement against government. However, these days it is difficult to find anyone who bothers to report such distrust in government.

Lee Hak-cheol (pseudonym), a laborer at O-Bong coal mine, complained of a tough life: “Small land patching farming is a lifeline for more than 90 percent of residents in the O-Bong coal mine area. While we make money by selling coal during the winter, nobody wants to buy coal during the summer. I don’t have time at all to take care of the corn, which I planted in my small land patch farm last month. Life is getting worse as I have no choice but to participate in farm mobilization. I enjoy no freedom of movement, and have to spend time attending lectures about politics. At the very least, I hope the government allows me time to take care of my small land patch farming, which requires a fair amount of manual labor and work to produce a harvest this fall. The time I squeezed during lunch time is too short to make a trip to the small land.”

Jang Geum-ok (pseudonym), a member of the Democratic Women’s Union at O-Bong Laborer’s District said, “I don’t have time to take care of the corn I planted in my small land patching farming last spring due to farming mobilization. A woman I know put up a temporary tent made from plastic on her small land patch farm, leaving her house locked.”
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