GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 414 August 3, 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 Ministry of Foreign Trade: "Finding a solution to food shortage is a matter of life or death"
Ministry of Foreign Trade Says, “We stake all on the food tasks”
“Let’s show our sincerity with at least 100 tons (of food assignment).”
Special Districts Hoping for Reform and Opening
“Why did they sell Hwangkumpyung if they are not even going to give us rations?”
Chinese Investment in North Korea Going Slowly
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[Editor's Note] The Ministry of Foreign Trade: "Finding a solution to food shortage is a matter of life or death"
Everyone thought it was impossible from the beginning. The Ministry of Foreign Trade had a difficult time even procuring last winter's military provisions assignment. Some say it is because the Ministry only pretends to try, because it used to be the case that when the Ministry got its hands on a task, no matter how dire the condition was with food shortage, there was at least a temporary relief. It seems that the leadership in North Korea has decided that the mere 60% accomplishment in procuring the provisions for military was due to the lack of effort on the part of the ministry.

The North Korean leadership, on one hand, started using the threat of inspection, and on the other hand, ordered all its overseas representative offices to procure 5,000 tons or more foodstuffs. There are many evidences that hint that this round of inspection is not what is usually considered normal. With the rumor that Minister of Foreign Trade Ri Ryong-nam may be purged, the officials at the Ministry have further hastened the effort to find a solution to the food shortage. It is not an exaggeration that it is a matter of life and death for them.

It is a great challenge for overseas representatives to procure foodstuffs on the front line of foreign trade. Some are overwhelmed even with procuring just 50 tons, let alone 5,000 tons, but it seems that everyone is more motivated than ever. We hope that their hard effort faced with a difficult climate for foreign trade will be rewarded with satisfying results.


Ministry of Foreign Trade Says, “We stake all on the food tasks”
As the censorship hysteria dominates the atmosphere, the Ministry of Foreign Trade is on the busy move. Even Ri Ryong-nam, the Minister of Foreign Trade, is visiting Beijing back and forth and holding several meetings repeatedly to discuss how to obtain the food. On July 8, Ri visited North Korean Embassy in Beijing, held an urgent gathering of trade advisers and main officers of the Trade Representative, and directly requested them to accomplish the food task. At the same time, he repeatedly encourages to accomplish the food task to other officers of the overseas trade representative who work in various countries.

“I heard that the food task which was delivered to the overseas representatives this time was not for the purpose of obtaining army provisions, but to obtain food that can be distributed to the people. It was said that they expected to resolve the food crisis to some extent after the farming mobilization is finished and new crops are produced, but the crop yields were too small than the expectation. So the food tasks were assigned urgently because the people were suffering food shortages for too long. One officer from the country said that the people’s food situation is a few times more difficult than the period of the Arduous March. He said it was not just because of the food shortage, but it was because the regulation became more intensified. Even if people want to resolve the food problem on their own, such pursuit is not allowed, so it is now us who end up having difficult times over this,” says one of the officials who participated in the meeting with the Minister of Foreign Trade.

When asked whether any measure was prepared at the meeting, the official testified how desperate the Ministry of Foreign Trade is to achieve the food task and said, “The Minister of Foreign Trade even suggested that if we don’t really have enough money, some portion of it may be provided. He said to pull some food in advance by offering Chinese traders to pay after two months, and that the Ministry will pay for the cost later. He emphasized that we must meet the quantity although it does not necessarily have to be rice.” The official was told that if the task is not completed by September, the main officials will have to take the responsibility and resign from the post. He stated how significant this matter was: “Now is the time to lie low as we plead humbly that we will do better. The current atmosphere is such that the country keeps blaming the Ministry of Foreign Trade for this dire food situation. Everyone is all tensed up, fearing that the Minister of Foreign Trade might also suffer the same fate as what happened to Pak Nam-gi last year, who was the former Director of the Planning and Finance Department. If the Ministry of Foreign Trade collapses, we who belong to this organization may end up collapsing together. Talking about how we must complete the task regardless of the condition is not just an empty word.”


“Let’s show our sincerity with at least 100 tons (of food assignment).”
Overseas representative officials are crying foul at the government’s demand to secure 5,000 tons of food before the start of this coming September. They question how a task difficult to complete even given several years can be done in just two months, and are sure that is an impossible job. However, nothing the officials can do to extend the deadline will lead to the retraction of the order, and they are well aware that any break from the ranks will lead to undesirable consequences for themselves. Approximately two thousand dollars, or 13,000,000 yuan, is needed to secure 5,000 tons of food. “This is totally out of the blue,” said one official. “We have a hard enough time just getting 50 tons of food, but 5,000 tons? That’s crazy! In the past, many of us have just obtained what we could get and hoped for the best, but this attitude has changed considerably with news of the political situation at home.” Here he is referring to rumours that the Minister of Foreign Trade is next in line to be purged.

Employees of the Ministry of Foreign Trade are aware that the political situation in North Korea is troublesome, and are pressing each other to complete the order successfully no matter what stands in their way. In Beijing, some officials have already presented 1,000 tons of food, and countless others have followed by preparing 200, 300 and even 500 tons. Most of these trade officials have received food from trusted Chinese sources who have received promises of pay at a later date. Other officials admit that they have difficulty obtaining 5,000 tons of food immediately, but say they will present at least 100 tons when they can get it. Still others say they will obtain foodstuffs worth 100-200 thousand dollars. “I am trying to help the Minister of Foreign Trade because I know that the minister and the officials are on thin ice,” said one official working at a representative office in Shenyang. Despite these efforts, however, there are far more trade officials that find themselves asking in despair how such an order can be fulfilled unconditionally by the end of September.

While all representative officials are gloomy about fulfilling the completely impossible order, they are largely making a sincere effort to at least try and complete what they have been ordered to do. One official at a trade representative in China was asked how much food would be considered ‘sincere’ by government authorities: “I think that around 500 tons would do it. We might get into trouble for not bringing in the rest but it can’t be helped. The best thing to do in my opinion would be to first get around 100 to 200 tons and then gradually secure the rest.” One official, completely in despair, said, “I could get around 50 tons if I go scurrying around begging for it, but I know I couldn’t get the rest. I just don’t care anymore… Let them curse me, let them punish me!”


Special Districts Hoping for Reform and Opening
The residents are buoyed up with a dream for reform and opening by the news of development plan of Hwangkeumpyeong and Rasun. In case of Rasun, the expectation started to grow as the Rasun Economic Trade Zone Act was amended and the city was raised to the status of Special City from Directly Governed City. Once the groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 8th and 9th, the anticipation of residents has changed to confidence. Residents are assured saying, “You will see that our country will develop like China in the near future. We will get better off soon.”

The hopeful expectation was also revealed in the changes of perception among government cadres. When Kim Jong-il, the Chairman of the National Defense Commission, recently visited China several times, government officials in charge of the national economy in the cabinet accompanied him. They were all astonished by the development that China has made. Many of the Ministry of Foreign Trade officials have been to abroad so far and watched the developed aspect of China. However, the high level government officials staying only within the country had yet realized the progress China has achieved. One party official who accompanied the Chairman Kim Jong-il three times to China said, “My attitude has changed since the trip to China. My ideas about economy were changed, and I became more convinced that we need to learn from China. Now I speak with more confidence when I say something on economy.” After watching the development of China, he is also assured that they could achieve economic development with the investment from China. The government cadres say in chorus that it is important to create a trade-friendly environment in order to attract more investment. This is a significant change compared to the past.

Twelve customs in national border areas are actually seeing some changes. The most noticeable case is that customs rules that used to be rigorous were revised favorably to Chinese traders. Most of the merchandises coming from China pass the customs these days with the exception of South Korean products. Meanwhile, food and goods aid from UN or South Korean government are no longer easy to find. Instead, the level of dependence on China has increased.


“Why did they sell Hwangkumpyung if they are not even going to give us rations?”
Public opinion is deteriorating as the spring food crisis intensifies. In Sinuiju, rumors are circulating of people complaining that rations have not resumed despite the sale of Hwamgkymjpyung and Wehwado to China. Chung Eun-sook (pseudonym), a black dollar dealer at Chaeha Market complained, “The government has loaned Hwamgkymjpyung and Wehwado to China, but I heard that the money obtained will be invested in the military industry rather than rationing food to the people. We are all dying from starvation, but the government doesn’t give the slightest thought to our suffering. The government says that improving the lives of the people is its most important task, but it’s just talk. Is buying warship such an urgent matter?”

Han Sung-ho (pseudonym) got angry at the question whether he earned enough to live on because it was obvious from his appearance that he wasn’t. His eyes were sunken and the skin seemed to hang on his bones. When asked whether he knew that the government had loaned Hwamgkymjpyung and Wehwado to China, he said he had never heard of it. He said that he was so busy looking for food to feed his family that he did not even have time to listen to such news. Then he suddenly asked, “When will we get some rations?” When he was told nothings was heard about the rations, he asked me in an irritated voice, “Why did they sell Hwamgkymjpyung when they are not even going to give us rations?” and turned his back, suggesting he had nothing more to say.

According to a city party official of Sinuiju, “The central party sends down orders to the city and military parties to solve the food shortage problem independently. The key point here is how much resource for trade each party can secure. However, since the stronger party units get first pick of the few special local products available to trade, not every party can secure food. Who has time to look out for ordinary people when even officials like us have trouble feeding our families?” He concluded that ration for residents are actually hard to come by.


Chinese Investment in North Korea Going Slowly
Although the opportunity for Chinese companies to invest in North Korea has been widely expanded, the actual investment has not been so active. The reason is that many companies have experienced failures from the previous investments. Companies, therefore, want to be careful on making investment decisions and try to proceed step by step. The failure was mainly due to the inconsistency in North Korean Government's attitude. Rumors have been circulating that many Chinese companies made investment only to have their money missapproprated by North Korean Government without a particular reason. Another reason is that the demand in North Korea is very low compared to other countries. A Chinese businessman who once thought about opening a restaurant in Hyesan in Ryangang Province said, "North Koreans are so poor that only a limited number of people would be able to come to the restaurant. This makes the restaurant impossible to be profitable." Only government officials or the wealthy people would visit a restaurant. For general people, eating at a restaurant is something that they could do only in a dream. Another Chinese who opened a restaurant at Chungjin had to give up the business only after ten days. The owner started the restaurant with enthusiasm by renovating the interior and replacing the cooking wares. He also scheduled to get the food products directly from China. However, he was discouraged by the chefs and staffs who stole meats, rice, vegetables and even seasonings. Even the customers stole the store properties. Above all, there were too few customers. Chinese restaurateurs who opened their business in Pyongyang are said to be successful with many customers but there has been no such case in other regions due to the low demand.

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