No Rice in the Market
No Food Ration Even to Government Officials in Pyongyang
Farmers Become Beggars
Flocking to the Families of Defectors
“Defectors Feed North Hamkyong Province”
Elderly Woman from Ryong-Jeong Visits North Korea to Save Sister
The news says there is no food in the market. The lack of food has been an issue for a while, but the situation seems to be getting worse with the distribution stopped even to the families of Central Party officials, who are given top priority when it comes to food distribution. They are the people who are usually sufficiently fed even in the times there is no food coming from overseas with domestic crops. It is shocking that even they are not receiving distribution. Although with the recent import of corn, it seems that they are given the overdue rations, the prospect for food distribution remains unclear. The situation is even more desperate outside of Pyongyang. Farmers, who could not even cultivate small plots of land, have been sustaining themselves with porridge made with wild grass, and they have started to beg. People crowd the houses of the families who are rumored to have relatives who have defected to China, asking desperately for help. No one can stop them, not even the police. The food crisis is worsening at almost all levels of the society. With the current situation, external aid from outside seems to be the only solution. We hope for humanitarian aid from the international society and South Korea.
No Rice in the Market
The price of rice is worrisome. Currently as of the end of August, 1 kilogram of rice is traded for 2,500-2,600 won in markets located at major cities nationwide. In Pyongyang, the price skyrocketed up to 2,700-2,800 won at one time. It used to be around 2,000 won in the beginning of August; compared to that, the price has gone up by a great deal. The merchants explain that it is because “there is no rice.” Even though the food is said to be imported from China, they are mostly corns, flours, and barley, etc. Rice which was brought into by trade officers is displayed only in upper-class areas such as the central district of Pyongyang from time to time. Even a selected class of people who used to be able to purchase rice from the regional cities cannot find rice.
In Rasun City of North Hamgyong Province these days, rice is sold out as soon as it comes into the market, so people who come to buy rice are returning empty-handed. The price of rice is all up to the seller as rice is becoming precious, so even the merchants are busy trying to obtain rice. Those who cannot buy rice even though they have money are mostly judicial officers in the local party or the families of mid-ranking government officers. As the censorship towards government officials intensifies these days, the wives who want to provide a warm meal to their husbands are expressing their big frustrations. Chung Hye-ran (alias), whose husband was arrested for alleged involvement with anti-socialist activities and came back a while ago, expressed her discomfort: “During the preliminary hearings, he was not fed properly, and was beaten so badly that there wasn’t a sound spot in his body. I was so upset that he lost his weight so much. I wanted to give him steamed rice at least, so I went around the market several times but could not find any rice at all. I had no option but to cook a steamed crushed corn meal, and I was distressed yet again when I saw how difficult it was for him to swallow the food. This is what they did to a person who has been so loyal, and there was no place to buy rice even if we were willing to pay for it with our own money. Is this how a country is supposed to work?” The class of government officials has been feeling uncomfortable already because of the censorship, and they are now even more outraged because they could not get rice.
No Food Ration Even to Government Officials and their Family in Pyongyang
As food supply is getting worse in Pyongyang, some government officials are also facing tough time. The food ration to lower-rank officials at District Party level or lower had stopped back in March and since May, ration was only provided to mid-rank officials themselves, excluding their family. In other words, even families of middle and low rank officials didn’t have rations until the ration resumed in mid-August. Recently, City of Pyongyang started to provide the overdue rations to all residents and officials for the occasion of Independence Day. Since there was not enough rice, the distributed rice was mostly mixed with corn or flour. This was made possible by the continued food inflow from overseas representatives. Probably due to the resumption of rations, the rice price dropped to 2,500 NKW from 2,800 NKW. It was fortunate for the people to receive the ration this time, but their future is still unclear. Officials have food saved to sustain for at least six months, but it’s a very unstable situation for them, too, if the ration isn’t distributed for a longer period. They would feel anxious once they cannot purchase rice in North Korea even if they have money. Some officials ask for help to relatives or friends who can visit overseas for business.
A Central Party official said, “People say there are more people going on an overseas business trip now, but the number is still a few. If one person goes overseas, ten people ask him favors, which is just overwhelming to him. Households that have a family member working aboard are indeed in a better situation. It seems that people working in foreign countries send home about 1-2 tons of food. I also receive couple of hundred kilograms of food from my brother who is working in China.” On the other hand, lower-level officials who don’t have a connection abroad survive on rice porridge or steamed crushed corn. These foods are not easy to digest for the officials, who were used to eating more rice than corn. Retired officials are undergoing an even worse situation. Since they are retired, their life is not much different from civilians unless there’s a person to take care of them. In August, some senior retirees who ran out of ration starved to death.
Farmers Beg for Food
The amount of begging done by farm workers instead of going to work at their farms in North Hamgyong Province has drastically increased since the end of August. Li Sook-yi (alias), who has worked for the Kyongsung Collective Farm for 8 consecutive years said that “the farm does not provide us with any food, but forces us to work every day. Thus, most workers complain about this situation and do not come to work. Less than half of the entire work force in my farm goes to work.” Farmers who used to pick greens in mountains during the spring now ask their relatives or some rich people in the town for food. When farm management officials visit absent workers, the farmers unusually lose their temper. Choi Woo-young (alias) who works for the Bangjin Collective Farm in Chungam District of Chungjin City said, “People can barely maintain basic life standards. Most of them cannot control their emotions easily because they lose their temper and cry bitterly immediately afterwards. When officials berated workers for their absence from work, workers complained and argued severely about their situation, or at other times, they beg the officials for food by paying even higher interest [on what? Loans]. Most people appear to lose their mind as they are going through a hard time.” When farmers begin to beg, kkotjebis seem to feel a sense of competition between themselves and the begging farm workers.
When asked why farmers are begging at North Hamgyong Province, which did not suffer severe flood damage this year, a farm official in Chungjin City said, “Although we do not have flood damage this year, we fall short of fertilizer, have crop damage from disease and insects, and are experiencing severe drought. We have therefore not made any success in this year’s crop cultivation. Farmers do not seem to have any food left because they consumed all of last year’s crops this spring. City dwellers can trade at the market in order to feed themselves, but farm workers do not have any such way to get food without relying on farming. The farmers who beg now did not achieve any success with growing this year’s crops because of the prolonged drought. Only a few farmers work hard to get some crops on their small patches of land.”
Flocking to the Families of Defectors: "I have to get help, no matter what"
With a few ways to get food on the table -- such as running a small business or cultivating small plots -- now all blocked, there have been more people who just visit relatives without a clear idea of what to do. The houses that are targeted are usually the ones that are rumored to have relatives in China or someone who has defected North Korea. The local security in Chungjin, North Hamkyong Province, is having a hard time dealing with people who are flocking to the city from the country side despite the heightened security measure. According to a security official, they are people who are completely cornered: "In the hope to receive something to eat, they never leave the house no matter how hard you try to chase them away -- people without any shame."
A little while ago, in Chumok-dong, Sunam district, the local security office went out to investigate the house that had a suspiciously large gathering of people. It was a family who had their second-born daughter that defected and went over to China. The relatives from the countryside, faced with extreme hardship, flocked over to the house with vague hope that the family might have something to offer. The surprised head of the family tried to explain that they have never received any news from her, let alone any help, but no one went back home. Rather, with the rumor spreading, they had even more visitors.
After hearing the news that many people are flocking there, a police officer went to the house in person. There were a total of 13 adults and children together, excluding the house owner’s family, in that house. The police officer explained the scene by saying that “all of them stared at me with deep-set eyes, worrying about whether I would kick them out or not. They were all so emaciated that they looked like skeletons, and I was very shocked.” The house owner told him, “It has been five years since my daughter disappeared. There is no way of knowing whether she is alive or not now. My relatives are gathering to see whether my daughter comes with any food aid from China; although I beg them to go out, they are so stubborn that they keep on staying. Although my family doesn’t have anything to eat, other dependents are added to the extent that we all have already had to make thin gruel for every meal for a few days now. The relatives believe that I am lying. What am I supposed to do?"
Recognizing that the house owner is in a difficult situation, the police officer told other relatives, "After the daughter of this house owner has gone to China, I too observed carefully to see whether or not they were receiving any economic benefits from the daughter. However, the house members at best eat steamed corn meals by selling products from small land patch farming. I am certain that there is no connection between the daughter and the house members after she has gone to China. If you keep staying in this house, the house members will too become kkotjebi (homeless) in due course. Please do not stay in this house but go out and find your own way to live."
After several attempts at persuasion failed, the police office started to threaten the people by screaming aloud. However, even the police officer's wrath could not evacuate the people out of the house. In the end, the police officer told the house owner "I feel pity for you but I am also worried that those people could be dead from hunger if they go out of this house." The house owner cried out: "how are we supposed to live then?" But the police officer left without saying a word, only shaking his head.
“Defectors Feed North Hamkyong Province”
One official in the People’s Council of North Hamkyong Province asserted that North Korean defectors support the whole province through bribes and brokerage fees.
“My province has the most defectors since the Arduous March,” stated the official. “My province has been run by the money and materials sent by those who defected from this country at that time. In spite of the fact that my province rarely produces necessities by itself, people in my province seem to eat and wear better than anyone else who lives near Pyongyang. This is all due to the money North Korean defectors have sent. Otherwise, I suspect that not even half of the current residents in the province would have been able to survive.”
It is the same reason that relatives in rural areas come to a house in which families of North Korean defectors reside, with no advance notice as shown in the case of Chumok-dong in Chungjin City. It is said that families of defectors live well off, other than ethnic Chinese people and wealthy families, in the national border areas. People say that the ethnic Chinese and men of wealth also benefit from North Korean defectors, since 20-30 percent of transferred money goes to these two groups as a brokerage fee. Additionally, the money spent by families of North Korean defectors also ends up flowing to ethnic Chinese or men of wealth because these two groups are dominating the local economy in general.
Families of North Korean defectors are also the main source of income for judiciary officials. The money and bribes they receive in return for conniving at the defection are substantial. One official of the People’s Council of Province confirmed that transfers from the defectors influence the economy of North Hamkyong Province immensely, although there are no exact figures available. However strictly the police strengthen the crackdown on defections, they cannot stop people from crossing the borders.
“At this time, crossing the border is the only way to feed ourselves and family members. Therefore, cracking down on defection is considered as a matter of life and death between the government and residents,” commented residents about the crackdown of government. Tens of missing people are reported daily to the Safety Bureau in North Hamkyong Province and Ryanggang Province. More than 20 people are repatriated a month from China.
Elderly Woman from Ryong-Jeong (Longjing) Visits North Korea to Save Sister
Jeong Geum-Rae, who we met at the Chung-Jin train station in North Hamgyong Province, was an elderly lady who was close to 70 years old. We asked her about her foreign looking clothes, and she said that she had come from Ryong-Jeong (Longjing), China. When we asked her why she had traveled such a long way when she seemed to have difficulty walking, tears welled up in her eyes. She said that her younger sister, with whom she had parted a long time ago, had contacted her several times saying that she was in desperate need of help, which compelled her to make the long trip. She was on the way back from visiting her sister in Gill-Ju with 200kg of rice and 3000 Chinese yuan. She said that tears came to her eyes when she thought of her sister.
This is her story:
“My sister has aged a great deal since the last time I saw her two years ago. She is 10 years younger than I am, but she looked as old as my mother before she died. I was surprised that even my sister’s children and their families had gathered to greet me at my sister’s house. My sister, after counting the money I had handed her, muttered to herself ‘we can live.’ When I asked her how long the money would last them, she said that after splitting the money with her three children, the remaining amount would last her about a month. I felt so sorry for my emaciated sister, who cried in my arms, that I wanted to take her back to China to take care of her and nourish her. In truth, my husband has passed away and my son is neither employed nor married, so I am not financially comfortable. I feel bad that I couldn’t help my sister more. In China even if you don’t have money you can still eat, but that’s not true for people in North Korea. Whenever I think of my sister I break down in tears and my body aches all over. Who will support my sister when I get older and I am unable to move… I am dragging my feet because it feels like this may be the last time I see her.”