GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 419 September 7, 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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Three Major Food Crisis Diseases – tuberculosis, hepatitis, dyspepsia
Food Shortage Induced Illnesses, Doctors Say “Enough”
Health Authorities in North Hamgyong, SOS to Overseas Representatives
Doctors of Pyongyang Advance Abroad
Among Import-Export Companies in China, Milliary-Controlled Ones Fare the Best
Kangsung Trading Company Unit 54 Is Leading the Import of Food
Heroes of Yesterday Disappear in Silence

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Three Major Food Crisis Diseases – tuberculosis, hepatitis, dyspepsia
Tuberculosis infection rate among North Korean defectors is reported to be three times higher than that among other South Koreans. About 80 percent out of 20,000 defectors in South Korea are reported to have high likelihood for tuberculosis breakout within two years. Hepatitis and dyspepsia also are diseases that increase sharply in dire food conditions. The situation with tuberculosis, hepatitis, and dyspepsia -- so-called “three major food crisis diseases” – worsens with increasing malnutrition with the food crisis in North Korea. Without any easy solution at hand, health authorities cannot do much. Overseas representatives, occupied with fulfilling their assignments for securing the food supply, cannot do much either in terms of procuring medicine. For now, they have to rely on foreign aid. To treat diseases related to food shortage, food aid is needed along with the provision of medicine. On August 9, Headquarters of Zero Tuberculosis World sent TB medicine to North Korea that can save 5,000 children. We hope that there will be more medical aid such as this one coming to North Korea.


Food Shortage Induced Illnesses, Doctors Say “Enough”
According to an official with North Korea’s Health Department, the number of patients afflicted with hepatitis, tuberculosis and dyspepsia has increased during the past year. Doctors in the country all agree that it is due to malnutrition. With the growing severity of the food shortage this year, the quality of food for North Koreans has fallen dramatically. People who used to eat rice are now forced to eat half-rice half-corn meals or just corn, and people who used to eat corn are forced to corn noodles or corn porridge, while people who ate corn porridge now are surviving on potatoes and grass porridge. Jongil Yong (alias), who works at the Hamheung Municipal Hospital in South Hamgyong province, says, “It doesn’t matter what you call it, all of this sickness is caused by not getting enough to eat, and because those who are sick don’t get better, with time they will die.” If patients were able to eat well they would be able to improve their health; however, doctors are forced to witness the painful death of their patients.

The situation is the same in Chonjin and Kyongsung, both in North Hamgyong province. Kim Geumok (alias), who works in the provincial hospital in Chongjin City, says, “People these days are eating mostly corn noodles or corn porridge. About five out of ten households are eating that way. Those families just making it are eating corn, and a household is considered well-off if they can afford to mix a little rice in with it all. When I diagnose my patients, they are all sick because they can’t eat enough. Tuberculosis and hepatitis are the most prevalent among my patients. There are a lot of people suffering from chronic dyspepsia because they are eating things that even wild animals wouldn’t eat. Even when there is a patient I may be able to save, I don’t have the money to buy food for them, and telling them what they need to eat to get better while knowing their situation is a difficult thing to do for me.”

What doctors find even more deplorable is that there are sick people who use illicit drugs in the place of medicine. Sick people who are unable to afford medicine obtain illicit drugs like opium when they have no other options available. The use of illicit drugs may help sick people forget the immediate pain their suffering, but it is only when they sickness is beyond being treated that they go to the hospital. Even when someone is just a little sick, they begin taking illicit drugs and this leads to addiction. In severe cases, sick people wait to go to the hospital when their illness becomes life threatening. Any attempt to save them is futile at that point, and they soon die.

When tuberculosis patients take illicit drugs for a long period of time, their body weight falls drastically and they become nothing but skin and bones. These patients have little hope for continued survival. When doctors make house calls after hearing the patient will die soon, they frequently find patients who have worsened their illness by not receiving proper treatment and become addicted to illicit drugs. The Health Department is worried about the fast spread of hepatitis and tuberculosis, but there are no plans set up to combat these contagious illnesses. There are many cases when people are infected and suffer from these diseases for a long time without even knowing it. Kim Geumok says, “I haven’t seen anyone die of starvation on the streets yet, but I have seen several cases where people die from illness in their homes. I have to write down the name of the illness that killed the patient, and I usually write down tuberculosis or whatever, but most of the time, except for death by natural causes, the patient was killed by a disease brought on by poor nutrition.”


Health Authorities in North Hamgyong, SOS to Overseas Representatives
The health department of North Hamgyong province is soliciting medical help from the North Korean overseas representatives dispatched to China. Provincial hospitals, lacking the most basic medical supplies, turn to overseas representatives in the hope of at least getting disinfectants and anti-inflammatory medicine. Overseas representatives, with their hands full with the food procurement assignment, cannot take care of medical supplies. Also, while securing food supply is praised as an heroic act, no one notices or acknowledges securing medical supply. Even with a high profiled person’s solicitation, the overseas representatives would reject the request, saying that it would only be a futile effort without available funds. There is no profit to be made with the transaction for medicine, and when one succeeds to procure medicine, instead of gaining positive recognition, the person is often suspected of having a secret private fund. Therefore, it is thought the best to ignore the demand for medicine.

A staff at health department of North Hamgyong province said: “I begged for medicine to the representatives with tears, but they were so cold to me. People who can get better with a little treatment are dying now, so I begged several times but they said they are not in a situation to help others. Overseas representatives are heavily monitored these day and they would not take risks by doing something that may seem suspicious. If they cannot find food by September, they will be laid off, they said. They even asked me if I knew any Chinese merchant who could help them. Who can we solicit help from?” Some officials and people are importing medicine, such as tuberculosis medication, from China directly.


Doctors of Pyongyang Advance Abroad
An increasing number of doctors in Pyongyang are traveling abroad to earn foreign currency under the government’s order. So far, approximately ten doctors in Pyongyang have moved to Shimyang, Daeryon, and Yanbian in China. Some run their own clinics there, but most of them have been stationed in pre-existing Chinese hospitals. Doctors relocated in Yanbian must earn five thousand dollars per year to be paid to the government, and ten thousand euros for those in Shimyang and Daeryon. Although some of the most capable doctors in Pyongyang are employed in this project, it has not yet been too profitable due to its prematurity. The self- managed clinics are faring worse. Not only do Chinese people distrust North Korean medical practices, they have no reason to choose North Korean doctors over Chinese ones. The doctors always struggle with deficit while keeping up with the rent, wages. To make matters worse, they are also responsible for the mandatory tributes to the government. They are feigning Chinese herbs and Artemisia as North Korean and selling them to earn money for mere sustenance. Managing the clinic for even a year brings about some sense of hope in their hearts. Not only doctors, but artists including opera singers and dancers, and athletes have also begun establishing private institutions in China and recruiting students. The foreign expansion project is in its early stage of development and the schools are having difficulties, but some also do private tutoring with the help of a Korean-Chinese acquaintance. But Tae Kwon Do teachers usually end up looking for another source of income because students willing to be tutored are scarce. The Central Party officials are forecasting that although the dispatching of workforce to foreign countries seem rather insignificant for the time being, it will liven up economic exchanges and prove to be beneficial to North Korea’s economy with limited exports in the long run.


Among Import-Export Companies in China, Milliary-Controlled Ones Fare the Best
The military-controlled companies reportedly account for a big portion of North Korean import-export companies newly opening up in China this year. The government is also strongly encouraging the opening of military-controlled companies, as a way of dealing with food crisis within the army. Last April, National Defense Committee ordered the People’s Army to be self-sufficient in food procurement, because of limitations in obtaining food from farmers and civilians. One trade officer said, “Upon the complaint made by Overseas Representatives that they saw no breakthrough on efforts to secure military provisions, the assignment on procuring rice for the military was put on a halt. There was no way to solve this issue, because trying to secure food domestically was no use when there is no inflow of food into the country from the overseas. That’s the reason why the government is pushing for expansion of import-export companies overseas. The food issue is urgent enough, but securing military necessities such as uniform and shoes is also imperative, which means that the government thinks the expansion of import-export companies as the only way for survival.”

It took one year to see the military controlled import-export companies reviving since January 5, 2010, when the companies were ordered to dissolve. In January 2010, following the introduction of the new currency, the government abolished markets, and restructured import-export companies. The purpose of the restructuring was the integrated management of import-export companies, which were previously scattered under the supervision of party, cabinet, region and military respectively. However, the party order on May 26th removed the restrictions on the companies, allowing the previously dissolved export-import companies and the military controlled companies to resume foreign trade if able to attract investment. Nevertheless, a series of failed policies including the currency change, closing of the market, and dissolution of import-export companies meant that Chinese investors lost confidence in North Korean companies, and they were reluctant to reinvest.

Foreign trade has just recently revived as the Central Party made a shift in its policy to allow the companies to sell whatever Chinese counterpart might be interested in, including minerals. There has been polarization in the performance of the export-import companies. The companies that secure military provisions and necessities are powerful units, such as the Special Forces. On the other hand, some companies can hardly afford operational expenses. Keumchol Kim (alias) said, “We make a profit barely enough to bribe officials at the People’s Army by paying for their gas for approval of foreign trade and travel to China. The top priority in doing business goes to bribing officials, because we can’t travel to China without their approval.” Far from the initial intent of the policy to revive foreign trade by sending those who have relatives in China or who are skilled businessmen from North Korea, connection with Party officials matters when it comes to approval of foreign trade and it thereby determines success or failure of those who trade.


Kangsung Trading Company Unit 54 Is Leading the Import of Food
The Kangsung Trading Company Unit 54, the representative trading company of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces, appears to be at the head of importing food. The Unit is in charge of basic military provisions, and at same time, is securing construction materials for 100,000 residential houses to be built in Pyongyang. Thus, the company concentrates on not only the military also securing national main construction material as well. An employee of Unit 54 said, “We buy corn when we go to China to purchase foods. This time, the task of securing 100,000 tons fell to us, and we procured corn, wheat, and barley from India because securing corn from China was too difficult. My company has good credit because most transactions we make are in cash.”

His opinion was that even though approximately 80% of the trading companies that have set up in China are military-aligned, not many companies can achieve the expected result; only a few companies can do business in cash in the country like Unit 54. Some make cynical remarks at the success of Unit 54, saying, “Who can’t do the same with the same kind of governmental support?” implying that the 54 Unit’s cash deals are thanks to the support of government. Under each military unit’s self-provision situations, the prevailing opinion is that the accomplishment of each unit depends on their respective given conditions.


Heroes of Yesterday Disappear in Silence
One of workers at Chosun Namgang Trade Company, an operation under the People’s Army, brought up a story from three years ago: “It is unfortunate that the sales director of Chungjin branch, Namgang Trade Company -- Mr. Hongchun Lee -- was executed.” On July 15, 2008, there was an execution of the president and five branch store directors in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province, closed to the public. They were suspected to have manipulated the rice price by creating a monopoly by buying up rice retailers. Other executions not open to the public happened throughout the nation. Sales directors in South Hamgyong Province, North Hwanghae Province, South Pyongan Province, and Pyongsung were executed as well for the charge of food price manipulation. A president of Chungjin branch, who was executed first, had had a reputation for being an excellent businessman. Even local residents in Chungjin who have nothing to do with Namgang Trade Company said that the economy was good when he was alive. His capacity to bring in a lot of food and goods, opened the door for people to run businesses or to find food. Many say that if he had not died, life would not have become this difficult.

Similar sentiments are shared toward the former president of Jangsaeng Trading Company at the Military Security Bureau. Kim Chul, former president of Jangsaeng Trading Company, who was arrested in August 2007 and died during the preliminary trial, is a legendary figure that many people still talk about. President Kim Chul solved the food problem and raw material problem by selling pig irons and steel plates produced at Gimchaek Steel Mill to China and receiving corns and coking coal in return. When Jangsaeng Trading Company's business prospered, it was convenient for people to purchase food, which kept them satisfied. Evere since the deat of President Kim Chul, Jangsaeng Trading Company in Chungjin struggled and related businesses such as Gimchaek Steel Mill also has suffered a severe blow. The impact remains to this day. An official at Chungjin City Party has concluded that President Kim Chuls' death was the turning point for the declining of Chungjin's economy. North Korean authorities put President Kim Chul to death for the charge of illegal sales of iron to South Korea, as claimed by the Overseas Anti-espionage Unit of the National Security Agency. No matter how many large and small trading companies continue to emerge, it is not easy to train highly talented trading experts in a short period of time. Some officials at the Central Party also concur that taking a good care of those who accomplished successful trading business deals under strict trading restrictions and training new trading talents is an urgent task.
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