GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 420 September 14, 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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Punishment and Replacement Cannot Solve Everything
Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) to be Observed Frugally
Rice Price in Pyongyang Fluctuates Greatly with the News of Futile Visit to Russia
Ministry of Foreign Trade, Vice Minister and Councilor Arrested
Strict Inspection of Ministry of Foreign Trade
Disparity among Overseas Representative Offices
Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Trade Are All Being Replaced?

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Punishment and Replacement Cannot Solve Everything
The severe inspection on the Ministry of Foreign Trade seems to be climaxing towards the end. It is reported that the Vice Minister and Councilor of the Ministry were arrested for their poor handling of the food shortage issue, and most main cadres were dismissed from their positions.

Although the official reason for this change was the food shortage, everyone knows that the real motivation is to make way for the next generation elites who are coming into the position of power. As the saying “Put new wine into new bottles” suggests, it is natural that new people should be in charge of the work for the new era. However, a new age does not come just by appointing members of a new power group for influential positions.

A leader needs to have insight and wisdom to benefit from appointment of those with experience and knowledge in their field. There is an old saying that says that it is the appreciation the king has for his men that makes the men impressive or merely common. A bell cannot ring by itself – someone must strike it. Jeongjo, one of the greatest kings of Chosun Dynasty, selected people based on their merit and the need of the country rather than giving weight to their personal and political background, even to those who had ideas different from his own. His example demonstrates the importance of the role of leadership.


Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) to be Observed Frugally
The authorities in North Korea ordered in response to the unresolved food crisis that its citizens are to observe Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) frugally this year. A neighborhood unit lecture announced: “Chuseok has to be observed as simply as possible, because food production has decreased due to the natural disasters. Also, civilians shall not brew alcoholic beverages. We must overcome this year’s food crisis so that we would be able to welcome the New Year as a Strong and Prosperous Nation.” Many expressed their apathy toward this order, seeing how there was no choice but to have a frugal Chuseok. In Pyongsung Market, people complained that they could hardly afford food for their ancestors. “How can we buy food for the ancestral rites when one kilogram of rice costs more than my husband’s salary? As much as I feel bad for my parents who have passed away, I have a family to feed; we are probably going to skip Chuseok this year,” said Park Aekyong (alias). Choi Youngran (alias), a clothing merchant, described the current economic hardship in North Korea: “Where would we get money to buy food for our ancestors when we can’t even pay contributions for the funeral of a neighbor? Nowadays, putting up a picture of the ancestors and drinking to them should suffice.”

For people whose family graves are located in other regions, restricted mobility is a source of discontent. After the national restrictions on travelers were strengthened, it has gotten more difficult to visit the graves because the travel certificates are difficulty to come by. Many people come to district offices and express sentiments such as: “We may be poor, but we still have obligation toward our parents to visit their graves and mow the grass. I never served them a nice, warm meal while they were alive; I can’t neglect them even in their death. Please issue me a traveler’s certificate.” Some residents however, show indifference, cynically saying “Restrict all you want. We can simply put up a picture and pray to it in our own home.”


Rice Price in Pyongyang Fluctuates Greatly with the News of Futile Visit to Russia
On August 15th, the city of Pyongyang resumed food rations that stopped since January in celebration of the Independence Day. Rations were provided to all citizens as well as party and political officials. However, officials were given all rations including the ones that were overdue, but other citizens only had a partial supply which caused the burst of compliant -- "The party officials are the only ones that count, and we aren't?" -- from the general citizenry. In any case, with the circulation of rationed food, the price of food stabilized to a certain degree, but with uncertainty for the prospect of future supplies, it is nevertheless still unstable.

On August 27, Kim Jong Il, Chairman of the National Defense Commission, came back from Russia. The news that he did not accomplish much from his visit added instability to the price of rice. Initially, North Korea asked much from Russia including 50,000 tons of flours, but rather than having its demands met, it was instead asked to pay off its loans from Russia soon, which is in billions of dollars, the rumor said. With this rumor, the price of rice started to fluctuate greatly. The price of rice, which came down to 2,500 won per kilogram, reached 3,000 won at a point. After the initial circulation of the rumor in September, this time with the increase of people who sold the rice rationed for Chuseok to get corn instead, the price of rice dropped again to the 2,200 won range. One retail merchant from Pyongyang said: "The fluctuation between 2,200 won to 3,000 won in one or two weeks time means that there is a difficulty with food procurement. It is likely that the food crisis will not be resolved in the second half of the year either, seeing the way how the price jumps up and down with the slightest rumor of inflow of food from abroad, or the lack thereof."

The import of more than 50,000 tons of corn by the 54th division of the Kangsung Trading Company, which is a military procurement company, greatly aided the food rations for the military and civilians of the greater Pyongyang are. However, in other regions, there is no available source of food. The regions try to rely on the harvest of corn and potato, but it does not help resolving the problem of food crisis much with the damages from this year's severe flood. The flood worsened the food crises by also damaging small plots. There are many people who say that they are worried about the lack of food in wintertime even after the harvest, as well as the problem getting enough food now. In the first week of September, in major cities nationwide, rice is sold in the range of 2,700 - 2,800 won range per kilogram.


Ministry of Foreign Trade, Vice Minister and Councilor Arrested
Vice Minister and Councilor of the Ministry of Foreign Trade who had visited China in order to solve food problem were immediately arrested. They tried to get food supply for two months but nowhere in China accepted their deferred payment contract, the rumor said. As they hardly made any accomplishment, the Central Party called them in to arrest and investigate them for negligence of duty and incomplete task. Regarding these two officials’ fate, one Central Party official said, “About 90% of the officials in the Ministry of Foreign Trade are currently being replaced. It is possible that these two will be discharged earlier than Ri Ryongnam, the Minister of Foreign Trade, to set an example to others.”


Strict Inspection of Ministry of Foreign Trade
The deadline for completing food supply task assigned to the overseas representatives has been extended to the end of September. Some officials said that ten months of extension would still not be enough to complete the task. If the assignment is not met, repatriation will be forced starting from people who did not fulfill the task for the last two years. Some officials already have headed back to the country.

In response to the strict inspection of the Ministry, overseas trade officials have put much effort to complete the assignment. However, trade officials say in chorus that the assignment was almost impossible to finish from the start. By the end of August, most officials barely achieved one to two tons except some outliers who obtained one to two hundred tons. In August, Ministry of Foreign Trade Ri Ryongnam visited Beijing along with Vice Minister and Councilor but returned without any success, and the latter two are now in prison. The Central Party warned Minister Ri of a similar consequence. However, as foreign media reported that the inspection was aimed at the Minister, no specific action is being taken yet. Some in the Central Party expect that the massive replacement of the officials in the Ministry of Foreign Trade would end around October with the dismissal of the minister.


Disparity among Overseas Representative Offices
There is a significant disparity among overseas representatives under Ministry of Foreign Trade when it comes to fulfilling the food supply assignments. The Minister urged all the officials in the Ministry to give their best effort, with slogans such as “Complete the assignment or die.” The Ministry reiterated the demand with an official order saying, “Offer money or return to North Korea.” The atmosphere is highly tense in the Ministry. Once the all-out effort was made, there was an obvious disparity in performances according to the nation and region where the representatives are based. Officials in wealthier countries were able to accomplish more, while those in developing countries made only a meager amount. Representatives based in Germany, the UK, and China sent two or three times to four or five times more amount than those based in East European countries. Within China, there was a significant difference between Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou and Northeastern tri-states. Among the three states, Shenyang and Darien are in a better position than Yanbian. Officials who cannot offer money begin to pack and return to North Korea voluntarily before being repatriated. Less well-off countries in Eastern Europe first saw some North Korean officials repatriating themselves and China has a good number of North Korean officials who have returned or expressed their intention to return.


Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Trade Are All Being Replaced?
The Ministry of Foreign Trade has been strictly monitored by the joint inspection team between the Cabinet Political Bureau’s Escort Command and the National Defense Committee. For example, overseas trade officials are called upon the tracing of trade expenditure and revenue investigations for missing items. These measures are intended to find out the amount of recently embezzled money, and bribes offered to the upper party members or cadres. Ministry of Foreign Trade officials assume that this investigation is ultimately targeted at the high level officials in the ministry, including the Minister Ri Ryongnam, and that it is not limited exclusively to detecting corruption on an individual level. The officials therefore are concerned that the Minster would not get away this time.

Seven officials at the general manager level have already been dismissed. The Ministry-affiliated organizations are filled with imprisoned employees and some overseas representative officials voluntarily returned to the country. However, people who could not complete their tasks for the past year or two were summoned being accused of “the lack of loyalty to the country with no contribution.” High rank cadres who have a close relationship with Minister Ri Ryongnam and those who have no apparent pretext to receive punishment have been ordered to return to the country with an offer of some position of general manger level in each department. “They want to punish us, but without an appropriate pretext, they want to bring us back to North Korea, keep us in some office for a couple of months and then push us away. I know their intentions; however, there is no way to decline such work. Once all of us have been demoted, the Minister will be removed, too. These days there are huge limitations on the actions of the Minister, and surveillance tightened,” said one official who was summoned.

Although the deadline of the food task was extended by one more month, not many officials will be able to complete the task by October. Many officials deplore the current situation, worrying about the vacuum in foreign trade in case everyone gets summoned. “How can these diplomatic novices who know next to nothing accomplish national plans? The only thing we can sell outside is coal, and only those who accumulated trust from merchant over time can sell the coal at a decent price. What on earth will they do when they have fired and summoned all officials so thoughtlessly?” lamented one official in the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Some people responded differently upon being summoned back to North Korea saying that “It is actually good for me. No matter hard I try, there’s no way I can complete the given tasks. I would rather spend time with my family than wrestle with all these tasks than be fired when I can’t complete them. I have no idea how they’ll manage to build a Strong and Prosperous Nation. I am concerned about the future of this country and I don’t see any kind of future for my children’s generation.”
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