GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 424 October 12, 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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Sorrows of the Nation Ascend High Above Where Merry Songs Fill the Air
Shortage of Daily Necessities Nationwide
Daily Necessity Crisis Caused by Trade Department Investigation
New cars for Newly Appointed Officials, While People Survive on Grass Porridge
North Hamgyong Province Opens the First Restaurant Abroad
North Hamgyong’s First Restaurant Abroad: A Historic Innovation
The Popularity of Debit Card in Pyongyang Leaves Other Regions Disgruntled
Only Pyongyang in a Celebratory Mood for the Party Foundation Day

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Sorrows of the Nation Ascend High Above Where Merry Songs Fill the Air
“A fragrant wine pouring out into a golden jar pours down the blood of a thousand people;
Side dishes enveloping a jade tray evoke the flesh of a thousand people.
Tears welling up from a burning candlelight swell with tears the very eyes of a thousand people;
High above, where songs are heard, one sings the ascending sorrow of an entire generation."

This is a poem from Chunhyang-jeon; in the story, it was recited by undercover inspector Lee Mongryong at the birthday banquet of Magistrate Pyon, who was a greedy and corrupted official. It is also a criticism which came from the local government officials in North Korea aimed at the upper-class people in Pyongyang. It alludes to the circumstance where wailings of people suffering from hunger and cold in other regions fill the air while Pyongyang is filled with delicious smells and people who live in modern, high-rise apartments as they squander foreign money using debit cards. By mobilizing the Guard Command, these people impose rigorous censorships on the subordinates, but they live a good life; so this poem also reflects other people’s arguments that the upper-class people must set an example to the others. Even in the midst of food crisis and shortage of daily necessities, the party seems to provide various goods in abundance to the newly assigned officials in order to boost morale. Feeding and clothing the ragged people should definitely come first. It would be embarrassing to see the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea devolving into just the Republic of Pyongyang.


Shortage of Daily Necessities Nationwide
Daily necessities are in short supply. The National Border Area where foreigners are supplying goods or directly doing business is better off than other regions, which are experiencing a shortage of daily necessities in addition to food. Even sizable provincial cities such as Pyongsung, Wonsan, and Hamheung have difficulty obtaining goods to display in their Convenient Service Networks, many of which are actually unable to operate. The supplies sometimes run out even in stores in Pyongyang that transact in foreign currencies. More people are looking for winter clothes including underclothes as it suddenly became cold, but not many people can obtain them. Even smugglers or merchants who are skilled black-market dealers complain that it is difficult to bring in goods these days. Kang Hyung-jung (alias), who visited Pyongsung Market in South Pyongan Province, said that she manages to substitute underwear by utilizing discarded shirts since it was difficult to obtain even a piece of underwear. Kim Young-ho, who lives in Hamheung of North Hamgyong Province, said the following: “People in Pyongyang may be able to live somehow, but the problem is too serious in other regions. Everyone’s clothing is worn and shabby, making them look like Kkotjebi children. It is because people cannot pay attention to clothing since the food is a more pressing issue, and also because it is more difficult to find clothes these days. Since goods are rarely put into circulation these days, it is difficult to buy a piece of second-hand clothing with the money that would buy a few kilograms of corns. So people barely manage to cover their flesh.”


Daily Necessity Crisis Caused by Trade Department Investigation
The Central Party finds overseas trading as the cause of the nationwide crisis in daily necessities. According to its analysis, the import priority has been put on food, military supplies and agricultural equipment, and therefore importing daily necessities has been relatively neglected. However, trade department officials think differently. They say, “The Party prohibited importing anything else.” According to them, daily necessities were not just put low in priority but actually forbidden by the Party. Others say, “the severe investigation on the trade department and major staff replacements caused a great hindrance in trading with big Chinese mechants.” Chinese merchants would not make deals with new trade officials unless they can pay in cash up front.

It is obvious that the trade with China will be greatly affected until the new trade officials establish themselves in China. A trade department official said, “The generational changeover resulted in a blockage of Chinese import, affecting the service network badly. The service network in Pyongyang has been dependent on Chinese imports on everything from cooking oil and chili pepper powder to meat, and now the supply is suppressed.” Overseas trade officers in China explain the current situation: “Due to the extremely strict investigation, we cannot send in even ordinary stuff (to North Korea).” Apart from food (grain), even chips and noodles are not permitted. Sending in medicine and clothes was not a difficult task in the past, but now it is not easy anymore because the payment from North Korea has been delayed for so long. A trade officer said, “If I send in a lot of merchandise, it will be a problem later. The investigators would say, ‘You sent in lots of stuff. You must have made lots of revenue while dealing them. How much did you take for yourself?’ and they would press harder on me. You get more thoroughly investigated and have to bribe them more. I got a real hard blow this time as well. I will never go through such thing again. Observing many people who were concerned about domestic situation and tried to help only to be fired taught me to ignore the difficulties that the country faces.” The state is not concerned with supplying daily necessities; a great number of front line trade officers have been replaced; and capable officers tend to avoid importing what is needed – these three phenomena culminate in the nationwide crisis of daily necessities, he explained.


New cars for Newly Appointed Officials While People Survive on Grass Porridge
While the supply of necessities for the replaced officials has been improved, the life for ordinary citizens is getting tougher. As the officials at the Central Party, local parties, and law enforcement institutions are being replaced en masse, there is so-called Gwangpok Jungchi (or “generous politics) in abundance. Food and necessities are the least of it, and much more has been given. For example, new cars for officials have been recently provided. At the Central Party, six cars have been given to each county, each to the county-level leading secretary, the president and the vice president of the local People’s Council, the heads of the public prosecutor’s office, Safety Bureau, and the security department. To law enforcement institutions such as the public prosecutor’s office, Safety Bureau, and the Security Department, a large number of jeeps and motorcycles were provided as vehicles for the task force. An official at the Central Party said that it cost $16 million so far just to provide vehicles for government officials.

On the other hand, the public transportation system remains backward. There are only ten buses or so in total connecting Pyongyang and Sariwon, Hwanghae province. With the flooding and landslides of the last summer, bridges, roads, and railroads have been severely damaged, disabling what limited means of transportation there had been. In places where there was a landslide, roads have been cleared in a makeshift manner with rocks moved and dents on the road filled. As the road situation worsens, and travel restrictions and market restrictions become more severe, it has become difficult to encounter traveling salesmen who transport food and goods. The lack of domestic circulation of goods on top of the lack of inflow of good from overseas has severely damaged the quality of life for ordinary citizens. A Central Party official sent monitors to countryside villages, and he said these places are in severe despair. There are many farmers who survive on grass porridge. Since they have nothing to wear, they wear torn clothes that reveal their bare arms and legs like those of street beggars. In particular, those who lost their home from the flood still live in mud huts. Those who escaped the damage from flood also have a hard time, because many people, pressed with difficulties in everyday life, rarely come out of their house, making the circulation of food and goods difficult. Although they are told to pay attention to the sentiment of the public, the officials are disinterested in the difficulties of everyday living for ordinary citizens. All they do is strengthen ideological education and restrict mobility, making the prospect of sustaining livelihood for ordinary citizens worrisome, with bleak prospect for the harvest and a bad economy.


North Hamgyong Province Opens the First Restaurant Abroad
North Hamgyong province opened the first overseas restaurant in Liaoning, Ansan City, China. It is the first restaurant on a regional level to expand overseas. With this as an example, we can predict that many more regional businesses will venture overseas. Regional executives are taking this overseas expansion from Hamgyong province as a cue to start their own. One executive of one of Hamgyong province’s factions said, “We opened the restaurant in China because all of our service networks have become unable to operate due to the lack of raw materials. We opened the restaurant in China with the goal of harvesting raw materials from other countries.” To the question of how opening a restaurant relates to the importing of raw materials, he answered, “We will purchase supplies with the profits earned from the restaurant. Our goal is to supply all goods such as meats, spices, oil, sugar, and rice.” The Central Party declared that all restaurants overseas (regardless of their profits or number of workers) must supply 100,000 dollars per year to the government. In the past the central party told each person how much to pay but now they have decided to charge the restaurant instead. The amount of money they pay is different for wealthier regions; in Beijing, Shanghai, etc. the amount they pay is 100,000 euros and larger restaurants pay additional fees.


North Hamgyong’s First Restaurant Abroad: A Historic Innovation
North Hamkyung Province opened its first overseas restaurant in Anshan, Liaoning, inspiring other regions. One public official in the North Hamkyung Province said, “This may not be considered a big issue in other countries. However, this is a historic innovation in our country with its potential to rescue regional economies. If we succeed, other cities may also attempt the same. Other local governments are showing great interest in our overseas restaurants. It has started a ripple effect throughout the country.” Until the opening of North Hamkyung Province’s overseas restaurant, Pyongyang City dominated the overseas business scene. Local governments, faced with lack of funding and people with experience, did foreign trade via Chinese businesses or companies from Pyongyang, and it did not help local economies much. Local governments determined to open overseas businesses despite the challenges demonstrates their strong will to make profit for their own sake. An obstacle in this business model is the fee that local governments have to pay to the central government in case they open a business overseas. With the fee amounting to of $100,000 US dollars per business, it is difficult to make overseas ventures profitable. “With Chinese companies reluctant to invest in North Korea, the central government has increased the fee levied on companies, stores, and restaurants that earn foreign currency. This fee has made people afraid of venturing overseas. It would be better to lower the fee in order to motivate the local companies and individuals to go abroad so that they will earn the foreign currency to provide funds for local budget and to invest in local economies,” said the previously mentioned official from North Hamgyong. Pyongyang operates foreign currency based stores, restaurants and entertainment facilities in the city as well as running overseas businesses. People who have experience working abroad often collaborate with investors to open new businesses, or work with relatives abroad who can invest in factories and businesses in Pyongyang. In contrast to the dire lack of necessities in other regions, the stores targeting high officials in Pyongyang are thriving.


The Popularity of Debit Card in Pyongyang Leaves Other Regions Disgruntled
North Korea’s first debit card was launched early this year in Pyongyang. It is gaining popularity among people who frequent foreign currency stores and hotel restaurants. Before the debit card was introduced, they were inconvenienced by the lack of foreign currency change in stores. Regarding people’s positive response to the debit card, Ms. Misook Shim (pseudonym), clerk at a foreign currency store in Pyongyang’s Junggu station said, “It was difficult not having enough change for customers after transactions. For example, when a customer tried to pay ten dollars using a hundred dollar bill, I had no choice but to issue the customer a check and keep a record of it. The check could be used for the customer’s next purchase, and even then, another check would have to be written for the change. Consequently, customers were reluctant to buy things, and it hurt our business. With the convenience of the debit card payment now, everyone is happy.” Central Party officials also seem to be proud of the new debit card. An official said, “Although debit cards aren’t not a special thing in other countries where it has been used for a long time, in our Republic it is a revolutionary innovation. Foreigners who visit our country are pleasantly surprised, and they enjoy the convenience” He expects more foreign visitors to the country.


On the other hand, other regions are not too pleased with this news. An official at Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province said, “In other regions, people are dying from malnutrition. Does it make any sense that Pyongyang officials are using foreign currency and not just domestic currency to visit restaurants and shops? People in other regions suffer, and meanwhile in Pyongyang the smell of food and the sound of laughter fills the air. It’s just like the poem Lee Mongryong wrote upon Byun Hakdo’s birthday party.” Another official worries about the growing economic gap between Pyongyang and other regions. “Pyongyang is developing rapidly every day, with things like debit card and the 100,000 new house plan, while people in other regions lack food and clothes.” A tradesperson at Hamheung said, “Some officials, in their vain attempt to catch up with the lifestyle of people in Pyongyang, are busy extorting money and goods from innocent people. What happened to the “mother state” that takes care of its people? I can’t do this any more, with the amount of money I have to pay the officials to get a travel pass.” He also claimed that despite the thorough inspection of the government officials by the Guard Command, corruption among regional officials is still rampant. He suggested that the exploitation of people by regional officials is a behavior learned from those in Pyongyang, and that the officials in Pyongyang will need to set an example if corruption were to be eradicated.


Only Pyongyang in a Celebratory Mood for the Party Foundation Day
Pyongyang was in a festive mood on October 10th, the Party Foundation Day; however, other provinces only reluctantly organized customary ceremonies. The people participated in the ceremony without enthusiasm. “The sound of trumpet to celebrate the Party Foundation Day blasts in the streets every day, but for example, in my neighborhood Sungchun District, people are starving because they can’t afford mere corn gruel. How could we possibly celebrate? The rich people in Pyongyang may wear nice clothes and eat out in foreign restaurants to celebrate, but for us, it is just another difficult and grueling day,” said Jung Eunsil (alias), a resident of Hamheung, South Hamgyong Province. “It is getting colder and I’ve run out of fuel, so I have started working from dawn, thinking that I might as well be making money instead of sitting at home and freezing to death. I crave for hot, steamy soup in the cold, but I have to make do with cold gruel. I don’t have the fuel to heat up my food, so I just deal with coldness filling my stomach” said Kim Chunhwa (alias). She added, “I am so worried about my future. The Party Foundation Day? What does that have to do with me? It’s not like they hand out even a kilogram of corn, and I couldn’t care less about it.” An official from the Central Party explained, “Many households are falling apart in the provinces due to the food crisis. Because of natural disasters and the lack of fertilizer, small plots of land could not be farmed at all. Those who lost everything they had from last year’s currency revaluation are yet to recover, and they will have a hard time surviving this winter. People have been voicing complaints increasingly.” The economic gap between Pyongyang and other provinces seems to be widening day by day.

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