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.

North Korea Today No. 418 August 31, 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]
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

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[Editor's Note]
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.”

North Korea Daily No. 417 August 24, 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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Government Freezes Efforts to Forcibly Move Families of Defectors
Excessive Harassment from Security Guards
Traveling through Mountains to Avoid Checkpoints
Notorious Checkpoint at Geumdong 1st Unit
Female Travelers Suffer from Sexual Harassment
Guilt-by-association Applied to Wife of South Korean Cell Phone User

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Government Freezes Efforts to Forcibly Move Families of Defectors

The North Korean government has halted its efforts to relocate the families of defectors living near the border with China to inner regions of the country. In November 2009, the government used the Yuseon-dong espionage case in Hoeryong, North Hamgyong province, as an excuse to execute a plan that forcibly moved families having defectors as relatives into inner regions, while beginning investigations into families of defectors. The government now, however, has a second thought on its solution to the defector issue and issued a temporary halt to the relocation plan.

Government efforts to define families of defectors were marred by difficulties from the very beginning. There were too many people that had either crossed the border during the ‘Arduous March’ period or were deemed missing, and simply defining a missing person as defector was not plausible. If all missing people were defined as defectors, it would lead to a large-scale forced relocation of people into inner regions. Seeing this as undesirable, the government planned to limit cases of forcible relocation only to those clear-cut cases of families who had a defector as a relative. The government authorities decided to strengthen their surveillance on those households suspected of using cell phones to contact defector relatives or with a suspiciously high level of income.

On the other hand, the authorities decided not to forcibly relocate families with a missing family member and were just barely surviving through small-plot farming or selling merchandise as well as those absent of suspicious activity. Even if the missing family member turned out to be a defector in the end, the government plan was to just punish the defector him/herself, on the condition that he/she had made no contact with the family.

From the start, North Koreans themselves were largely unsupportive of these government plans. One person put it this way: “Who’s left after the government has moved all those families? While the government is using all its power to go after suspect families here and there, how am I supposed to lead my life knowing I could be the next?” Not knowing when the government would target them, many innocent people feel insecure. The North Korean authorities are trying to suppress everyone by showing the horrible consequences of fleeing the country, but many people say that these efforts have just confirmed to them what a large number of people doing illegal activities just to stay alive.

“This may sound too blunt, but everyone is doing something illegal just to stay alive. It is difficult to distinguish whether people who cross the border are traitors or they are just trying to get something to eat. Once the food distribution stopped in 1994 and the period of the ‘Arduous March’ began, starvation has claimed countless numbers of people. The reason people nowadays are doing things the government says is illegal is just to stay alive! Also, nowadays many married couples decide not to have children. They have trouble just feeding themselves, and I doubt they would want to go through seeing their own children starve as well. If things continue this way it is clear that the population of our country will continue to fall…the government really is clueless in trying to expel the families of defectors into the inner regions”, many vent out their frustration.

Opposition to the government plans was particularly strong among the residents living in the border cities of Hoeryoung and Onseong because the money defectors send back has helped the economy and brought in more food.


Excessive Harassment from Security Guards
The Central Party ordered that security agents should not incriminate the entire family just because a family member is a defector. In reality, however, this order goes ignored, because checking on the family of a defector is a good source of income for security agents. They say, “Whether or not the missing person really is a defector, if you keep prodding the family members, they are bound to pay us to leave them alone. Even when the rest of the family hasn’t done anything wrong, if one member has fled the country, that family becomes a good source of income.”

Moreover, if a family member is found to have fled to South Korea, the rest of the family becomes a lifelong source of income for security agents. If the family doesn’t provide them with what they want every time, the entire family is constantly summoned and interrogated; few can endure the harassment. Even in the eyes of ordinary citizens the surveillance and restrictions on the families with a supposed defector seem increasingly extreme. Soon-young Baek (alias), who lives in Nammoon-dong, Hoeryoung City says, “Even people who have no connections to defectors are so severely harassed that I feel sorry for them. One family in my neighborhood was extorted of its possessions until it eventually lost its house. The family became homeless, and I felt so sorry for them.”

There are some families that are caught trying to escape from their village after suffering extreme harassment from security agents. They are accused of trying to flee from the country with the money sent from the defected family member, when in fact they were only trying to flee from the security agents. In contrast, families that do receive monetary assistance from family members who have successfully fled North Korea are able to satisfy the demands of the security agents and live fairly normal lives.


Traveling through Mountains to Avoid Checkpoints
A police officer in Cheonjin, North Hamgyong Province reported the current situation, saying “The number of people willing to risk their lives to cross the river to China is on the rise because the situation at home is not any better than being shot while crossing.” Security department densely set up checkpoints on the gateways and corners from inland to border area. For example, it takes three to four hours to travel from Cheongjin to Hoeryong, and there are three checkpoints through the way. One checkpoint in Gomusan has Buryeong County police station and 9th corp security platoon; Poongsanri Hoeryong checkpoint has Hoeryong Security Department; and Geumdong 1st Unit checkpoint has the Defense Security Command on operation. This is an enhanced crackdown system that blocks people without travel permits such as business trip certificate, travel certificate, and citizen card from traveling through border areas.

Sukhoon Jo (alias) has recently experienced a denial to his application for a travel certificate. He wanted to visit his older brother on his 60th birthday, but the high authority had apparently ordered not to issue travel certificates to border area travelers. He was not able to get the certificate even though he bribed police officers and security agents for acknowledgement of his brother’s birthday. Law-enforcing officers became stricter under the tightened crackdown system. Therefore, people from inland without travel certificates increasingly choose to take detours through mountains. To travel from Cheongjin to Hoeryung, they take a ride in a car up to Gomusan. They get off the car before they meet checkpoints, and then walk about 60 km through mountain paths.


Notorious Checkpoint at Geumdong 1st Unit
The most infamous checkpoint among the three on the road to Hoeryong is the one at Geumdong 1 unit, operated by the Defense Security Command. It was also at this checkpoint that a nurse with a pen video camera was caught in 2009 – a major feat which prompted a series of arrests of about 60 people, including both the Party entry-level secretary and the head of the People’s Hospital in Yuseon-dong, for espionage. Because of the event, about 30 government officials at Hoeryong City were fired, suspended, or demoted to farmer. Those who turned out to have committed outright espionage were sent to the closed unit of No. 22 political prisoner detention center.

In the wake of the event, a nationwide espionage alert was issued, and there was a substantial shake up in Hoeryong City. The Central Party set up a policy of relocating the entire family receiving help from their family member who fled to South Korea or China. A full-scale investigation on residents began with the goal to finish the relocation by 2011. The Party announced in very strong terms, saying “The government will investigate any household related to defectors, and vows to crack down on those who communicate with the defectors by cell phone or send even a slight signal of standing up against the government.”

Proud of the feat of the most well-known espionage case in the northern regions, the checkpoint stepped up its security check measures in the hopes of achieving another major feat. Its search became stricter than any other checkpoints. Whether or not carrying anything illegal, people are reportedly scared without exception by those who conduct the search – mostly private soldiers in Defense Security Command. Particularly, women are outraged by an extremely intimate search: the soldiers have no trouble groping women. Another problem is the prolonged period of time taken for the security check. Each check point takes up about one hour on average. It takes more than 6 hours to travel from Chungjin to Hoeryong, which could have been only 3 hours without individual security check at each checkpoint.


Female Travelers Suffer from Sexual Harassment
Each checkpoint conducts fastidiously detailed searches. Anyone suspected of potential border crossing will be detained and interrogated for days. If a person is found to be even slightly likely to cross the border, that person is first sent to travelers’ detention center in Cheongjin, and then sent to home. Young women often face molestation for no apparent reasons. Sunhwa Kim (alias), who was seized at a checkpoint at Gomusan while traveling to Hoeryong to pick up merchandise on behalf of her mother, recollected her experience at the checkpoint: “They were constantly harassing me, asking why a young woman is traveling alone and accusing me of being sold or married off to a Chinese man. It was unendurable. I heard later that it is rare for a woman to be let out unless she allows herself to the guards. They say a lot of women go through that kind of ordeal as I did.” Kim vented furiously and added: “it is a curse to be a woman in this country.”

Some checkpoints are notorious for extorting travelers’ possessions under the false pretext of drug crackdown even when the traveler carries travel certificate. Not only do they search into travelers’ bags and belongings, but they also force them to take their underwear off. If drug trafficking is suspected, travelers are forcibly stripped, regardless of their gender. Women cannot help but feel humiliated by this process. “Checking inside men’s underwear only can lead to an increase in women drug traffickers. Gender is no excuse,” said the head of the checkpoint, showing no consideration whatsoever of the shame that women, most of the times innocent, have to face when they are forced to be naked in front of men.

Amidst such chaos, the searches always prove to be lucrative for the guards. Confiscation of expensive possessions is rampant. Travelers cannot object to such stealing, especially if they are coming from the inner regions. Thus they usually swallow the injustice, thinking of it as a toll.


Guilt-by-association Applied to Wife of South Korean Cell Phone User
Ms. Han Kyung-Hee, who lives in Musan-eup, Musan County in North Hamgyong Province, went through ferocious troubles last year because her husband’s South Korean cell phone use was detected by the radio censorship bureau in August. Luckily, her husband fled over to China, but the National Security Agency arrested Ms Han instead. She was questioned thoroughly during the following months. The questions were about what her husband did with the phone, who he contacted, how he was able to receive money, and so on. Ms Han replied that she did not know anything because her husband rarely discussed any of his business with her. She begged to be released for her two children and old mother who were at home waiting for her, but her plea did not work.

“You are just as bad as the criminal, because you did not report to the police about your husband using a South Korean phone even though you saw him using it”, said the agency. Ms Han refuted her allegation saying, “How do I know if the phone was from South Korea or China. I am not guilty,” but she was sent to prison. One of the agents said that even if Ms Han was released, she would be on the list for the highest level of watch because there is a high chance that her husband may try to contact her. If she gets caught while having a contact with her husband, she will be immediately relocated to inner regions.
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