GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 436 January 4, 2012

[“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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Year 2012, Let us be the Hope for North Korean Citizens! A Day in the Life of a Laborer, Ho-suk, who Takes Care of His Little Daughter and Old Mother
A Day in the Life of a Mine Worker, Jung-hak
Story of Hyun-sook, who Sells Firewood to SurviveA day in the Life of Firewood Seller, Jung-ok’s MotherSecond Grader Eunsil’s Typical Day
A Day in the Life of an Old Farmer, Mr. Kim
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Year 2012, we should be the hope for North Korean citizens!
There are people in North Korea who leave their homes in the darkness of early morning. They have to leave home very early so that they can bring water, firewood, and charcoal. If they are able to bring a bundle of firewood against the cold winter weather, they can afford to get corn porridge for their family. That is why they cannot even consider taking a break unless they are suffering from some fatal disease. Although the supreme leader who had the absolute power died and the New Year has come, their lives are still the same. They start their days with concerns about whether they will have anything to eat, and end their days with concerns for the next day’s food. They endure all this like a selfless mother who sacrifices herself to feed her children even if she stays hungry.

To commemorate this first issue of the New Year, we have featured the everyday lives of several North Korean citizens. We can have a look at the cross-section of North Korean people’s lives through observing how they survive the winter months in a situation where there is no work to do at the farm as well as in the factories because they are not in operation.

The new year of 2012 has dawned. Nobody can know how turbulent the international politics surrounding the Korean Peninsula and the relationship between the two Koreas will be. However, one thing is clear – we have the capability to bring hopes to the North Korean people. We can provide food for those who live a life of hand-to-mouth existence through humanitarian assistance, and we can provide farm machinery and fertilizer for them to revive agriculture. Furthermore, we can revitalize the economy through economic collaboration between the South and the North. Could there be a greater pleasure if we can be a hope for someone? Let’s make 2012 the year which brings hope and happiness for all people in South and North Korea. The peaceful unification is not far from us. Doesn’t your heart overflow with joy even at the thought of it?


A Day In the Life of a Laborer, Ho-suk, who Takes Care of His Little Daughter and Old Mother
Ho-suk woke up at 5:00 a.m. and first went to riverside, which is 300 meters away from his house, to get water. It was a freezing early morning and still dark. As he arrived there, after 20 minutes of groping his way in the dark, other people were already there to get water as well. Ho-suk filled the container with water scooped from the river by standing on the frozen riverbank, but his hands were already numbed with cold and hard to move freely. He came up to the embankment with two water-filled containers in mitten-covered hands, then stumbled and spilt almost half of the water. He walked in hurry to get home with shaking body- it took about an hour for him to return home.

His old mother and young daughter were still sleeping curled up. The only thing covering their two thin bodies was a ragged comforter. He put his comforter on top of it, but the heavy and crude comforter did not look warm, only desolate. He hastily started fire with dried leaves and twigs in the kitchen, and then prepared meal with two bowls of corn powder and shredded Napa cabbages in a caldron. There was no electricity, no water, only a harsh existence persists.

Ho-suk’s wife left the family one summer night in 2007 without saying anything. It has been 4 years of no contact from her. He guessed she went to China and there is no way to get in touch with her. The day breaks at around 7:00 a.m. and his old mother and daughter woke up. He went to work hurriedly after having a bowl of corn porridge for breakfast. His mother sells kindles in a market after washing dishes. His daughter should watch the house all day because she does not go to school. At 8:00 a.m., he signed his name on the company attendance report and came home. He climbed the mountain, which is in front of his house, with a tool to collect kindle that would be sold in a market. The livelihood of family of three relies on this.
To arrive on the mountain ridge on foot took almost 2 hours. Collecting kindle is not easy because too many people do it for their living as well. Moreover, they should try not to collect thicker trees because of the forest guards. It took a half day to fill a bag with small pieces of chopped wood. His body was shaking and he was so hungry. He carried the bundle of kindle on his back with a support of a short stick, got home by taking 5 breaks on the way back home. He arrived at home around 4:00 PM. His mother and daughter helped him to unload the bundle from his back. After having a scanty meal, a bowl of corn porridge that was a leftover from the morning, he fell asleep as soon as he lay down on the bed. His mother did not ask him questions, since her son was sleeping deeply, such as how much kindle he has sold, or if he has prepared food for tomorrow. The daughter and mother, who has finished washing dishes got into the bed together and fell asleep soon. In that cold room, without any touch of warmth, another day was passing by.


A Day in the Life of a Mine Worker, Jung-hak
Jung-hak, a mine worker, wakes up around 6 a.m. Because it’s so early, the sky is still grey and the cold biting. He slates his hunger with a bowl of corn rice that his wife cooked for him; he drowns the corn rice into a bowl of warm water mixed with Chinese-made flavor enhancer before gulping it all down. He calls over his neighbor, Young-sam, and leaves home together at 6:30 a.m. When he arrives at the entrance to the mine at 7 a.m., his friend Chul-ho is already there.

In return for being allowed to work here, they have to take their chances working in a closed mine. They enter the mine and arrive at the work space soon enough. They don’t need any lights to see their way since they know the path by heart. There is always the danger of cave in since all the wooden support has been ripped out for firewood. Nevertheless, they don’t have any safeguards to protect them from things dropping on their heads here and there.

Their job is to dig a side tunnel along the main walls to mine the layer of coal that’s about as deep as a hand is wide. They are lucky today. From the look of things, they should be able to salvage about 5 A-frame’s worth of coal if they can get everything out that they see. But after working by a dim candlelight to dig enough coal for one A-frame, it’s already lunch time. Lunch is two pieces of corn cake. Then it’s back to work again. It’s around 3 p.m. when they manage to drag to the entrance what they dug for the day. It’s about 300 kg, good enough for a day’s work.

Dead tired, the three friends divide up the load on their backs and head home. Usually, their wives and children would meet them to help them take the coal directly to the market, but they were told not to come today on account of the bitter cold. The coals are often too heavy for a woman to lift anyway. But when Jung-hak’s wife sees the coal that her husband brought in, she quickly loads up the hand cart and heads for the market. The cold weather would increase the demand for the coal. They usually go for around 6~7,000 NKW per one basket. For the bigger merchants, one ton of coal go for 90,000~100,000 NKW. One pocketful of firewood goes for 2,500~3,000 NKW, while one large cart’s worth sells around 35,000 to 36,000 NKW. It’s because of the coal that allows Jung-hak’s family to subsist on corn. As such, Jung-hak will be dragging his tired body to the mine again tomorrow morning.


Story of Hyun-sook, Who Sells Firewood to Survive
When Hyun-sook, a worker in a collective farm, wakes up at 6 a.m., she hurriedly starts making gruel of corn and two pieces of dried cabbage leaves. She used to use a Chinese-made flavor enhancer to spruce up the flavor, but it ran out. Since then, she uses common salt instead. She quickly gulps down one bowl of the gruel before washing up and leaving home to breaking dawn. She unlocks the pad lock to the storage shed and takes out the hand cart. She moves the piles of fire wood that her husband brought back yesterday onto the cart and ties them down with rope. She needs to push the cart for about two hours to arrive at the town, trying to ignore the spasms in her belly. She’s hungry and cold by the time she arrives at the square in front of the railroad station. She’s able to sell the fire wood by the middle of the day. With the money, she buys a few kilograms of corn. Hungry and cold, since she went without lunch, Hyun-sook visits a relative’s house. They don’t have any food either, but, at least, they have a warm spot on the floor where she can warm herself. After warming herself, she heads back home with the cart. When she arrives, it’s already dark. She goes immediately to the kitchen thinking of the family who’s waiting for her to come back home with the corn. She somehow manages to make corn gruel in the dark kitchen and feeds her family. Afterwards, she lays herself down in the dark room without electricity, but cannot get to sleep for worry about tomorrow. When she got married seven years ago, they had hopes for a brighter future, promising each other that they would work hard. But they are still worrying about where the next meal’s going to come from. She had gotten pregnant several times, but had abortions without telling her husband. Her head’s filled with the thought when she would finally be able to not worry about food, so much so that she can’t even bear to be next her husband who’s seemingly sleeping so soundly.


A day in the Life of Firewood Seller, Jung-ok’s Mother
Jung-ok’s mom, a twenty eight year old lady has lived alone since her husband and a daughter (Jung-ok) died three years ago. She makes a living by selling firewood. In order to buy firewood from rural woodcutters, she usually goes to a station square at five in the morning. If she sells firewood in a local market, she makes only a small profit, from 1,000 to 2,000 NKW at most.

It is a lucky day today for her because she met a good seller and got eight bundles of firewood without a sticky price negotiation. If she sells out of this firewood, she could earn a 1,500 NKW at least. She displays the firewood well on the pushcart and sits at a good location near the market entrance. When she looks around to search for customers, she notices that no one walks with a calm and composed posture. More than half the people walk like they are running. From their crouching posture and busy walk, she could feel the weight of their hard lives.

At last after one hour of waiting, a man approaches to buy firewood. His worn-out pants and shoes show at a glance that he is a person skipping his meals frequently. His black sooty face seems like he has not washed in over a month. His eyes are without focus as well. As Jung-ok’s mom sells firewood to him, she thinks that he needs to eat corn porridge first rather than buying firewood.

She also wants to have some corn porridge. It is natural to feel hungry because she skipped breakfast. A cold wind searched her ragged collar. Her husband’s old winter jacket, army-colored summer pants and sweater and thin underwear are the only clothes protecting her from the cold wind. Around her neck and face, she wrapped a Russian-thread woven muffler, a wedding gift from her mother, in hopes that it can help her keep warmer. However, she still trembles like a leaf before a strong, icy wind.

Around 11 o'clock, she bought a corn-flour cake and a frozen radish to satisfy her hunger. She had her hopes up in the morning, but the business was not going as well as expected. She sold only seven bags. After paying the cost, she netted 1,200 NKW. However, one bag of firewood remained and she would not have to worry about firewood for the next several days.

It was almost 5 p.m. when she got back home. She put a bunch of corn noodles in the water for soaking and chopped up the left-over radish from lunch. She added some condiments to the water and when the water boiled, she put the noodles in and that would be her dinner. The water did not boil for some time because the firewood was a little bit wet.

If her husband were home, he would have started the fire while he was waiting for her, and the thought made her sad. Her husband was working as a Combat Worker to earn foreign exchange but was injured seriously on the job, then died without much medical treatment.

Not even two weeks after her husband's passing, her two-year old daughter had high fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. She brought her to a hospital but her daughter died without receiving a drop of medication. It made her sad that she had sent her husband and daughter to the other world, and yet she was eking out a living by buying firewood then reselling it day after day. She still preferred when people called her "Jung-ok’s mom" rather than her own name, Lee Geum-soon because she can pretend her husband and daughter were still around.

The water was not hot enough but she cooked the noodles anyway and ate a bowl of not-fully-cooked noodles. It was completely dark now. She was drained and her joints ached. She threw her body down on the floor without taking her cloths off or without washing her face. Even when she was falling asleep, her last thought was to hope that business would be better tomorrow.


Second Grader Eunsil’s Typical Day
Eunsil is a second grade student. At six in the morning, she gets up before her mother wakes her up. She eats steamed corn meal her mother prepared, washes her face, packs, and goes to school. When she arrives at school at 7 a.m., first thing she does is clean with a broom and a cloth. In cold weather like today, they don’t go out to clean the playground but roughly sweep the hallways. Due to a water outage, the desks, chairs, and windows are wiped with a dry cloth.

The class starts at 7:30 am. 14 students are absent today. 12 of them caught a cold and one has a broken leg. And the other one’s mother passed away from an illness yesterday. With half of the class absent, the unheated classroom feels emptier and colder in the harsh winter day. The teacher seems to give oral instruction mostly and use the blackboard rarely in order to keep the hands warm in the pockets. You can hear the sound the children make blowing into their hands to warm themselves.

Lunch time is at noon. There are a few kids who brought lunch. Some chew grilled corn kernels from their pocket. Others eat pieces of a corn bread they brought. More than half of the students are either just staying calm in their seats or stooping over their cold desks quietly. Only some students whose father is a security agent, a police officer, or a party official gather and have a proper meal in one side of the classroom.

They do not have class in the afternoon. All students in school go out to clean the village. They are not even wearing many layers of clothes in the temperature of -18°C (-0.4°F), which makes it difficult to actually do anything other than jump up and down and blow on their hands to keep them warm. Too hungry and cold, the kids do not even chat among themselves. The “cleaning” does not conclude until 4 p.m., when the students return to school where the classrooms are dark now due to power outage. The students end up being dismissed from school.

Around 5 p.m., Eunsil arrives at her dark house. She cleans the house alone and warms the corn noodles that her mother made, who is still working at a market. It is completely dark outside. She waits for her mother shivering with cold. By the time she finishes her dinner and washes dishes with her mother, it is almost 8 p.m. There is neither power for light nor oil for lamplight, and Eunsil does not feel like doing homework or anything. She tries to sleep warming herself in her mother’s arms. While her tired mother falls into a deep sleep right away, Eunsil can’t sleep because she still feels hungry. Finally, Eunsil slowly falls asleep while wondering what she can eat the next morning.

A Day in the Life of an Old Farmer, Mr. Kim
Mr. Kim rises at 6 a.m. It has already been several days since he last enjoyed electricity. He has to feel his way in the dark to his kitchen and light a candle. He lives deep in the countryside, and finding wood to burn is not difficult if he is diligent. He makes breakfast, placing two bowls of corn-rice that he had boiled in advance the night before on the table. His side dish is a mountain rabbit that he caught in the hills the day before. There is no oil or soy sauce or spices of any kind. He simply boils it in water, cuts it into pieces and dips it into salt before eating it. He boils the rabbit, and dips his rice into the remaining soup. To him, it feels like a special holiday because it has been such a long time since he has tasted meat. Both his son and his son’s wife have gone off to earn money, but he has received no news about where they are. His grandson, who is turning nine this year, awakens at the appetizing smell of rabbit meat soup cooking. He hurries over without even washing, finds a spoon and waits eagerly for his share of the soup. Mr. Kim spoons corn-rice in a bowl, takes out the boiled rabbit and cuts it up before putting it on the table. At this, his grandson uses his bare hands to place it in his mouth. Having been unable to eat meet for the past month, he wolfs down one rabbit in a flash. Mr. Kim is left with a rabbit head without much meat on it and a single rib. Mr. Kim lets out a laugh, however, and dips his rice into the rabbit soup before eating it. He thinks about his wife who died last fall. His wife had headed to the mountains one day in search for acorns for food, but was killed when she fell down the mountain after being attacked by a wild boar. She had loved eating mountain rabbit, and when she was alive it had always been so difficult to catch even one. However, now, Mr. Kim tearfully thinks, he has caught a rabbit, but his wife is not here to share it with him.
After finishing breakfast, Mr. Kim heads to work at the farm. A number of farmers appear at the sound of the farm manager’s whistle. A lot of people have not come work complaining of headaches or stomachaches. The farmers first stop by the guard house to check-in, and have followed the manager’s instructions and picked up farm equipments, but because of the cold weather, they all stand around complaining to each other with their hands cupped together. No work can be done in these conditions. Just under half an hour later, the farmers return to the guard house and are able to warm their hands, feet and ears near the kitchen stove. Some of them roll small bits of newspaper together to form cigarettes and smoke while making conversation with those around them. By 12:00 noon, they all return to their homes. Just over an hour later, Mr. Kim has made a quick lunch and cleaned his house. He lays his grandson near the stove where some heat remains and then covers him completely with an old blanket. Mr. Kim then puts on two sewn-together socks and army boots and heads quickly into the mountains. He has to check whether he has caught anything in his rabbit traps that he laid some time ago. He has to check his traps regularly because if anything has been caught it is a race against time to fetch it before another animal or hunter gets to it first. He goes around checking his traps for almost three hours, but none of them has caught anything. On his way home he picks up a couple pieces of dry firewood and wraps them in string before placing them on his back to take home. When he passes the vegetable garden of the farm, he picks up five stalks of corn in the snow-covered corn field and places them on the firewood. With that, he has found enough to eat for tomorrow. By the time he reaches home at 5 p.m., it is pitch dark.

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