GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 438 January 18, 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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[Intro] The Power of A bowl of Rice
In Hoeryong, 10 Days Food Rations is Like Having “A New Life”
Nationwide Rally of Loyalty
In the Beginning of This year, Many Homes Up for Sale
Pyongyang Officials Use Bank Cards Instead of Foreign Currencies
“Giving Up the Pride of a Teacher, and Losing Face As Well”
Concerns About Childcare Problems Among Wealthy Pyongyang Mothers
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[Intro] The Power of a Bowl of Rice
A sick mother is making grass porridge mixed with a handful of corn for her 11 year old son, who is about to go out to collect fire wood in the early morning hours. It’s not enough food for both of them. The mother puts her porridge into her son’s bowl while he is not looking. This is a scene from “Winter Butterfly” a 2011 non-fiction movie of what happened 10 years ago in North Hwanghae Province. It was produced by a North Korean movie director Kim Kyu-Min. The movie shows that the mother eventually couldn’t even feed her son who had fainted and was dying from hunger. She finally kneels down in front of a portrait of the Supreme Leader and prays desperately to be able to feed her son a bowl of rice. But it has a tragic ending.

A woman in Hoeryong, who was so thankful for having received 10 days of food rations at the beginning of the New Year, reminded me of this movie. I felt that the North Korean people would ask us what we did while they were starving to death. We are doing nothing although North Koreans’ survival depends upon a bowl of porridge. I strongly make an appeal to the South Korean government and international community for humanitarian aid to support North Koreans who are undergoing another harsh winter.


In Hoeryong, 10 Days Food Rations is Like Having “A New Life”
Three off-days were given as a holiday to commemorate Kim Jung-Un’s birthday, the chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. But the leave was cancelled on January 8th, which was his actual birthday. Kim Jung-Un didn’t even take one day off, saying, “how can I celebrate my birthday while we’re mourning for the Supreme Leader’s death?” Instead, food rations were distributed for 10 days beginning Thursday, January 5th in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyeong Province. The mixture ratio of rice to corn in the food ration was 1 to 9, which was scanty. It compared unfavourably to the 5-5 or 3-7 ratios in prior years. Yet it was still a good fortune to have anything. A woman that we met, a mother of a child, said that this was like having “a new life”. She was just so thankful for getting rice and corn regardless of the mixture ratio. This was the first food distribution since 2 Kilograms of rice were distributed on November 13, 2011. She said she still remembers that day with gratitude and described it in detail.

On that November morning, farm workers were heading to the farm management office in order to receive rice rations that were made available from either the Chinese or another foreign aid. People made so many excuses to stay away from mandatory farm mobilization during the harvest season, but it was different that morning. The courtyard was filled with people. It was even a Sunday. The farm police officer, the security agent, the secretary of Divisional Party, and the management committee were seated precariously on wooden chairs. People stepped forward as their names were called by the farm manager and received 2 kilograms of rice after all paperwork was completed.

Half of the rice administered by the central government is sent to the People’s army, and some of the remaining quantity is for coalmines, power plant construction sites and other locations; therefore, only about 2kg of rice is distributed to each household. Whilst the distribution of rice was processed, a strange person who looked like an official disappeared to the downtown area with 10 bags of rice after having short conversation with four other officials. A neighbor called Myunghak suspected that the rice was being sent to another Special Labor Brigade, but no one responded to it and Myunghak did not intend to search for any answers.

“There are no symbols or lettering on the surface of the rice bag. Who was generous enough to send this rice? Those who sent this rice could not possibly imagine how much a 2kg bag of rice means to those of us living on corn porridge. If we trade the rice and corn, our four family members can eat corn rice instead of one or two meals of corn porridge. Rice costs 2,500 won/kg, and corn is 750 won/kg, so we could get 6-7kg of corn for selling rice. Half of the rice could also be for with corn, and the rest for fuel firewood”. Chulee is a mother who is busy thinking about a better deal she could get by leveraging this ration.

Finally, after she came back with rice, she cooked a porridge using a handful of rice with water and wanted to fill her stomach with porridge. She seasoned the porridge with a spoonful of Chinese seasoning. Rice porridge is nothing like corn porridge. Even one spoonful tastes so much better and it sets her up for a more effective day. The whole family was overjoyed by one bowl of rice porridge, and Mother Chulee couldn’t contain her joy saying, “Rice contains many kinds of essential nutrition that is necessary for body and can keep us from malnutrition”. However, the joy lasted for a brief moment, and she also had to think about the next day’s meal. “We have this rice today but how about tomorrow? Tomorrow is tomorrow, live or die, that’s all. We have survived with corn porridge so far, and so this seemed like a dream for her family that they would receive rive distribution ay state price for 10 days, regardless whether the rations are rice and corn.


Nationwide Rally of Loyalty
Workplaces, businesses, and neighbourhood units across the country held rallies to show their allegiance toward the newly appointed Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un. Everyone chanted and expressed their determination to “turn grief into strength and courage and pave the way for the Juche Revolution.” It has been decided that the border will undergo a period of tightened security until January 10th. Each guard post stationed at the mountain peaks will use a telescope to conduct searches on populated streets and monitor the residents who climb the mountains to look for firewood. Searches will be more thorough for visitors of the area. The tightened security is expected to loosen up only after the Lunar New Year. Supplies from China have not been able to get to their destinations because the border customs have shut down due to Kim Jong Il’s death. The Chinese government, in view of Kim’s mourning period, extended the docket warrant expiration until the end of January.


At the Beginning of This Year, Many Homes up for Sale
The year started with a surge in houses put up for sale. Those who were barely able to afford to buy homes before the currency reform now seek to raise start-up capital by selling their houses.

The sales prices of decent single-family houses range from 5 million won to 15 million won, which is equivalent to 2 million yuan and 3,000 US dollars. Since it is too large a sum for most people, homeowners have difficulty finding potential buyers. Only the wealthiest people and rich officials, who can afford multiple houses, are running around for a best deal.

Lee Myongsuk from Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province bought her single-family house for 1.5 million won in 1997 with 40 thousands yuan of financial support from relatives in Yanji, China, and 500 thousand won from selling the house she had lived in previously. It has a small vegetable garden and an outhouse. She had been doing fine with the house until the 2009 currency reform, when the national economy collapsed. She failed to find anyone interested in buying the house she recently put up for sale for 5 million won.

Last year, she ran a business selling to retailers all types of Chinese goods coming out of Rajin- Sunbong—cigarettes, home electronics, and other consumer goods—with help from relatives in China. The business was not good enough to bring her back to the level of economic stability she had enjoyed before. While she is planning to revive her career by opening a used clothing store with the money from selling her house, she is still worried by the slim prospect of finding a buyer.


Officials in Pyongyang Use Bank Cards Instead of Foreign Currencies
The new nationwide prohibition of the use of foreign currency now allows only foreigners in Pyongyang to use foreign currencies. Thus far, the prohibition has had limited impact on Pyongyang officials’ use of services that only accept foreign currencies. These officials replaced the actual foreign currencies with a bank issued money card. This card could be issued to anyone who deposited a minimum of $1,000 US dollars in a bank.

A Central Party official said that some of the party's officials were relieved by the minimal impact on their daily spending by using the bank cards. It is a different story, however, when foreign trades are considered. Therefore, the relief felt by the officials was too immature. The use of the bank issued money cards could create obstacles in trades with China. These obstacles would have more profound effects in local markets compared to those in Pyongyang. Even with the adaptation of the bank cards in local markets, trading Chinese goods in those markets might not be as easy as it could have been with foreign currencies on hand. The Central Party official continued to point out that, making the matter worse, the banking system in North Korea has been known for frustrating citizens when it came to customer satisfaction. He predicted that all these obstacles could end up putting more and more pressure on local governments’ capability in securing local finance. Some other local government officials shared the similar opinion as this Central Party official.

According to an official in Sinuiju, not using foreign currency as it faces the loss of the value of North Korean currency would make purchasing Chinese goods very difficult. He stated that the people would be dead if the government could not provide goods and/ or food to them. This would be the same even for people who had foreign currencies on hand, just as much as for the poor. People can’t purchase goods if they are not available. A surplus in importing goods and/ or food from China would lower prices for imports. However, the lowered prices and surplus of Chinese goods might not happen if the prohibition were enforced at all levels. The official worried over the negative relationship between livelihoods of people and the prohibition, which would worsen upon the lack of supply of essential living necessities.

An official from Hyesan, Ryanggang Province said that he did not believe that the government would enforce the prohibition on Chinese currency without a through prior preparation. North Korea has relied heavily on China since the Arduous March, and most of North Korea’s overseas representatives are located in China. According to him, the prohibition could cause more apprehension among North Koreans than the one from the currency reform. This was why he was shocked when the prohibition was carried on. He could not believe the government was so numb to all these situations. Trading officers in China voiced the same opinion about the prohibition; it would peter out sooner than what happened with the currency reform.

At the same time, Safety Bureaus had been conducting a nationwide raid on people who used foreign currencies such as US dollars at stores or in markets. The officers from the bureaus focused on finding sources of foreign currencies after confiscating the foreign money. Under the intensified enforcement, people who are just asking around for exchange rates would be considered disloyal people. It was therefore difficult to ask about exchange rates, since the person could be reported to a local Safety Bureau or be mistaken an undercover Safety Bureau officer trying to identify locals using foreign currencies. Consequently, people put up their guard against others asking for exchange rates. There was also a rumour among North Koreans regarding the prohibition. It was said, "on December 14, 2011, the General Kim Jung-il left an order on his will about the prohibition of foreign currency use. To follow his will, the government is trying to circulate NK won (exchange vouchers) instead of Yuan (Renminbi) or US dollars.”


“Giving Up the Pride of a Teacher, and Losing Face As Well”
Jang Soo-myung (alias) is a 3rd grade teacher at the People’s School, in Haesan City, Ryanggang Province. The People’s School is 4 years old, and students must acquire their own uniforms and school supplies. The middle school is 5 years old and the student also must provide for everything. Winter heating is the same; during school days, each student is assigned daily to bring some coal or wood from their home to the school. One might think that students have a vacation during winter, but, in fact, they don’t. Winter vacation of the People’s School is from December through February 16th, and from December through mid-January at the middle school. [After the winter vacation] each student is required to bring 3 buckets of “Heuk-bo-san” composts (human feces) per student when schools reopen. This is not as easy as it sounds since people or animals need to eat something to produce waste; so, students and their parents worry more and more about this as the school reopening date approaches.

In the past, while the great leader was alive, each classroom was full of students and school grounds were filled with children playing, chatting, and full of laughing sounds during recess hours. Then, many things changed during the Arduous March period [in late 1990’s].

First of all, the child population sharply decreased.

Not only is it hard for young people to get married, but many couples hardly want to have their own children because they think they can live a better life without a child. They do not want to come across more trouble by having a child, since adding one more mouth to feed in their family makes their life tougher. Even if they have a baby, raising a baby is difficult and raising a healthy baby in a stable setting is more difficult. Babies’ legs become scrawny, rachitic, O-shaped bowed legs due to malnutrition if the parents cannot provide for the child. Giving birth to a healthy baby is but a wish in parents’ hearts. The Party continues to say that people should be giving birth to healthy babies and raising them well, and then sending them to the People’s Army; however that is not realistic in such a dire situation in which individuals can scarcely feed themselves. By the time most children are 17 years old, which is when they join the army, they are shorter than 150cm in height, and below 45Kg in weight on the average.

The lower grades have fewer students. The children, whose families are so poor that they do not even have enough money to buy a corn and rice mix, do not go to school and instead work in small patches of farm land or in markets in order to help their parents. The Kkotjebis [young homeless children] roam in the markets or train stations, and there are many children who left their homes long ago; there is now no way of contacting them in order to find out where and how they are surviving. Some may have gone to China, drowned in the Yalu, or been shot to death by border patrols. Nobody knows.

The number of students is dwindling more and more, and working as a teacher is also becoming harder and harder. Jang used to make money by secretly teaching the children of rich families how to play the accordion, but Jang lost the tutoring job as the children lost their interest in the accordion. Jang started collecting kindling with a 10 years old son, but the long trip to and fro in the cold winter cannot be easy. Despite losing the job as a teacher long time ago, Jang is still looking for tutoring jobs at any opportunity. The delightful study room full of laughter, playing the accordion with the students in the classroom has become a distant memory.


Concerns About Childcare Problems Among Wealthy Pyongyang Mothers
Since it is a trend for North Korean women to get married at a later age, mothers with babies are, for the most part, in their thirties. They have little interest in marrying in their twenties because they are busy taking care of their own families; so many women end up getting married in their thirties. Their main concern is childcare. Women have no option but to earn money on the side because their husbands’ monthly wage is not sufficient to provide for the family , but there is nowhere they can leave their children with confidence. Previously, when parents gave birth to a child, they would leave their children in day-care. After the food crisis, however, the children were not properly fed and many times would come back with illnesses, so mothers would instead try to bring their children with them. Also, since many women are engaged in trading in markets, their primary interest is to find reliable goods in amongst the infant products sold in the market. Young mothers want to raise their children well, no matter how bad their situation, so they want to avoid anything that will adversely affect their children’s health, rather than simply buying a product because it is from China.

Whereas young mothers in the provinces raise their children by trudging through tough lives, well-off mothers in their thirties who live in Pyongyang can focus on childcare with relative ease. Wealthy households in Pyongyang sometimes purchase dolls that are displayed in state-run stores, and some of them are of famous character brands such as Mashimaro or Hello Kitty. Ms. Han Mi-kyung (alias), who is thirty-two years old this year, says that her five-year old daughter desperately wanted a cuddly rabbit, and Ms. Han remembered that her father had also brought her a doll as a gift when he came back home from a foreign country when she was a child, so she just made up her mind to buy one for her. However, Ms. Han had to think hard before buying a simple doll because her husband did not have a stable income. Ms. Han’s wish is for her husband to establish himself as soon as possible so that her domestic economy might stabilize to such an extent that they can achieve financial independence from her parents. By implication, this is to say that she is still receiving financial support from her parents.

Seo Eun-young (alias), who is employed at a hotel, is a mother of a four-year old child, and she speaks about the difficulties of providing her child with food as the child grows up rapidly. Ms. Seo also receives parental support; she says, “If there is no support from the parents, it is difficult to maintain our livelihoods, and to sustain the family. The reality these days is such that if the parents are poor, their children will also be poor.”

Most young women in Pyongyang in their thirties receive support from their parents or husband’s parents. In other words, their parents have some secret sources of funds to make payments even though their husbands do not have a stable enough income because they are young and do not hold a high position. "As for young husbands who are successful, even if they have an extra-marital relationship with one or two women, their spouses cannot openly express their jealousy because they may not receive living expenses from their parents anymore if they are thrown out of their homes. Even if their hearts bear such a burden, they can only speak ill of it behind their husbands backs, and they are forced to behave like good wives and wise mothers on the outside. That is our reality as women in our thirties in Pyongyang,” says Ms. Seo with bitterness.
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