GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 439 January 25, 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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Reducing Food Waste Can Save Lives of North Koreans
River-Crossers Now Treated as War Criminals
Domestic Work for Chinese Residents is Most Desired Job
Wig Manufacturing Factory Worker, Mihyun’s Daily Life
Farm Workers Threshing Corns with Bare Hands
Ox Cart-laden Farmers Cutting Wood
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Reducing Food Waste Can Save Lives of North Koreans
North Koreans’ wish for the New Year is to live and eat as Chinese do. North Korea used to be wealthier than China 30 years ago, but North Koreans these days desire to work at Chinese residences in North Korea. For North Koreas, even water waste from washing rice and fish at Chinese households is a precious source for making soup. Food waste from Chinese residences is hard-to-come-by food for North Koreans. According to the Department of Environment of South Korea, its economic loss from food waste is estimated to be 22.5 billion dollars in 2012. South Korean budget for Inter-Korean Cooperation in 2012 is 1 billion dollars, among which 490.3 million dollars is allocated for Humanitarian support for North Koreans. The South Korean aid budget in 2011 was 913.8 million dollars, but only 27.5 million had been actually spent by last November. These numbers show that South Korea can afford to help North Korea with food aid merely by reducing its food waste. By simply reducing food waste, we can save North Korean citizens and the environment, and furthermore, we can create a peaceful ambience for unification. In this context, the South Korean government might as well launch a national campaign for reducing food waste and send food to North Korea to save the people.


River-Crossers Now Treated as War Criminals
The Central Party has released an order through each provincial party that, “The mourning period for the death of Kim Jong Il is set for 100 days. During this period, anyone trying to cross the river into China or using a cellphone will be treated as a war criminal.” Another message has also been released: “From January 12, anyone carrying around more than 30 kilograms of food will have all of it confiscated by the authorities.” Many North Koreans are saying this is just a ploy to prevent people from selling food. People react coldly to the lectures declaring that North Korea will become a country that honors the rule of law. In response, people say “They (government officials) are free to make laws that make it harder for us regular people to survive…life has just become too unbearable to go on.” When people gather together, all they say is: “I hope the government changes its policies and creates a place where we can have a good life, like China has done.”


Domestic Work for Chinese Residents is Most Desired Job
Seven in the morning, as the sun rises, Park Hyang Ran quickly prepares to go to the house of a Chinese family across the street. As she enters the tall board fences, which does not allow other people to see inside, three big dogs run out to welcome her. She is not a stranger. There were frequent accidents that someone without knowledge of the dogs came inside the fences and beaten. Ms. Park hurries to go into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. After putting fire on firewood, she washes rice to make steamed rice, uses yellow soybean oil to fry atka fish and puts well prepared water kimchi on the table. As the clock hits 8:00 am, the home owner couple gets out of the bed, wash their faces and brush their teeth. Fragrance from soap stimulates the smelling sense. Then the wife sits in front of a vanity, wearing perfume and putting on makeup. Park wonders ‘when can I sit in front of a dressing mirror, put luxury makeup on my face and eat food prepared for me?’ In a second, however, Park thinks there is no more she would want if all families gather together to eat enough warm corn rice and do not suffer from harsh cold weather this winter.

After the couple finishes their meal, Park packs left-over steamed-rice and fish bones from the table and runs to her place across the road. The landlady especially allowed her to bring out leftovers today in return for preparing breakfast. Park saves everything including water used to wash rice and fish to reuse it in making soup. In Park’s Neighborhood Unit, everyone envies her for the fortune of working for a Chinese resident household. Leftover food and worn clothes she gets from the Chinese household ameliorates her worries for another day. It is a puzzle to her why North Korean life becomes difficult while Chinese life gets better every day. She hears that thirty years ago living conditions of North Koreans were better than those of Chinese. Though she often laments her situation of having to beg for leftovers from the couple, who lives like a king and queen, she cannot afford to complain much. After all, she is better off than most people in her neighborhood.

She leaves the leftovers in her kitchen and quickly runs back to the couple’s place. She has to wash the dishes and clean the house before lunch. Every day, she has the same worry- “what if I lose this job?” Even if the landlady ill-treats her, she begs her for forgiveness. Even if nobody makes her do so, she behaves like a slave. Today, she cannot take even a small break because the landlady is staying at home. Sounds of TV and laughters from the master’s room echo to the kitchen. As it gets dark, light bulbs give the house daylight brightness. After a long day of work, she is too exhausted to cross the road back to her place. She looks at her neighborhood, surrounded by stark darkness. She thinks that it looks like a place where emaciated weary black ghosts are gathered to live.


Wig Manufacturing Factory Worker, Mihyun’s Daily Life
Mihyun has to leave home no later than 6:30 am to get to the factory by 8 am every day. Today as usual, she wakes up before 5 am. She is relieved to see the water is not frozen that she kept last night for this morning’s wash and cook, thinking that the temporary craft paper replacing the broken window pane works quite well against the cold. In a hurry, she pours water to a big pot and put twelve potatoes on a steamer of the pot. Soon after making a fire with full of firewood, she sees the water in the pot starts to boil. At least, it is lucky for her to have enough firewood because she lives in a mountain village. Four potatoes per each person are today’s breakfast. Along with potatoes, she would like to fry and serve wild greens that her mom picked and dried for her daughter last year. However, having no cooking oil, she decides to season wild greens with bean paste after blanching in boiling water. To blanch wild greens, she had better put more woods into the fire pit. She goes out for some more firewood after putting greens in an old worn-out washbowl.

When she gets outside, she sees the village dimly visible in darkness. Almost half of the houses in the village are empty. The empty village reminds her of the good old days. At the same time, suddenly, she gets sad because of irrecoverable memories of those days. Unlike now, the village, Jungdo, was a quite well developed area twenty years ago. Even though it is a little far (about 50 miles) from Hoeryong, Jungdo was one of the Labor Districts exporting high quality cement to China. However, since Kim Il-Sung died, production volume has decreased rapidly and factories closed down one by one. Naturally, the village became abandoned and ruined as many people left. She remembers that people in the village shared happiness together whenever they had good events. However, things are changed now. She understands enough that people cannot afford to pay any attention to others due to their own fierce and tough lives. Survival by fighting against hunger and poverty is the only thing they can care now. There is nothing much to smile about, and tears are dried up in everyone’s eyes of the village.

After making breakfast ready for her family, she hurries to go to work. Among the four potatoes for herself, she quickly eats two and puts the other two potatoes in her pocket. In order to protect her from cold wind as well as to help herself walk fast, she puts her trouser cuffs into her military boots and ties up her shoestrings. She wears a thick towel around her neck. After closing the door tight with her hands in the mittens, she begins to power-walk to the factory in Hoeryong. When she gets near the city, she is so hungry and swallows the two potatoes in a gulp. Fortunately, the factory provides lunch.

When she arrives at the factory, she signs up in the attendance register and changes into work uniform. She then goes to the hall for the assembly. Fortunately, the plant manager is gone to a committee meeting this morning, so everyone is spared from hearing his cussword today. There are only few words from the engineer pointing out some issues regarding quality control. Then a police officer and a security officer give some warnings for the condolence period. They say that six people were caught while crossing the border river and were treated strictly under war-time laws. While they are talking, Minhyun’s eyes accidently meet with those of the officer. His glare is so scary that it gives her goose bumps whenever she thinks about it.

At a whistle blow, everybody sits down at their work station facing each other. For a while, people work with high concentration, but after quite some time people get tired, losing focus in their eyes and hands. A Chinese engineer walks back and forth to check on the factory workers. However, since he does not understand Korean, workers do not care about his existence and keeps talking. The Chinese guy is very well built – he seems to be over 180cm high and as heavy as over 80kg. The women keep talking about him, giving a quick glimpse at him occasionally. There are about ten or more male workers in the factory. Among them, the tallest one does not exceed 165 cm and the heaviest does not go over 60 kg. The Chinese engineer looks like he is genetically different from all the other North Korean male workers. Nonetheless, they laugh at him saying that “Tall and fat people are never canny but meek.”

While talking, they keep glimpsing at the Chinese made wall clock waiting for the noon lunch time. When it hits 12 o’clock, they run into the cafeteria. They sit down at the table without washing their hands because there was no water in the pipe. Eight people sitting at one table share sixteen corn rice cakes placed in the middle of the table. They also share a big bowl of water kimchi provided at the middle of the table as a side dish. As meager as it is, they finish the food as quickly as possible before others do first. Only after 10 minutes the food is all gone. Not even a bit left for a cat to lick. Now, the workers take a nap right after the meal. As so many people are lying together in a small room next to the cafeteria, it is not too cold to sleep. The sound of people snoring, coughing, and laughing quietly are mixed in the air. Someone shouts to ask for silence so that other can sleep.

It is exactly 1 p.m. when the head manager of the factory who is back from the meeting whistles to draw attention from the workers. He starts to hassle the top factory workers expressing his dissatisfaction about the productivity throughout the morning. He continues cursing and swearing at the work result non-stop for about 20 minutes. The Chinese engineer is just looking at what is happening before him in total disbelief—it is still incredible for him to see these abusive behaviors even though the assault is almost a daily event. The workers have grown used to getting humiliated by the managers—they seem to sit there unaffected and indifferent. They only hope that the time pass fast so they can go home at 5 p.m. sharp. The work routine is extremely boring. They do the same work day after day, month after month. They just kill their time waiting for the sound of a whistle informing them the day is over. Only then the factory atmosphere becomes jovial.
After getting changed to go home, all of the 70 workers gathered in the office. Today is the monthly pay day. The payroll personnel calls a name from the payroll list, then the worker steps forward, receives the pay in bare cash without an envelope, signs off her name and leaves. Mihyun receives 3,200 North Korean Won (NKW) as basic wage and gets 2,100 NKW as benefit, in total 5,300 NKW. After receiving her pay, she dashes out of the factory thinking how she is going to spend the money. She contemplates, “one kilogram of rice costs 3,000 won. It is too expensive. I will get 5 kg of maize instead. I have additional 500 won saved from the previous pay. This 500 won and the rest of the pay from today can cover to buy 1 kg of salt (800 won).” She feels good after figuring out this plan.

The sky is already getting dark as she gets out of the factory. She takes the shortcut to the market place via the stepping stones instead of the bridge over the Hoeryung stream. She gets what she has planned to buy, puts them in her sack bag and rushes home. It is about the same distance from her home to the factory and from the market to her home. Yet the former is downhill and the latter is uphill. So it takes almost two hours for her to arrive home from the market. She thinks about her mother and husband who will be delighted when they see what she got from the market. With that excitement, she does not feel cold or hungry.

Her mother springs out of the house to receive Mihyun as soon as she sees her daughter. She takes over the heavy bags of maize and salt. “You must feel very cold, my dear. Come on in. It has been a long day, hasn’t it,” says the mother while giving her a warm hug. Mihyun, without getting changed, goes straight to the kitchen and starts preparing dinner with the maize. She puts maize-rice mix in a pot and sets fire. The cold and fatigue weighing on her seems to go away while she quietly gazes at the flickering flame. “At least for tonight, I will have a good night’s sleep after eating the steamed maize-rice as much as I want. They say China has over 13 billion people and none is worried about getting hungry or being in short of basic necessities. I wonder we will ever reach that living condition in North Korea. Oh well, let’s stop worrying. I do not want to think about it. At least, not tonight…,” she keeps dozing off while her mind travels from one thought to another.


Farm Workers Threshing Corns with Bare Hands
It was 7 am when Nam Hye-kyoung arrived at a threshing floor. She had already had breakfast with boiled crushed corn mixed with radish and cabbage. Electricity was on yesterday morning but not today. She takes a seat and starts peeling corns. Although 12 female and 5 male workers sitting in a circle have peeled corns for half the morning, the piles of peeled corn are small. Healthy men are supposed to go to mountains to search for wood for this year’s farming. However, men in poor health and not fit for going out for wood are here for threshing. The actual amount of time spent in working is rather short –female workers feeling hungry and cold frequently go back and forth to the guard’s room to thaw their hands, and male workers take frequent smoke breaks. They end up not doing much work. Despite the hard work, at least there is no worry of starvation here because workers can sit in front of the fireplace in the kitchen, eating broiled corn ears. Thanks to that, they do not have to bring lunch from home.

The farm workers get colder as the wind starts blowing. Mittens and wadded clothes without much warmth do not protect them from getting numb by cold. They gradually lose feelings in their limbs. When they can’t stand it anymore, they stop working and go into the guardroom again. Since the room is too small to accommodate all the workers at once, some of them are left outside. Sitting together around the fence corner in the sun, female workers hold hands and hug each other in order to warm each other. In the end, they have peeled a little short of 12 straw bags of corns, i.e. less than one bag per person. It seems uncertain if the remaining work can be done until the new farming season begins.

At 6 pm, the farm workers put off a concluding meeting for the day till tomorrow and walk toward their home in a hurry. They had a hard time last year, busy in figuring out how to get by the next day. However it has been even tougher this year to manage every minute of the day. On the way home, Hye-kyoung is preoccupied with concerns about whether she has enough firewood for that evening and how much crushed corn is stored in a chest of drawers. Coming out one after another, her worries multiply, leading her to wonder about when she could use even a little bit of tap water and if her six-year old daughter who seemed to have fever would feel better.


Ox Cart-laden Farmers Cutting Wood
Kim Hakchol rises at 6 a.m. and after lighting a fire in the stove, he opens his storage room and takes out a couple of tools. Today, along with the elderly Hansul who works in the same unit, he must drag an ox cart up into the mountains and cut 20 trees to be used as posts. By around 7:30 he has made it to the farm stable and has found the cart and ox assigned to him. He loads his axe, saw and the lunch his wife packed for him on the cart and begins the journey to the mountains with Hansul. This year brought a substantial amount of snow, which has made the path slippery and uneven. Before leaving his house, he put on military-issue boots and wrapped the ends of some cotton pants around them before tying them up tightly with some string. This prevents any snow or cold air from penetrating the shoes. His outer layer of clothing consists of a jumper, and because the jumper’s zipper is broken he wrapped some straw rope around his waist to prevent it from flying open in the cold wind. The mittens he wears make it difficult to work, but he had to start wearing them four days ago when he suffered from frostbite on his fingers after working with his bare hands.

The two elderly men join forces to cut down twenty trees to be used as columns and load them on the cart. Soon it is lunch time. The men make a small fire and gather around it to warm their hands and feet. The warming of their hands and feet is followed by rumbling from their stomachs. Their lunches consist of corn rice and dried radishes preserved in salt. Quickly finishing lunch, the two men roll up some old newspapers to form a cigarette, and a few puffs later, they seem to have regained their energy. They quickly put cart to ox and start to head back home, but the bony ox looks like it could collapse at any moment. When the road steepens after crossing a small stream, the ox decides not to pull the cart anymore. The two men work together to push, pull and whip the ox, but this only gets them over the first of several hills. The sun has set by the time they arrive at the farm stable and unload their wood. It is times like this when both dream the impossible that they could enjoy some hot food with a glass of soju, but they end up parting with only the thought itself lingering between them.

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