GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 440 February 1, 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] It is Time to Resume Efforts for Inter-Korean Cooperation and Exchanges
The New Leadership’s Policy to Be in Full Operation by March
“Make traditional rituals simple and economical” in Response to Food Shortage
Wedding Ceremony and a Home, an Impossible Dream for Newly Weds
Crop Yield is about Three Tons per Jungbo* at Chungam District Direct Farm
A Day in the Life of Plantation Worker Kim, Soon-hee
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[Intro] It is Time to Resume Efforts for Inter-Korean Cooperation and Exchanges
It has been reported that the new Organization and Guidance Department’s policy direction has been set, although detailed policies are not yet released. Vice Chairman Kim Jong-un and the new leadership has de facto conducted state affairs and introduced new policies since October 10th last year. However, the overall policy direction is under review because the leadership’s status after Chairman Kim Jong-il’s death has changed. According to the sources the leadership’s policy direction is to accept China’s assistance for economic development while working toward peace through dialogue and cooperation with the United States.

The atmosphere in the leadership circle is known to be that of feeling relieved, for a war is unlikely due to the upcoming presidential election in the Unitd States. They feel that they have gained time to stabilize their position. It has shown, however, no interest in improving its relationship with South Korea. Considering the election schedules in South Korea this year, the North Korean leadership may have determined that they have not much to gain from inter-Korean cooperation as the future looks uncertain. However, if North Korea’s new leadership cares about its starving residents, it should not further delay improvement of its relationship with the South Korean government. This is because humanitarian aid from the South is the most efficient way to help its people. The South Korean government should also seek to understand North Korea’s new leadership through multiple levels of workgroup discussions and meetings and by reconstructing inter-Korean exchange and cooperation channels through resuming of humanitarian aid.


The New Leadership’s Policy to Be in Full Operation by March
The new Organization and Guidance Department’s policies are going to be revised by the end of February and publicly announced in early March to be put fully into practice. Revision of the policies is inevitable because the status of the new leadership put in place after October 10th of last year has changed after the death of Chairman Kim. While the policy planning and implementation before Chairman Kim’s death was within the boundary of not going against the existing policies, it is expected that Kim Jong-un’s own policy direction will gradually differentiate itself from the old one in the future. Nevertheless, given Kim Jong-il’s instructions are still in place, it would be difficult to expect a major policy change anytime soon.

The most noticeable policy change under the new leadership lies in the level of intensity of both heightened crackdown and tightened monitoring of residents. The intensity level has gone up much higher than it has previously been.

On the economic front, the highest priority will be to revive the ailing economy by exporting to and forging a business partnership with China. Given this priority, cooperation with China will be more critical to restoring the economy this year than ever before. As to foreign relations, while seeking to strengthen the old alliances with China and Russia, it will also try to reduce its rapidly growing dependence on China by maintaining channels of dialogue with the U.S. and other western countries. The basic approach to foreign policy is expected to be recalibrated depending on domestic political economy.

The foremost task for the new leadership under Kim Jong-un is to consolidate its power. Yet this will leave room for North Korea to rely on China in case it fails to improve its relationship with the U.S. The details on the new policies will be put in place in March. The new leadership is not interested in improving its relationship with South Korea.


“Make traditional rituals simple and economical” in Response to Food Shortage

As North Korea’s food shortage continues to get worse, the government repeatedly urges people to observe such personal ceremonies as the first birthdays, wedding ceremonies, the sixtieth birthdays, and funerals in an economical way. Even wealthy people and high officials do not openly conduct personal rituals out of concern that the government is watching them. Ordinary people can only afford to serve liquor and one bowl of corn at their wedding ceremony. Ceremony guests tend to be careful about what they are saying and quick to leave because security officers are watching the neighborhood for any sign of anti-government sentiment. The pervasive surveillance results from the concern that talking about everyday life may well involve personal stories about suffering, notably food shortage, and ultimately may lead to complaints about the government. As such, most guests just put in an appearance and leave after quickly eating noodles with some alcohol.

Three days of observance are common for funeral services. Wealthy people prepare the shroud in advance, whereas ordinary people wash the deceased’s most decent article of clothing to wrap the body for burial. Since there is neither a particular place where the funeral service is conducted nor a store that sells shrouds, the way a funeral is conducted is contingent upon one’s circumstances. The choice of coffin depends on what the employer or the farm offers to the deceased’s family. Donation by fellow workers for funeral expenses is usually 1,000 won. Alcohol and food are served only to relatives, seniors in the workplace, and those who help with the funeral. Other guests just put in an appearance and are quick to leave.


Wedding Ceremony and a Home, an Impossible Dream for Newly Weds
The number of newlyweds who cannot afford a wedding ceremony, which requires at least 50,000 NKW, is increasing. Song, Myung-hee (alias), a resident of Hamheung, South Hamgyung Province, is having a headache over the problem of her twenty-seven-year old daughter’s wedding. She has a fiancée, but there is no way she can prepare articles for wedding such as groom’s wedding suit, fabric for groom’s family, and furniture. None of these items can be easily purchased because the consumer price recently has gone up exponentially. The fabric for a suit costs 3,500 NKW and the fabric for Korean traditional attire is sold at 3,200 NKW. After adding the labor for tailoring, the total expense easily exceeds 100,000 NKW just for the wedding attire for the bride and groom. There are many other desired household items such as dresser, TV, and bicycle, but even cutting the list to the most essential items requires at least 500,000 NKW. The bridegroom is not in a position to buy a home either. There is not much he can do since his monthly salary is 2,200 NKW and even with additional bonus his total monthly income cannot go over 5,000 NKW. As such, affording a home for the newlywed is an impossible dream. If the couple wishes to live together, the only way is to exchange a marriage vow over a bowl of water and live together in the groom’s parents’ house.

When Mrs. Song got married she had two wedding ceremonies, one at her parents’ house and another one at her husband’s parents’ house. She was able to afford Korean traditional wedding attire and the couple exchanged wedding gifts. The guests stayed for the wedding party and sang songs for the newlyweds, giving a big celebration for the couple. They even had a new home provided by the government where they can start a new life as a couple. Now the time has changed and even having a wedding ceremony has become a luxury ordinary people cannot afford. Mrs. Song can only feel sorry for her daughter.


Crop Yield is about Three Tons per Jungbo* at Chungam District Direct Farm
(*Jungbo is a unit of land in North Korea; 1 Jungbo = 2.45 acres)
It has been reported that rice crop yield at the Chungam District direct farm in Chungjin was around three tons per Jungbo. One official at the farm said that in the case of corns the crop yield was as bad as only one ton of corn yield per Jungbo last year. Major products at the farm are rice, corn, and a small plot farming of beans, tobacco, and vegetables. The farm consists of five working units. The farm retains ten tractors and each work unit has 3 laboring bulls. Since there are no trucks or cars available on the farm, it’s not easy to transport farm products.

The farm, just like any other farms, has the Primary Party secretary, assistant secretary, a chief of the management committee, an accountant, a bookkeeper, security agents and police officers, the secretary of Socialist Working Youth League (SWYL), and a chief of the Democratic Women’s Union (DWU). Also cell secretaries, supervisors, and administration clerks are assigned to each working unit. The administration clerk keeps track of employee's working hours and manages cash. There is also a propaganda agent who hosts farm events or projects.

Since 2009, workers have not been paid by either cash or food rations due to the incompletion of the farm plans and goals. Food rationing is distributed at once and cash is paid out quarterly. According to the year-end closing of the books, one household that has five farm workers received 70,000 NKW in cash and one ton of rice and corn mixed in the 3:7 ratio. That is, each worker got an average of 200 kilograms. Of course many workers got less than 200 kilograms since it’s an average distribution amount. In cash payments, workers got paid less than 50,000 NKW as a net amount after various deductions, such as deductions for food, SWYL fees, Special Labor Brigade support fees, etc (Total annual deductions is about 3,600 NKW for each category). Also, one ton of grain distributed was not 100% brought home. If a household borrowed grains at a high rate of interest during the spring lean season, they had to give back 2-3 times more than what they borrowed.


A Day in the Life of Farm Worker Kim, Soon-hee
Plantation worker Kim, Soon-hee gets up at four in the morning to cook breakfast. With the end-of-the-year rations she recently received, she eats steamed crushed corn for breakfast and lunch, and corn noodles for dinner. Sometimes she makes corn pancakes, which requires about 500g of corn powder. It seems that the family members consume around 1kg of crushed corn every day. White rice is served only on holidays or birthdays of her husband and mother-in-law. Kim and her family was able to enjoy the lunar new year eating white rice, eggs, pork, fish, and even liquor, which was not the case on the solar new-year day before the ration was distributed.

Kim can no longer afford to burn coal and now uses firewood instead. A cart full of coal costs over 45,000 NKW this year. The farm where Kim works at has made a contract with the Forest Public Enterprise so the workers can cut down trees in the mountains for firewood. Each household usually takes one cart. For additional firewood, children collect dead branches and bring them home.

A day at the farm begins at eight in the morning and ends at five in the afternoon during the winter, with a lunch break from noon to 2 p.m. This is very different from the busy farming season, when work starts at six in the morning and ends at as late as eight in the evening. Kim is content that the hard work during the farming season is now paying off. She also tends a vegetable farm of her own, which gives her a sense of security knowing that she has a backup. Last year she planted beans, corn, and cabbage, and reaped 300 kg of beans, 200 kg of corn, 10 kg of bean, and 70 heads of cabbage. There is no need for her to go to the market for side dishes. She uses the ample time she has to make Heukbosan fertilizer and raise her three chickens. Chickens need special care in the cold winter to continue laying eggs. Nowadays, two eggs can be traded for a kilogram of corn, and Kim is grateful that her chickens are alternately bearing eggs. Her husband, who works at the same farm, uses his dexterity to fix bicycles, keys, umbrellas, and other appliances in his spare time. He gets paid with money from time to time, but usually receives liquor. Liquor can also be traded at the market for a kilogram of corn. He is always in search for more work. Although the couple earns money on the side, the standard of living hasn’t improved much. It’s been five years since the last time they purchased new clothes. But Kim gives a warm smile, saying that eating white rice on a holiday is good enough for her.
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