North Korea Today No. 442 February 15, 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.]
[Intro] Let’s Help North Koreans for Spring Farming Season
Rice Price Plunges at the Rumor of Rice Coming in from China
Serious Feeds Shortage at Ingye-ri Farm in Hoeryong City
Mother and Son Make Living on Goat Milk
Surviving Winter by Badger Hunting
North Koreans Tremble in Worry of Their Debt to Chinese Residents

[Intro] Let’s Help North Koreans for Spring Farming Season

I stop complaining about the cold weather whenever I think of people in North Korea left out in the cold. How do they survive in the harsh winter? I had never heard of a badger hunt until I read the heart-breaking story of a father boiling a badger’s blood for his starving child in this issue. My heart also aches at the story of a mother and her son whose lives are entirely dependent on their goat's milk and another mother who is extremely worried about not being able to pay back the loan to a Chinese loaner. I wish people in North Korea could have a nice warm meal in a warm house. I feel guilty that we do nothing for them while we have an excess of materials and food and squander them every day. During a street fund raising for North Koreans, I have run into people who are not happy about helping North Koreans. Sometimes they yell at us. I understand though, that it is a normal reaction from the generation who experienced the Korean War. Ironically they are also the ones who contribute big bucks to our fundraising box because they have experienced hunger and poverty during the war. What happened to generous Koreans who used to share food and help each other during the hard times? Why do we hate each other? I hope we become good-hearted again and let the governments address political issues through diplomacy. If we provide starving North Koreans with warm meals even as we criticize North Korea, it means no other than reconciliation. Now, spring is around the corner. I sincerely pray that we could provide North Koreans with fertilizer and farming supplies for the spring farm season.

Rice Price Plunges at Rumor of Rice Coming in from China

The rice price, which used to be 5,000 North Korean Won per kilogram in December, has been rapidly dropping. The price of rice in Chungjin, North Hamkyong Province, has dropped from 4,500 won/Kg at the end of December to 3,500 won/Kg on January 18. It dropped again to 3,000 won/Kg on January 20. As it continued dropping to 2,700 won in February, the rice price has finally stopped marching at high levels after four months. Grain sellers say that it is because wholesalers have released their stock after a rumor spreading out in the whole nation that rice is coming in from China. Also, the ban on Renminbi currency at the beginning of January could be one reason for this phenomenon. Since the ban, the usage of Renminbi has been noticeably reduced, which then pushed the price of Renminbi down. Because most of the products on the market are Chinese-made, this measure resulted in lower consumer prices.

Consumer prices, including manufactured goods, food, construction materials, and electronic products, went down, which led to a drop in prices of domestic products as well. For example, the price of pork, which soared up to 8,000 won/kg in December from 7,500 won in November, plunged to 6,400 won in mid-January and further to 6,200 won in early February. However, it is hard to predict that the prices will continue to fall. Some people suggest that the consumer prices will stay low until the February 16 holiday (Kim Jong-il’s birthday), and the prices will go even lower when more food is released into holiday food supplies. Others, however, are very cautious about making a prediction because of the uncertainty as to when China will fulfill its pledge to supply rice. If China fails on its pledge, the rice currently on the market might be taken back to reserve.

Trend of Consumer Price in Chungjin, North Hamgyong (2011.09 - 2012.02)
(Unit: North Korean Won)

Serious Feeds Shortage at Ingye-ri Farm in Hoeryong City
Livestock at a farm in Hoeryong City, North Hamgyong Province, is dying due to a serious shortage of feed. In the face of a serious shortage of feed and many diseases, the number of livestock has plunged from early last year – for hogs from 150 to 40; for rabbits from 80 to 30; for chickens from 300 to zero. Eighty goats survived as they are resistant to prevalent diseases and consume less feeds. Though goats are mobile enough to wander around mountains for food and can eat almost every kind of grass, they also became thinner due to the lack of wild herbs, let alone feeds. In cold winter, goats do not produce milk, either. About half of the 80 goats will be supplied to the military on February 16 holiday (Kim Jong-il’s birthday). When it happens, the number of workers at the stock farming section will drop from 34 to about 10. The 24 workers at the section will be re-assigned to crop farming because the section has about 20 jungbo (1 jungbo = 2.45 acres) of corn fields.

Only 60% of the cornfield's produce will be left to the farm workers for either their food or to feed the animals; 30% is supplied to the military; and 10% is dedicated to the government as a token of patriotism. The cornfields had a poor harvest last year. To make matters worse, soldiers stole the corn before the harvest season came. With less than 2 tons of produce per jungbo (2.45 acre), they could not feed themselves, let alone the livestock. The workers at the animal husbandry section say, “Without feeding ourselves, we can’t raise livestock, produce crops, or build Strong and Prosperous Nation. We are eating anything edible that does not kill us right away, and it is not sufficient for subsistence. Without food to live on, how could we live long enough to see North and South Korea reunified? We humans are facing starvation now, and it is just a matter of time before all livestock die of hunger or diseases.”

Mother and Son Make Living on Goat Milk
Kyungnam lives with his mother. His father and sister died during the Arduous March, the period of massive famine in the 1990s. Kyungnam describes his deceased father and sister as “fools.” His father blindly followed the Party’s orders. While others were stealing food or fleeing from North Korea to survive after the food rations were suspended, Kyungnam’s father remained truthful, saying he would never go against the Party by committing a crime. He grew weaker and weaker until he eventually passed away. Kyungnam refers to anyone who had died like his father as fools. Kyungnam was able to survive because of his mother’s desperate attempt to save her remaining son. This is his story:

“I am twenty two. I was exempted from serving in the People’s Army because I was afflicted with rickets and was only 4’11” at the time of draft. My neighbors tell me I was actually lucky, saying that it is now common for soldiers to die of starvation or be maimed and killed from unexpected accidents.

“Even in my neighborhood unit, there are some families whose sons were discharged after two or three years of military service due to sickness. When I hear their stories, I feel lucky that I was not tall enough to be enlisted in the military. I also feel relieved that I can still be with my mother even if I die of illness or starvation. I live alone with my mother. My father died during the Arduous March, the massive famine of the mid-1990s. I had a sister who was two years older than I was but she also died of paratyphoid fever. People said that my father and sister were fools. Without my mother, I would have been the third one to die. When I also got paratyphoid fever just like my sister did, my mother visited all of her relatives, borrowed some money to obtain Chinese medicine and restored me to health. In order to pay the debt, she risked crossing the border into Longjing, China, and returned home in a year. She earned money by helping on a kind-hearted Chinese family’s farm. Although it was only one year she worked, she came home with a bundle of 100 Yuan bills. This huge amount of money cannot be obtained during one’s entire life in North Korea. We paid the debt, repaired the house and bought two pigs and one goat. Thanks to this goat, we get milk every day and manage our life without grave illness. We sold the pigs and goat and kept only two goatlings. They are now grown up and we get milk from them. If fed well, they give us slightly more than a bottle of milk each day which can be traded for one kilogram of corn. Our lives are dependent on these two goats. That is why we let them live in the kitchen during the winter. It is difficult to stand the bad smell, but it would be impossible for us to survive without them. There would be no hope in the future if we lose them. We even named them ‘Fortune’ and ‘Gold,’ treating them as family. We are always thankful for them.”

Surviving Winter by Badger Hunting
Jongkook, thirty-three years old, and his brother Jonghoon, one year younger, manage to survive the winter by badger hunting. They shared their story of badger hunting:

“My younger brother and I spent four days digging a badger den on the mountainside. I hoed and my brother shoveled. We eventually made a den which was four or five meters in depth. Wearing only long underwear and jumpers, we worked hard and got very hungry. Although it was a very tough job, our efforts rewarded us. We caught two badgers the day before yesterday. Although they were neither big in size nor fat enough, the two badgers seemed to be a total of 10 kilograms in weight. I t appears that they never had a chance to grow fat because people eat their food such as acorns and frogs. In this sense, humans are cruel. People just cross into an area where wild animals live, take their food and eventually hunt them. Nowadays, there seems to be really nothing that people will not eat. Since all humans and animals have to eat to survive, starvation is likely to make people eat whatever they can find.

“Anyways, we cannot possibly describe the happiness we felt when we found the two badgers. With a hand axe we hit their heads and killed them. After putting them in bags, we covered the badgers with brushwood. If we get caught by forest guards, we would lose the badgers to them. The forest guards would take the badgers from us, saying that they are endangered species, but eventually they would eat them by themselves. My brother was walking ahead of me and looked around to see whether there were any forest guards. I followed him carefully and hid in the woods whenever the forest guards showed up. Because we were walking carefully so as not to get caught by the forest guards, it took more than three hours instead of one to get home. After taking off our bags, we immediately locked the door and covered the window with a thick cloth to prevent anyone from seeing the badgers and letting others know. We were so hungry that we first ate corn meal with water.

“Have you ever seen how to handle badger meat? First, we took a knife and peeled off the skin. In the old days, we would eat only the meat after peeling off the skin, but nowadays, we take off the hair after blanching the skin in the boiling water because we also want to eat the skin. When we cut the belly, intestines came out with blood. We immediately put a bowl to collect the blood. In the past, we used to cut the gullet to drain the blood and throw it away, but now we drink the blood as well. My brother took out the kidney and ate it without cooking it. It looked a little scary as the blood dripped down on the side of his mouth.

“The intestines amounted to three geun (1 geun = 600g) in weight. The fat only would be one geun. There is no better medicine for burns than the intestine fat, so we will be able to sell it for 3,000 won per 100 grams at the market. From one geun, we can earn 18,000 won. After taking off the hair and washing, there is really nothing left to throw way. We weighed the meat and the intestines, and they totaled eight kilograms.

“We would like to eat the meat ourselves, but we could not indulge in it for a one-time meal. We cannot sell it in the public market, but if we sell it in the black market we could earn at least 48,000 won. Adding the money we would make from selling the intestines, we will end up earning 66,000 won in total. That will buy more than 70 kilograms of corn, which is enough food for my brother’s and my households for a month.

“We have not sold them yet but we are already excited at the prospect. My five year old son cried because he wanted to eat some meat, so I gave him blood instead. My family has not had any meat for half a year, so blood soup is a very special meal for us. We were very lucky to catch two badgers. We decided to try to find more badgers on the days we do not go to work. These days we even dream about hunting badgers.”

North Koreans Tremble in Worry of Their Debt to Chinese Residents

Many North Koreans have trouble paying off their debt to hwagyo, ethnic Chinese living in North Korea. Many North Koreans who went to China to make money send money back to their families in North Korea through hwagyos. During the process, they have to pay a 20% to 50% of commission to the brokers. Initially, North Koreans used the money sent by their children from China to start some small businesses. Sometimes, however, they also have to borrow money from hwagyos when their businesses do not go well. This kind of debt is expensive; many debtors are required to pay double the principal. Since higher interest payments will be added past the deadline, the amount of debt can increase exponentially. Kyung Suk’s mother living in Musan worries day and night because she is not able to pay off on her debt to a hwagyo. The following is her story:

The wife of Sung Ro-ul came to my house today yelling at me and giving me the final notice before she went straight out the door kicking it very hard. She said that she would give one more week, so if I could not make the payments by then, I would have to sell the house and go somewhere else. Otherwise, she would annihilate everything before her eyes. Originally signing a contract to pay 1,000,000 won before the New Year, I had borrowed 500,000 won. The principal was supposed to be paid off in 10 days, but as I was unable to meet this deadline, interest payments began to accrue and the total amount I owed became more than 2,000,000 won. I could not pay this off, but instead had to borrow yet another 600,000 won promising to pay 1,200,000 won by the Lunar New Year. On New Year’s Day, I implored the infuriated Sung Ro-ul who came to settle the debt, promising to pay 2,200,000 won for those loans before February 16th. Sung Ro-ul is usually a carefree man who likes alcohol and does not care about money too much, but his wife is awful.

Many days have passed since my daughter, Kyung Suk, was supposed to send me money from China where she went to live three years ago. However, I am worried about her now that I have not received any money from her and she has not called me to let me know that she is fine. My daughter mentioned that she had married a Chinese man near Mokdan River and that she had been living at least without starvation, but I do not understand why she has not contacted me recently. Sung Ro-ul is a Chinese broker who delivered Kyung Suk’s money to me with which I was able to live day to day. I should not have borrowed money from him even if my business did not do well last year. In the beginning, the Chinese loan shark took 10% of the money my daughter sent, but then charged 20% at some point after. Starting last year, he started charging 30%. In some cases, the loan shark could take up to 50% from those who are extremely powerless. Since there was nobody to report to or listen to the victims of this ruthless business, the victims cannot say anything so that they could keep at least some of the money after the horrendously high interest is charged. Furthermore, they (the loan sharks) have connections with the Department of Security. Even though their abuse is too much to bear, their victims know that it would not be worth a fight.

Our people, who crossed the river at the border risking their lives, work so hard to earn money in China only to fatten the pockets of these Chinese residents in North Korea rather than to be used by their families in need of the extra support. I heard that by just making phone calls, these Chinese loan sharks could make 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese Yuan a year while some even make over 100,000 Chinese Yuan a year. Even my family was ripped off money that was worth a house by a loan shark. It is the money that my daughter Kyung Suk saved by working so hard and not eating or spending on herself to send to us. Thanks to the money sent by my daughter, we got acquainted with Sung Ro-ul. Being an acquaintance of a loan shark has certain benefits such as enjoying a meal or a few drinks after working for him. I can sometimes feel the envious eyes of my neighbors on me when I am with the loan shark. They consider me as a servant for the landlord as in a feudal society, which is not untrue in a way.

Sung Ro-ul would work on minor things around his house, but for major jobs, he is called for in charge of the work and forms a group among our neighbors to do the work. The loan shark typically feeds the workers very well; however, he will not allow workers inside his house. This is because he considers North Koreans as manner-less and greedy who would try to borrow or steal anything they see if the opportunity is granted. So, he carefully watches North Korean workers to make sure they will not steal or take anything from his house. If he could, he would do a full body search. He claims that something is always missing after many people visit his place. These missing items are usually not new or valuable items, but things that have no real value such as toilet paper or a used shoe. I think he could claim this since he has everything and anything. His house has all the premium products made in China. It seems the Chinese are very good at making everything and anything that one can imagine.

Sung Ro-ul is ruthless businessmen when it comes to money. When they lend money, they request a notarized document with a finger print and a co-signer. I borrowed money from the loan shark this way. However, I have no way to pay back the debt by its due date, the Lunar New Year, since I have not heard from Kyung Suk for more than 2 months no matter how hard I try to find a way. The only thing I can think of is waiting for her to send some money. I pray every day that my daughter will get back in touch with me and send me even a small amount of money so that I can appease the loan shark for a while.