GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 448 March 28, 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] Education before Fertilizer
Students Unable to Attend School for Lack of Required School Supplies
Kids Waiting for Poop
The Time Even the Head Kkotjebi Goes Hungry
Waiting for Food Scraps – it’s your lucky day if you get some
Full of Worry, Already out of Kimchi
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[Intro] Education before Fertilizer
A number of school children are too busy to attend school because they are getting Heukbosan fertilizer, so-called dung fertilizer. Some of them are even said to be waiting around public restrooms just for someone to generate this “dung fertilizer.” It is no laughing matter. No matter how much agriculture is prioritized, every child has the right to an education and the government should strive toward the realization of this right. The future of a country is defined by its commitment to education. Elite education, on which North Korea government puts much weight, does not serve the national interest in a way that benefits people from every social class. Without improvement of public education North Korean society will not see the kind of development that affects every corner of the society. Government support for public education, in an effort to improve the education system targeting average people, is sadly lacking.

North Korean children have no less an intellectual capacity than those in other countries and parents have a keen desire to provide the best quality education to their children. Only with an adequate level of government investment can children, who can eventually make a difference in a variety of areas, become an asset to society. North Korea has a great advantage in improving public education with their well-established free education system which is generally made available to most parts of the country. The government needs to pay more attention to the complaints by parents concerning the heavy burden of extra student fees which is enough to stop them from sending their children to school. Without financial support, a mere dictate to reduce extra fees will not change anything. Schools should be relieved of the burden of using their educational budget to pay the salaries of teachers.


Students Unable to Attend School for Lack of Required School Supplies
The new semester has started but some children are unable to join their classmates because they cannot bring all of the required school supplies to school, including three buckets of night soil, or human excrement, used for fertilizer. If the school had asked only for the night soil, then the parents could possibly fulfill the requirement, but because of the never-ending list of required school supplies, many parents have given up. The school asks for everything, from pencils and notebooks that the students will use, to firewood, coal, brick, cement, gloves, socks, slippers, glass, nails, soap, brooms, and more. On their way home from school, the children are anxious about what to take to school next and how to acquire the goods. Wealthier families are able to get the resources somehow, but the average middle class child will have to resort to goods their father steals from his factory after work. Families in the poorer condition find themselves unable to afford to send their children to school at all.

Suh Jung-hee (alias), from Shinheung dong in Kangwon Province, has a son in 8th grade who excels in his studies as well as athletics, is popular with classmates and teachers, but has never been chosen as a class officer. Every year when Kang-gook (son’s alias) moved up a grade, teachers made comments such as, “If Kang-gook doesn’t become a class officer, who will?”, but he has never been chosen. This is due to the sad fact that he never presented his homeroom teacher with money, alcohol, cigarettes, and food rations, let alone brought all the required school supplies. Jung-hee used to make money selling used bicycles and then she was able to send the required school supplies, but that was before the currency reform. Becoming a class president gives a student an edge when entering high school, but despite knowing this fact, parents must focus on the mere act of survival and keeping their families alive, making them feel worse about not being able to contribute to their children’s academic success.

Chul-ryong (alias), a peer of Kang-gook’s, was unable to go to school when the new semester started. His attendance records last year show his absences greatly outnumbered his days in attendance. When his situation improved, he would go to school, but then miss school again when the teacher would bug him about missing assignments or when he was bullied by his classmates. His father suggested that instead of keeping up his lackluster performance at school, he might as well help his work on the fields, but his mother thought that it would be wise for Chul-ryong to stay in school and at least finish middle school. Thus, his attendance fluctuated and he was more often absent than present. This year, because he is unable to provide night soil for fertilizer as a part of the required school supplies, he may be forced to give up his studies. “Kang-gook was at least able to make a payment to the school, but my family of four could eat corn porridge for a whole week with the same amount of money,” said Chul-ryong.


Kids Waiting for Poop
Jung-hak comes to the Wonsan station today as usual. There is nobody using the public restrooms for “number 2" during his watch on the restrooms. Once in a while, a person went in to pee then left the restroom after spitting sputum. Like Jung-hak, there are many kids waiting for human feces around the train station. However, after patiently waiting, one or two people’s feces could be collected. There were already 3 kids waiting near the entrance of the public restrooms in the cold. A little after high noon, two soldiers, who looked as if they just had lunch, hurried to the public restrooms. The first two kids, who were waiting in the line, were getting ready for work with a small shovel and a chipped bowl. As soon as the soldiers came out from the restroom, the kids went in and came out from there a bit later. Jung-hak sent an envious stare to them. One of the kids had a string of dark poop in the bowl. The other kid cursed and sat down with a thudding sound; he was empty hands. One soldier pooped the string of dark poop but the other just peed. So there was nothing to collect for the kid. The kid, who got the string poop, left smiling after carefully covering the collected poop with a piece of ragged cloth. The other one waited for other people to show up in the public restroom. This scene was due to the order from School; kids needed to provide 3 buckets of manure. Kids who did not have manure bought a bucket of manure for 150won. So, Jung-hak wanted to earn 150won by selling manure, not because he needed to have manure for school. Sung-chan’s mom paid some money to Jung-hak when he delivered 2 buckets of manure every day to Sung-chan, who was the classroom president of Jung-hak. If it were not money, Jung-hak got candies, cookies, notebooks or pencils for manure from Sung-chan’s mom. So, it was a decent daily earning for Jung-hak. However, it was not only cold and boring to wait for people at the restroom but also it was easily tiresome because of the competition against other kids who were collecting feces. Jung-hak could not understand why among so many travelers using the train station had so few people used the public restroom for poop. He wondered if these travelers could not poop because they only drank water instead of eating food just like him.


The Time Even the Head Kkotjebi Goes Hungry
Cho Wung was the head of Wonsan market's kkotjebi (homeless people) until last fall. These days, however, he is not really getting much money or food since the beggars under him are not getting much from begging. His area was reduced with new kkotjebi coming from South Pyongan Province and South Hamgyong Province. He tries begging going back and forth between the station and market more than ten times the entire day, but it doesn’t work well. If the head cannot eat, needless to say the boys under him are starving. The boys might stay if the head can share the food that he got himself, but since there has been no food at all for longer than a month, they are all leaving one by one.

When we told him that he has a great name, he said whatever his name might be, he is so starved that he cannot even see straight. When he felt better after some food, he told us the story behind his name. His parents gave him, the third-generation only son, the name Cho Wung wishing that he would grow up to be the hero for the fatherland. He grew with nothing lacking with plenty of affection from his parents, but his father passed away towards the end of the Arduous March. His mother soon followed her husband's footstep. He became kkotjebi at the age of 11, not even having finished primary school. "Although I became kkotjebi, because of my destiny or for my abilities, I am still alive. It's been 12 years," he told us with pride in his voice.

Cho Wung, now 23 years old and 153 cm (5 ft) tall, is better known as "Goober," which is his nickname. He says that no one knows how strong he is despite his short stature. He also bragged that there were at least 20 boys under him, and when times were good, he could live on what he collected from his boys.

When asked what happened to his 20 boys, he again became depressed: "My area got smaller because I had to share my area with these kids who came out of nowhere. With more kkotjebi in Wonsan, there's not enough food for everyone, and it's hard to establish order. I've got to have some serious battles with these new kids and chase them far away from Wonsan, but I'm holding off from it for now since the country is still in the condolence period. However, he did show a bit of nervousness mentioning that there are some well-built guys among the new kkotjebi which gives him "creeps in even in dreams."


Waiting for Food Scraps – it’s your lucky day if you get some
It snowed all night. Minsok went to the house of a hwagyo (ethnic Chinese living oversaes) and shoveled the snow off of the front yard as well as clearing the driveway leading to the main street. The housewife paid him one yuan for his work and he then bought two slices of corn cake for breakfast. He wolfed down the two slices without even chewing. He said that even though his stomach was still empty and, that he was still hungry, he kept dozing off. However, he was very careful with where he would lie down to sleep. Although it was already March, the temperature was still relatively low. Minsok said that even “experienced” kkotjebi (homeless people) would end up getting sick if they slept at a spot where they would be exposed to the cold weather.

When I asked him if he had a place to sleep during the winter, he hesitated to answer my question. So I asked the question again. He finally answered and told me that he slept under the stairs of an apartment building. To quote Minsok, “A director for the Security Department lives in that apartment building. His house always has an abundance of food and they throw away a lot of the food scraps from their meals. If you are lucky, you will find some rice and bones to savor as there are still some meat flavors lingering on them. The wife of the director worries that her neighbors gossip about her family wasting food. To avoid such gossip, she hides the food scraps in her pocket, sneaks out of her house late at night and goes far away to throw away the food scraps. If you are the first to catch her when she comes out of her house and follow her, you will beat the other kkotjebi to the food scraps. There are days when the scraps are enough to feed myself for two days. I feel absolutely blessed on such days.” That is why Minsok cannot leave the stairs of the apartment building — you never know when she will come out with the food scraps.

Minsok also said, “I run after her when she comes out of her house with the bag of food scraps hidden under her arms. If it snows all night long, the next morning I can clean up the snow from the hwagyo’s house and get money for the work so I can buy some cake. The cake grows to the size of a cart’s wheel and then to the size of a train car wheel. It gets even bigger as it turns into the moon or the sun. This is my dream whenever I sleep at night. I run around all night long to get some reddish-tasting corn cake but I never get enough, even in my dream. I wish I could at least eat a lot in my dream. Nevertheless, when my country becomes a strong and prosperous nation, I will eat as much corn cake as I want, right? I hope it will happen soon.” Along with sharing his reoccurring dreams, he also told me that he has already been to the welfare institution six times but he prefers to live on the streets where he can at least find some food scraps.


Full of Worry, Already out of Kimchi
Ms. Soon-young, living in Wonsan City, is full of worry that she has already run out of Gimjang Kimchi, which is known as the six-month food. (Gimjang is a season of preparing a large amount of Kimchi for the winter consumption). She sold some Napa cabbage and radish in the market last year, harvested from a patch of field, to make up her poor sustenance. During the Gimjang season last year, she couldn’t even afford a basic ingredient, chili powder, due to the high price, in contrast to affluent households that prepared Kimchi with various seasonings and stuffing materials.

“I couldn’t believe the price of chili powder at the market last year. It was 14,000-16,000 won (KPW) per kilogram. I couldn’t even attempt to make Kimchi mixed with chili powder as my family lived on corn for 1,000 won, bought with the money that I sold Napa cabbage for 700 won and radish for 400 won,” she said.

She made ‘white’ Kimchi without chili powder instead. She was not sure if it was even enough for the winter. “Beside Kimchi, it’s very difficult for us to have basic staples needed daily, like cooking oil, salt, and seasoning. Those are very expensive. 500 grams of corn cooking oil for 3,000 won is extremely pricy to us that hardly can afford a pack of seasoning for 500 won. If we have oil, it’s like special treat on holidays”, she mentioned and complained of the shortage of basic foods.

She finally said, “I wish the government provided us with, at least, enough soybean paste, salt, and soy source, beside anything else, so that I would have had enough white Kimchi throughout spring.”

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