GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society

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North Korea Today No. 451 April 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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Hwanghae Province: “Cannot Speak about Death from Starvation”
Pyongyang Receives Power for 20 Hours a Day
Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station Ceremony
Wouldn’t the Kanto Emigrants Have Felt the Same?
The Double Burden of Debt for Travel Certificate and Bribes to Officials
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Hwanghae Province: “Cannot Speak about Death from Starvation”
On the heels of the news that people have starved to death in South Hwanghae Province, North Hwanghae and South Hamgyong Provinces have now also reported deaths from starvation. Officials of Hwanghae Provinces and South Hamgyong Province plead with the Central Party and Foreign Office for urgent help almost every day, saying, “Any food that people can eat is OK. Anything is acceptable as long as it doesn’t kill people.” Some officials even ask officers who travel to China for international business to bring back rice or seed corn secretly. However, they cannot speak openly about people starving to death. Instead they get around an explicit description by saying, “We have survived the Arduous March and the Extreme Arduous March, but now we seem to be experiencing the first step of economic collapse.” An official of South Hwanghae Province stated they cannot speak about the news of death from starvation because it would hurt the new government, which is emphasizing stability in North Korea and with foreign countries.


Pyongyang Receives Power for 20 Hours a Day
Recently Pyongyang celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Kim Il-Sung’s birthday and increased its electric power supply up to 20 hours a day. Compared to the fact that they got power only for 1 or 2 hours a day during the mourning period for this marks a dramatic increase. An official of the Department of Electricity said, “There was a top priority order that we provide Pyongyang with electricity by running all possible power plants to celebrate the Day of Sun,” referring the birth of Kim Il-Sung. The initial plan was to supply power for 24 hours a day by fully operating hydro and thermal power plants, but they could manage only 20 hours a day because it was difficult to run the plants at full capacity. Officers of Foreign Offices who came back to North Korea to celebrate the Day of Sun were surprised at the improved power supply. An officer was in a glad mood: “It is a kind of a miracle. It has something to do with power supply. I believe that everything will be fine since we have a good power supply now.” However, not everyone shared his optimism. It may look good now, but there is no telling how long it will last. 


Huichon Hydroelectric Power Station Ceremony
 After giving the Huichon, Jagang Province hydroelectric power station a test run and making it ready to go into full operation, the Central Party lavished medals and praise on workers. The ceremony was to recognize the completion of the construction well ahead of schedule. While construction of the power plant is a supposedly ten year long project, the Huichon power plant took only three years to complete. About 57,872 of those who have worked hard on the entire process of construction – from design to completion – were honored with a variety of awards, including Order of Kim Il Sung, Kim Il Sung Youth Honorary Award, Distinguished Services Recognition, National Colors Award, and Honorary Awards. About 100 workers were recognized as Heroes of Great Achievements. Another 78,399 construction workers received commemorative medals. When it comes to recognition and rewards, the completion of the Huichon power plant is unprecedented. It was much more lavish than the opening of the Vinalon factoryfor which Chairman Kim Jong-il made a special flattering announcement on its opening on March 5, 2010. He said that “It is equivalent to a nuclear rocket launch and a big victory for socialism.” Even so, only 74 people were recognized as Heroes of Great Achievements at that ribbon-cutting ceremony where 100,000 people rallied in Hamheung city for the celebration. The number of recipients of awards for the opening of the Vinalon factory, though considered unprecedented at that time, pales in comparison to the number of awards for the completion of the Huichon power plant. 

While the new leadership is excited to see the newly built power plant operating at full capacity, those involved in the construction feel anxiety and apprehension about potential responsibilities for its malfunctions. “It was initially anticipated that the Huichon power plant would be in operation by early January 2012. It was planned to produce enough electricity to transfer power to Pyongyang around the clock. Things are not going well, despite efforts of workers. Last year’s floods caused enormous damage to machines and equipment of the power plant. The total loss is believed to be more than $10 Million. Overseas workers managed to provide funds necessary to purchase construction materials for repair. But because the funds were not sufficient, replacemement materials available to workers did not meet the requirements. Though the construction was officially completed, voltage control is problematic and power production is not as much as it should be. When the power plant hits its limit, which happens often, there are power failures or voltage drops. Clearly aware of the likelihood that these problems will happen again, workers cannot come up with solutions due to the lack of funds to repair or replace current machines and equipment. Even assuming there are adequate funds, the replacement or repairs will take up additional time during which no power will be produced. “The smiles on our face conceal our anxiety and apprehension,” one worker who participated in the construction said.


Wouldn’t the Kanto Emigrants Have Felt the Same?
As Lim Chul stepped on to Chinese soil after crossing the bridge over the Tumen River, suddenly the numerous emigrants, who left Korea to go to the Kanto region during the Japanese colonial period, came into his mind. Even though a long time has passed, it seemed that there was not a big difference between what they felt back then and what he’s feeling now. One hundred years ago, after crossing the Tumen River, those past emigrants must have gone forward into the wind-whipping Manchuria Plains holding a glean of hope despite the desperation of losing their homeland. Of course, although Lim wasn’t exactly losing his nation, yet it was still the same to him since he had to leave his hometown because there was no longer hope. Accompanying Lim were 4 other people: a lady in her 50s who was heading to Helong; another lady in her 40s going to her relative in Tumen; a man in his 50s who had a cousin in Jangbakhyun; and another man in his 50s going to Yanji on business. The two people from Onsung and other two people from Hamju and Hamheung of South Hamgyong Province were identically carrying two rucksacks of dried octopus. All of them said that a fortune in money and patience had been consumed in the process of obtaining the travel pass. One person received the pass after 5 years, otherwise two people took 3 years and the last one took 2 years. Recently, the travel pass approval process became more demanding. The travel pass is no longer issued without a reference from a superior officer or a president of a company even when all the details are filled in correctly because previously many people using their personal travel passes did not return after going to China. Lim Chul took people's advice and told them he would return, but he is not intending to go back home. Even if he goes back to his hometown, there is no way to earn his livelihood and pay back the debt for the travel pass. He is still wondering if his old aunt in Yanji would welcome him. He just wishes that he can get a job soon anywhere, even farther away, since he will not be staying long in his relative’s house. He smiled bitterly and said, “Isn't my heart and the Kanto immigrants' the same, those who went over there holding their wives and children in their hands just to look for a patch of farming land during the Japanese colonial period?” 


The Double Burden of Debt for Travel Certificate and Bribes to Officials
Sung-kuk was overwhelmed by the list three pages long filled with goods to be purchased at Yanji for officials back home in North Korea. All of these goods can be purchased at the Soonam Market in Chungjin or from Chinese residents of North Korea, but the officials obstinately asked him to purchase them on his visit to Yanji. They would total at least 3,000 yuan. He already spent 3,000 yuan to go through the travel certificate procedure, but he will have to spend an additional 3,000 yuan to purchase the gifts for the officials. He carried two packages of dried squid, five packages of pollack, and a box of Korean ginseng tea in his bag, but he felt that the three pages of requests were heavier than the load on his back.

In order to successfully navigate through the travel certificate procedure, Sung-kuk had to borrow 3,000 yuan from Mr. Wang, a Chinese man living in North Korea, by sealing a document with his thumb three times. He is supposed to pay back 4,000 yuan in three months. Mr. Wang said that he would lend money to Sung-kuk because he trusted Sung-kuk’s cousin in Yanji could vouch for it. His cousin is working as a manager in a big public enterprise at Yanji, and he is said to be well off, including having a big house and an expensive car.

Sung-kuk was able to obtain the individual travel certificate because he had a good family history, there are no missing persons (defectors) among his relatives, and a relative of his in-laws’ family was working for the provincial party. For some people, it takes five or even ten years to obtain the certificate, but Sung-kuk worked the system diligently and was able to obtain the certificate in only one month. The certificate is valid for one month, but he was only able to obtain it on the fifth day of its validation. He also had to spend additional two days going through various preparations with officials such as a foreign-affairs directive officer in the Security Department, a security agent and a police officer. They all said basically the same things, for example, “Show others your pride as a proud citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is the happiest country in the world. Let it be known that although we are temporarily placed in a difficult situation, the torchlight of Juche (self-reliance) will illuminate the whole world in the near future, and when the day comes, North Korea will stand high as the most powerful nation in the world. Do not engage in idle conversations, and never acquaint yourself with strangers, as there are South Korean spies all over at Yanji.”

The fact that he was able to obtain a travel certificate to cross the Tumen River was good, but thinking about the list of gifts to be offered to the officials gave him a headache. He needs at least 6,000 yuan in assistance, but Sung-kuk does not know whether his cousin will give him that much money, even though he is said to be well-off. He can only hope that his cousin is magnanimous.

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