The Story of a Honorary Soldier Selling Noodles in Pyongyang

Daily NK
Lee Kwang Baek
10/26/2007

Mr. “Kim,” who lives in Pyongyang, lost a foot in an accident in the army. After his discharge, he became a 1st-class Honorary Soldier of merit living on provisions and bonuses supplied by the nation. The wounded soldiers are named as “Honorary Soldiers” in North Korea. Even before the great famine, Mr. Kim and his family could survive on provisions and bonuses alone. However, after the worsening of the economic situation, they fell into serious hardship.

Nowadays, Mr. Kim steps outside every morning, dragging his one foot, because he has to buy noodles at the “Sunkyokak (a noodles restaurant)” that sells honorary soldiers at a state-assigned price of 230 won. Mr. Kim, who is a first-class honorary soldier, can buy two bowls of noodles at one time.

There is no limit on the number of times one can buy a bowl of noodles. However, with the increase in honorary soldiers living on the profit from noodles bought and resold, the number of bowls Mr. Kim can buy from standing in line all day is only four. Even then, he can sell a bowl which he bought for 230 won for 1,000 and can go home with a slightly upward amount of 3,000 won after selling four bowls.

The subsidies Mr. Kim receives as an honorary soldier every month is 3,000 won. That only comes out to 100 won per day, not even sufficient for a bowl of noodles from Sunkyokak. The cost of living for a family of four is usually 100,000 won (approx. USD30.0), so it is not enough to get by for a month. If one can earn one month’s worth of bonus in a day by selling noodles, there is nothing he can do, besides sell them, but to stand in line all day on crutches.

Until now, North Korea has poured a lot of energy to support for honorary soldiers. After the Korean War, it has guaranteed jobs for soldiers by erecting the Distinguished Soldier Fountain Pen Factory, the Sariwon Honorary Soldier Dressmaker Factory, the Hamheung Honorary Soldier Plastic Products Factory, etc. and to soldiers who have lost their ability to work, it has given provisions and bonuses. Further, it has advertised support for honorary soldiers as the “citizen’s responsibility” and has sought out civilian support.

However, recently, according to North Korean sources, among the guests who come to the Sunkyokak, approximately half are honorary soldiers who resell the noodles. The honorary soldiers demonstrate the fact that survival based on provisions and bonuses alone are impossible.

After the food shortage, an important transformation has taken place in North Korea. The number of people relying on national provisions decreased by around 30% and the rest were placed in situations where they could not survive on provisions, salaries, and bonuses provided by the state alone. At least 100,000 won is needed for monthly living costs, but the salary and bonus that the state can provide is only several thousand won. North Korea has become a society where honorary soldiers who had received the state’s special consideration and support now have to sell whatever they can to survive.

In order to buy four bowls of noodles, Mr. Kim, who has to stand on crutches all day, is the testament of North Korea’s economic system which has crumbled since the food shortage and the rapid deteriorate of whatever grip it does have.

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