Archive for the ‘Sunam market’ Category

North Korea begins closing wholesale markets

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No.10-01-08-1

North Korean authorities appear to be closing regional, large-scale wholesale markets, one after another. According to the latest newsletter from the North Korean human rights group Good Friends (January 6), “Based on a Cabinet measure passed on December 30 of last year, North Korean authorities will suspend operations management of the Sunam Market in Cheongjin [LOCATION HERE] from the end of this March, effectively deciding to close [the market].”

Like the South Pyeongan Province Pyeongseong Market [LOCATION HERE] reportedly closed last year, the Sunam Market, North Korea’s representative wholesale market, was built less than five years ago. Good Friends reported that provincial authorities from North Hamgyeong Province plan to raze the market, located between Chumok and Cheongnam neighborhoods, and build a modern park and residential housing.

The newsletter revealed, “More than 40 percent of Cheongjin residents rely on the Sunam Market to maintain their lifestyles, and if the market is closed, there will be considerable consequences,” and added that those who trade in the market or rely on it for their shopping are already worried about how they will continue to put food on the table if the market gets shut down.

It has also been reported that the Chupyeong Market [LOCATION HERE], in the Sapo district of Hamheung City, South Hamgyeong Province, will also be closed. The Chupyeong Market, which attracts as many traders as the Pyeongseong Market, apparently specializes in the wholesale trade of imitation goods. Good Friends explains that the Chupyeong Market is a very busy and crowded market, with many shoppers coming and going, and this has also led to an increase in scams, thefts and other crimes. It is anticipated that following the closing of the Sunam Market early in the year, the next move authorities make will be to shut down the Chupyeong Market, as well.

A directive has been issued that North Korean authorities are to ban the sale of manufactured goods in the country’s permanent markets, and that all goods are to be sold only in state-sanctioned retail stores, and at state-set prices. However, sources inside the North report that traders are gauging the attitudes of local authorities, and often not turning over their goods for sale in retail stores. This, along with the North’s currency reform and ban on foreign currency, as well as the increase in farmers’ wages, has led to huge increases in exchange rates and prices.

Currently, workers in state-operated enterprises are being paid anywhere from 1,500 won to as much as 5,000 won per month. With the currency revaluation, this is considerably more than they were making before, but taking into account the massive increases in prices, as well, the impact of the higher wages is negligible.


Money Means Everything

Monday, March 19th, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

Today, a rich person in North Korea is someone who can spend roughly US$100~$500 (300,000~1.5mn North Korean won) a month. This amount is so large, that it is a figure unfathomable to the average North Korean.

Nowadays, a small number of lower class North Koreans sell noodles at the markets and earn 1,500~2,000won a day. On average, this equates to 50,000~60,000won a month. Additionally, the living costs of a family of 4 in Pyongyang normally costs about 50,000~100,000won.

While a laborer with a stable job earns about 2,000~3,000won (approx. US$0.66~1) a month, spending more than 100,000won (approx. US$32.2) a month is an extravagant figure. Simply put, it has become difficult to live only on selling noodles.

Anyone who spends more than 100,000won a month is probably eating rice and can afford to eat nutritious vegetables. This is the middle class of North Korea today.

The distinctive nature of this middle class is the disparity of the work as well as their past background being rather simple. This class has naturally appeared simply because of their genuine skills. These people know exactly the flow of the market and know how to make money. The only thing important to them is finding the opportunity to make money. In all, they have come to an understanding that money is needed in order to buy goods and live a life to the envy of others.

This middle class is closely linked to power. If a person only takes pride in the sense that he/she can money, then that person will be hit with a severe fall. It is a characteristic of North Korean society that power is critical in living a life making lots of money without trouble.

With money, these people are earning even more by buying the supervision of low ranking safety and security agents and local administrative officers. Simply put, the small amount of money invested as bribery in securing a good location at the markets is petty compared to the income reaped. In other words, whenever a new market is established at a village, a person can be confident in having the best spot by winning over the person in charge. For example, the bidding for the best spot at the Sunam Market, Chongjin is 900,000~1.5mn won (approx. US$290~$490).

Entrepreneurs may become the rich after regime reform

In 2002, the North Korean government passed the July 1st economic reforms which gave more freedom to marketers with less control by authorities and hence, trade became more active.

The mindset of the middle are so fixated on money, that they believe that money can solve anything even if a war was to break out the following day or North Korea was to be completely overturned. Though these people conspire with those in power in order to make money, they are unconcerned with what happens or rather does not happen to the Kim Jong Il regime.

There is a definitive difference between the middle class who are rubbing hands and the central class just in case the Kim Jong Il regime did collapse, compared to the upper class. The middle class are not from any particular special background, but with the skills and guile of making wealth, they are confident that there will be no problems irrespective of regime change.

People from this class even have the freedom to save and keep some food and daily necessities in preparation of this incident. Furthermore, currency is undoubtedly being saved, this also being foreign currency such as dollars. This, they call emergency relief in preparation for the time the North Korean regime does collapse, as well as a safe deposit to use whenever trade needed.

In addition, with the change of the North Korean regime, this class will be able to celebrate and radically transform from being an entrepreneur to the newly-rich with all the wealth acquired during the Kim Jong Il regime.


North Koreans hoarding rice

Monday, October 23rd, 2006

From the Daily NK:
Kang Jae Hyok

According to a North Korean source, while international community has been worried that North Korea will undergo “the second march of tribulation”, recently the number of North Korean people who lay in rice has been increasing.

Kim Jong Hee(pseudonym, 39), Chungjin resident said on the phone interview with the DailyNK that, “In spite of Fall, the price of rice is not decreasing”, and “These days the number of people who buy rice is sharply increasing”.

Kim added that from last June the price of rice is 1,000~1,200 won (0.30 US$~0.36 US$) per 1kg and in August it increased up to 1,300 won, yet even in October(now) the price is not decreasing. The price of corn wet up to 300 or 400 won.

It is natural that in fall the price of rice goes down and in spring goes up. So people lay in rice in fall. However, given that the price of rice does not go down until now, in the next spring it will be expected to go up more. Because of it, it seams that people lay in more rice in advance.

The exchange rate of yuan in black market is 360won of North Korea per 1 yuan. In 1990, the exchange rate was 1:25 and in 2002 after the 7.1. Economic Management Improvement Measure it was 1: 300. Recently it goes up to 1: 360. In addition, 1 dollar is 3,300 won of North Korea.
“Only interested in survival, never in nuclear test”

Responding to a question “do you know North Korea did nuclear test?”, Kim said that, “I do not care about whether the North Korean government did the test or not. I am busy supporting our family so I have time to think about that”. According to him, because there have been electronic lights there, people cannot know about what happened in the world.

Kim who is a vendor selling Chinese goods in Sunam market, Chungjin said that for a few days Chinese vendors have not come in Chungjin and now are around Haeryung. In the past the Chinese vendors came in once a week, yet now it is letting up at the same time the price of goods are increasing.

Regarding this trend, some people explained that because of the tension in Korean peninsular caused by the nuclear test the Chinese vendors have visited less and less and because of the censoring in goods introduced in North Korea, the amount of goods coming in North Korea has decreased.

Kim said that now Chinese goods in North Korean markets amount for more than 80%. If the sanction of China against North Korea is taken, the North Korean Jangmadangs will be negatively influenced.

Kim also said that, “Unless the Chinese goods are not introduced, we cannot survive”, and now it is the time to lay in rice for the next spring. This is what is most important to us now”.


Back to the 90s, “Grass Porridge”

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Daily NK
Kim Young Jin

September, once again prices of rice rising in Jangmadang, North Korea.

At Sunam markets in Chungjin, North Hamkyung province:

1Kg rice=1,400 won ($0.46) . This is the highest prices have reached.
1kg of corn is a high 450 won.

The districts within North Hamkyung province such as Onsung, Hoiryeong and Musan are no different.

1kg rice at Onsung and Hoiryeong averages 1,200won ($0.40) and has risen to 1,300won at Musan. On average corn is costing 380~400won per kilo.

Although autumn harvest has begun throughout all of North Korea, the cost of food at Jangmadang continues to rise and the common North Korean experiences greater difficulties as a result of food shortage. Defectors have informed that poverty has become so severe in North Hamkyung province that the nightmares of mass starvation in the mid-90’s is once again tormenting a laborer’s dinner table with the reappearance of ‘grass porridge.’

On 23rd September, defector Choi Soon Nyu (pseudonym, 58, Chungjin, North Hamkyung province) came to China passing through Hoiryeong. She said “At Sunam markets in Chungjin, the price of rice has risen to 1,400won per kilo and corn has even reached 400won per kilo. Poor laborers have resorted to putting pig’s fodder into corn porridge to suffice a meal and the number of people eating grass porridge is growing.”

A tourist Jang Ha Cheol (pseudonym, Dancheon, North Hamkyung province) who entered China on 14th September through China’s Tuman customs said “In the districts of North Hamkyung rice surpassed 1,000won per kilo in July. Since the end of August, rice at Jangmadang in Dancheon and Chungjin averaged 1,300won per kilo.”

The current cost of rice nearing 1,400won per kilo at Chungjin Jangmadang is a record breaking figure. Mr. Han, an activist who has been working for 5 years at an NGO which supports defectors in China said “On the basis of information gathered through consultations with defectors for the past 3 years, it can be said that the current cost of rice at Chungjin is the highest ever in history.”

Mr. Han explained “Even during the ‘Special period’ last October where North Korean authorities strictly controlled selling food at Jangmadang, trade amongst the people did not exceed 1,000won per kilo of rice. Normally when autumn harvest begins in late September, food wholesalers and foreign marketers at Jangmadang release their units of rice kept in storage and so the cost of rice generally tends to have a depreciating effect.”

“Living costs” simultaneously escalate

North Koreans discuss amongst themselves that soon a ‘2,000won ($0.66) rice period’ will come, further raising feelings of anxiety.

Park Sung Cheol (pseudonym, 41, Gilju, North Hamkyung province) who defected to China on 17th September said “There is not a single person who is worried that they will be unable to afford rice as the costs continue to rise. In any case the staple diet for the people is corn. However, if the cost of rice rises then the cost of corn will rise accordingly and general living costs will rise also. As a result, escalating rice prices is not only a basic issue of food costs but a coupling indication that living standards will only get tighter.”

In actual, the general cost of living in North Korea is simultaneously on the rise. Pork in North Hamkyung province which averaged 2,300~2,800won per kilo in the recent spring is now nearing 4,000won (1.33). It appears that within half a year, the cost has risen no less than 60%. Corn oil and spices are averaging similar standards.

In regards to the recent ‘Skyrocketing rice prices at Jangmadang’ in North Korea, NGO’s and defectors in China are conjecturing “This year, as a result of negative farming produce and tightening of regulations by North Korean authorities after the missile launch, it seems that insecurity is lurking within North Korea and hence strategically, food that was kept in storage by food wholesalers, foreign markets and the military is not being sold at Jangmadang.”

Above all, talks coming from within North Korea suggest that compared to last year, this year food output will be regulated on a large scale.

North Korean citizens are forecasting a negative harvest as in the provinces of Pyongnam and Hwanghae, rice harvest failed due to the flood last summer and even in North Hamkyung province where corn farming is prevalent, drought has continuously soiled the area since spring. As a result, it is estimated that the harvest output this year will not even surmount 40% compared to the previous year.

In addition, since the missile launch on July 5th, North Korean authorities have been indicating that “All military families should independently prepare for 90 days of wartime rationing.” “Workers in official departments and transportation business should independently prepare for 30 days of wartime rationing.” As a result, concerns are rising within North Korea as these orders resemble the measures of policy control during the period of nuclear threat in ’93.

For these reasons defectors and NGO’s analyze that the ‘Big Hand’ at Jangmadang maneuvered by food wholesalers, foreign markets and the military are safekeeping rice in storage and watching the price of rice surge even though the harvest season has arrived.

A missionary Jung working in China said “According to testimonies of recent defectors, excluding North Korean companies collaborating with foreign movements based in China, merely 20% of locations are distributing rations despite making quotas. It is estimated that more than 70% of workers are being neglected and not receiving any rations.”

He further remarked “As long as half the nation’s distribution and companies and are in possession of a months necessary rations, only 5% of laborers will ever receive it.”


Trading Ideals for Sustenance

Monday, July 4th, 2005

Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick

For most of her life, Kim Hui Suk had spouted the sayings of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung and never for a moment harbored a doubt: Capitalists were the enemy. Individualism was evil.

But then disaster rained down on her hometown, Chongjin, on North Korea’s remote east coast. Factories ran out of fuel. Food rations stopped. Watching her family slowly succumb to the famine — her mother-in-law, husband and son eventually would die of starvation — Kim realized she had to change.

Once a stickler for following the rules, she bribed a bureaucrat so she could sell her apartment. Then, with no business skills other than the ability to calculate on an abacus, she used the proceeds of the sale to set herself up in a black market business, hawking biscuits and moonshine she brewed from corn.

Kim could have been sent away for life for such crimes. But obeying the rules would have meant a death sentence.

“The simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told — they were the first to die of starvation,” said Kim, a soft-spoken grandmother who now lives in South Korea and has adopted a new name to protect family members still in the North.

The famine that killed 2 million North Koreans in the mid-1990s and the death of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 sparked vast changes across the secretive communist country.

Markets are springing up in the shadows of abandoned factories, foreign influences are breaching the borders, inflation is soaring and corruption is rampant. A small nouveau riche class has emerged, even as a far larger group has been forced to trade away everything for food.

This is the picture of life in North Korea as painted by more than 30 people from Chongjin, the nation’s thirdlargest city. Some are defectors living in South Korea. Others were interviewed in China, which they had entered illegally to work or beg. Accounts of aid workers and videos taken illegally in Chongjin by disgruntled residents were also used to prepare this report.

Although the North Korean regime has a reputation as the ultimate Big Brother, people from Chongjin say the public pays less and less heed to what the government says. There is little that might be called political dissent, but residents describe a pervasive sense of disillusionment that remains largely unspoken.

“People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation,” said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China. “We all know we think that, and we all know everybody else thinks that. We don’t need to talk about it.”

Kim Sun Bok, a 32-year-old former factory worker who came to South Korea last summer, said the country was “changing incredibly.”

“It is not the same old North Korea anymore except in name.”

Just a decade ago, when people in Chongjin needed new trousers, they had to go to government-owned stores that sold items mostly in drab browns or a dull shade of indigo. Food and other necessities were rationed. Sometimes the government permitted the sale of home-grown vegetables, but even a hairbrush was supposed to be purchased from a state-run shop.

Today, people can shop at markets all over Chongjin, the result of a burst of entrepreneurship grudgingly allowed by the authorities. Almost anything can be purchased — ice cream bars from China, pirated DVDs, cars, Bibles, computers, real estate and sex — for those who can afford the high prices.

The retail mecca is Sunam market, a wood-frame structure with a corrugated tin roof that is squeezed between two derelict factories.

The aisles brim with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, scallions, watermelons and cabbage, as shown by rare video footage taken last year by the Osaka, Japan-based human rights group Rescue the North Korean People. Everything else comes from China: belts, shoes, umbrellas, notebooks, plates, aluminum pots, knives, shovels, toy cars, detergents, shampoos, lotions, hand creams and makeup.

Each of Chongjin’s seven administrative districts has a state-sanctioned market. Sunam, the city’s largest, is expanding, and some say it has a wider variety of goods than the main market in Pyongyang. Many vendors wear their licenses pinned to their right breasts while the obligatory Kim Il Sung buttons remain over the heart.

Although markets have been expanding for more than a decade, it was only in 2002 and ’03 that the government enacted economic reforms that lifted some of the prohibitions against them. Most of the vendors are older women such as Kim Hui Suk, a tiny 60-year-old with short, permed hair and immaculate clothing.

She was working in the day-care center of a textile factory in the early 1990s when production ground to a halt. Men were ordered to stay in their jobs, but Workers’ Party cadres at the factory started whispering that the married women, or ajumas, ought to moonlight to provide for their families.

“It was clear that the ajumas had to go out and earn money or the family would starve,” Kim said.

She first tried to raise pigs, locking them in a shed outside her downtown apartment building and feeding them slop left over from making tofu. But the electricity and water were too unreliable to keep the business going.

In 1995, Kim sold her apartment in the choice Shinam district and bought a cheaper one, hoping to use the proceeds to import rice from the countryside. But that too failed when she injured her back and couldn’t work.

The family’s situation became dire. Her husband’s employer, a provincial radio station, stopped paying salaries, and food distribution ended. In 1996, her mother-in-law died of starvation, and her husband the following year.

“First he got really, really thin and then bloated. His last words to me were, ‘Let’s get a bottle of wine, go to a restaurant and enjoy ourselves,’ ” Kim recalled. “I felt bad that I couldn’t fulfill his last wish.”

In 1998, Kim’s 26-year-old son, who had been a wrestler and gymnast, grew weak from hunger and contracted pneumonia. A shot of penicillin from the market would have cost 40 won, the same price as enough corn powder to feed herself and her three daughters for a week. She opted for the corn and watched her son succumb to the infection.

But Kim did not give up. She swapped apartments again and used the money to start another business, this time baking biscuits and neungju, a potent corn moonshine. If buyers didn’t have cash, she would accept chile powder or anything else she could use.

“We made just enough to put food on the table,” said Kim.

Much of Chongjin’s commerce is still not officially sanctioned, so it has an impromptu quality. Money changes hands over wooden carts that can be rolled away in a hurry. Those who can’t afford carts sell on tarpaulins laid out in the dirt.

Fashion boutiques are slapped together with poles and clotheslines, enlivening the monochromatic landscape with garish pinks and paisleys. Some clothes have the labels ripped out and vendors whisper that these items came from araet dongne or the “village below,” a euphemism for South Korea, whose products are illegal in the North.

Shoppers can buy 88-pound sacks of rice emblazoned with U.S. flags, and biscuits and corn noodles produced by three factories in Chongjin run by the U.N. World Food Program — all intended to be humanitarian handouts.

Some people cut hair or repair bicycles, though furtively because these jobs are supposed to be controlled by the government’s Convenience Bureau.

“They will bring a chair and mirror to the market to cut hair,” Kim said. “The police can come at any moment, arrest them and confiscate their scissors.”

Another new business is a computer salon. It looks like an Internet cafe, but because there’s no access to the Web in North Korea, it is used mostly by teenagers to play video games.

More products are available, but inflation puts them out of reach for most people. The price of rice has increased nearly eightfold since the economic reforms of 2002 to 525 won per pound; an average worker earns 2,500 won a month — about $1 at the unofficial exchange rate.

World Food Program officials in North Korea say the vast majority of the population is less well off since the economic changes, especially factory workers, civil servants, retirees and anybody else on a fixed income. But there are those who have gotten rich. Poor Chongjin residents disparage them as donbulrae, or money insects.

“There are people who started trading early and figured out the ropes,” said a 64-year-old retired math teacher who sells rabbits at the market. “But those of us who were loyal and believed in the state, we are the ones who are suffering.”

If Chongjin’s economic center is Sunam market, its political heart is Pohang Square, a vast plaza dominated by a 25-foot bronze statue of Kim Il Sung.

The grass here is neatly mowed, the shrubbery pruned and the pavement in good repair. Even when the rest of the city is without electricity, the statue is bathed in light. Across the street, a tidy pink building houses a permanent exhibit of the national flower, a hybrid begonia called Kimjongilia, named for current leader Kim Jong Il.

Since the practice of religion is barred, Pohang Square stands in as a spiritual center. Newlyweds in their best clothes pose for pictures, bowing to the statue so that their union is symbolically blessed.

When Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994, half a million people came to Pohang Square to pay their respects in the pouring rain and stifling heat. But among the adoring multitudes, there were malcontents.

One was Ok Hui, the eldest daughter of entrepreneur Kim Hui Suk. Though she dutifully took her place in the throng, any sadness she felt came from a foreboding that Kim Jong Il would be worse than his father.

“I went day and night along with everybody else. You had to…. But there were no tears coming from my eyes,” recalled Ok Hui, now 39, who did not want her family name published.

Ok Hui worked for a construction company’s propaganda unit, a job that entailed riding around in a truck with a megaphone, exhorting workers to do their best for the fatherland. But she didn’t believe what she preached.

Her father had taught her to doubt the regime. As a reporter and member of the Workers’ Party, he knew more about the outside world than many people and realized how far North Korea lagged behind South Korea and China.

“He and his friends would stay up at night when my mother was out, talking about what a thief Kim Jong Il was,” Ok Hui said.

Her mother, though, remained a firm believer. “I lived only for the marshal. I never had a thought otherwise,” said Kim Hui Suk. “Even when my husband and son died, I thought it was my fault.”

Ok Hui and her mother frequently clashed. “Why did you give birth to me in this horrible country?” Ok Hui remembers taunting her mother.

“Shut up! You’re a traitor to your country!” Kim retorted.

“Whom do you love more? Kim Jong Il or me?” her daughter shot back.

The regime was probably less beloved in Chongjin than elsewhere in North Korea. Food had run out in its province, North Hamgyong, earlier than in other areas, and starvation rates were among the highest in the nation.

Chongjin’s people are reputed to be the most independent-minded in North Korea. One famous report of unrest centers on the city. In 1995, senior officers from the 6th army corps in Chongjin were executed for disloyalty and the entire unit, estimated at 40,000 men, was disbanded. It is still unclear whether the incident was an attempted uprising or a corruption case.

Chongjin is known for its vicious gang wars, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish political unrest from ordinary crime. There were increasing incidents of theft and insubordination. At factories, desperate workers dismantled machinery or stripped away copper wiring to sell for food.

Public executions by firing squad were held outside Sunam market and on the lawn of the youth park, once a popular lover’s lane.

In a village called Ihyon-ri on the outskirts of Chongjin, a gang suspected of anti-government activities killed a national security agent who had tried to infiltrate the group, former kindergarten teacher Seo Kyong Hui said.

“This guy was from my village. He had been sent to inform on a group that was engaged in suspicious activities,” she said. “They caught him and stoned him to death.”

Work crews went out early in the morning to wash away any anti-regime graffiti painted overnight, according to human rights groups, but most people were too scared to express their discontent. Badmouthing the leadership is still considered blasphemy.

To discourage anti-regime activity, North Korea punishes “political crimes” by banishing entire families to remote areas or labor camps.

“If you have one life to live, you would gladly give it to overthrow this government,” said Seo, the teacher. “But you are not the only one getting punished. Your family will go through hell.”

Even as Kim Jong Il’s regime weakens, many of its stalwarts are growing richer. Many of Chongjin’s well-to-do are members of the Workers’ Party or are connected to the military or security services. In the new economy, they use their ties to power to trade with China, obtain market licenses, extract bribes and sell bureaucratic favors.

“Those who have power in North Korea always figure out ways to make money,” said Joo Sung Ha, 31, who grew up in Chongjin and now works as a journalist in Seoul.

Joo was the pampered only son of a prominent official, and his family lived in Shinam, in the city’s northern hills overlooking the ocean. By the standards of South Korea or China, the single-family homes with lines of fish and squid drying from the roofs are nothing special. But for North Koreans, these are mansions.

The Joo family had a 2,000-square-foot cement-block house and a walled garden about twice that large. The garden proved crucial in protecting the family against the famine, though they had to contend with hungry soldiers who would scale the walls and steal potatoes and cabbages.

North Korean families like to measure their status by the number of wardrobes they own, and Joo’s family had five — plus a television, a refrigerator, a tape recorder, a sewing machine, an electric fan and a camera. They didn’t have a phone or a car — at that time those were unthinkable even for a well-off family — but they did have a bicycle.

“The appliances were of no use after the electricity ran out,” Joo said. “The bicycle was the most important thing, because the buses and trams stopped running.”

Joo attended the best elementary school in Chongjin, the city’s foreign language institute, and eventually the country’s top school, Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He never met a native English speaker in the North, or any foreigner for that matter, but he trained his ear with videotapes of the BBC and banned Hollywood films.

“I sometimes watched ‘Gone With the Wind’ twice a day. Anybody else would have been arrested for watching Hollywood movies,” he recalled.

Joo’s glimpses of Western culture eroded his loyalty to the system. “I saw myself 20 years down the road in the prime of my career and North Korea would be collapsing,” he said.

While many of his classmates went to work for the regime’s propaganda news service after graduating, Joo arranged to return to Chongjin, where he taught high school until he escaped in 2001.

“The people from our neighborhood couldn’t understand,” said Joo, who stays in contact with his family. “They thought I had everything.”

Kim Hye Young, an actress, was also a child of privilege. Her father, Kim Du Seon, was an official of a trading company that sold mushrooms and fish in China. He learned how to navigate the bureaucracy, using his connections with the army and security services.

“If one of [the officials] had a wedding in the family, they would come to me for a couple of cases of wine,” the older Kim said.

As trade with China became more important, the family prospered. They took drives in a company car and ate at Chongjin’s nicest restaurant.

Growing up, Kim showed a flair for theater, and through her acting became a member of the elite in her own right. Her best-known role was in a play called “The Strong and the Righteous,” in which she portrayed a spy who sacrifices her life for North Korea.

When the production won first place in a Pyongyang drama festival in 1996, she got to meet Kim Jong Il. Still breathless with the memory, she said the leader shook her hand and gave her a fountain pen.

“I knew that I, as an actress, had an important role to promote the ideology of my country,” Kim said.

Kim and her sisters were largely oblivious to the famine, and their mother said she took pains to shelter them.

“My daughters don’t know to this day how many children in our neighborhood starved to death,” said her mother, Choe Geum Lan. She also didn’t tell them that their father, as a result of his business trips to China, had become increasingly pessimistic about North Korea’s future.

In 1998, when Kim was home from Pyongyang on vacation, her parents told her the family was going to visit an aunt in Musan, a city near the Chinese border. It was not until they had crossed to the other side that Kim and her teenage sisters, were told they had defected.

Kim, now 29 and advertising toothpaste on South Korean television, is one of the few defectors who says she didn’t want to leave.

“I was content with my life,” she said.

Today, North Korea’s elites are even better off, buying telephones for their homes and even cars.

“For $4,000 or $5,000, anybody can buy a car now. It used to be that you weren’t allowed to register your own car. We couldn’t dream of it,” said Kim Yong Il, a defector from Chongjin who lives in Seoul.

Recently, he arranged to have a computer smuggled from China to his relatives in Chongjin. North Korea’s state-run companies don’t have computers, so they’re eager to hire people who do. “If you have a computer, you can get a job,” he said.

Visitors have been shocked to glimpse the new conspicuous consumption in Chongjin.

Jeung Young Tai, a South Korean academic who was in Chongjin delivering South Korean government aid, noticed a paunchy man standing in front of the Chonmasan Hotel next to a new Lexus.

And at a hot spring in Kyongsong, on the city’s outskirts, he saw a woman carrying a lap dog — a striking sight in a country where there is so little food that the only pets usually are goldfish.

“You get the sense that there is a tremendous gap between rich and poor and that the gap is growing,” Jeung said.

The flip side, of course, is that the poor are getting poorer.

In Chongjin, those at the very bottom of the heap can be found at the train station.

The cavernous building boasts a large portrait of Kim Il Sung above the entrance and a granite-faced clock that rarely tells the right time. In front is a vast plaza crammed with people waiting for trains — sometimes for days, because the trains have no fixed schedules — and people waiting for nothing at all.

These are the homeless, many of them children. They’re called kotchebi, or swallows, because they wander the streets and sometimes between towns in search of food. Many gravitate to Chongjin station, because it is a major hub and the travelers have more to give.

A video shot last year by a military official and sold to Japan’s NTV television captured barefoot children near the station in torn, filthy clothing fighting over a nearly empty jar of kimchi. One boy scooted along the pavement on his buttocks; the narrator said his toes had been eaten away by frostbite.

Kim Hyok knows how easy it is for a child to end up at the station; he spent the better part of two years living there.

“If you can’t find somebody or they left their home, chances are you can find them at the station,” said Kim, now 23 and resettled in South Korea.

Kim’s mother died when he was a toddler, and he was raised by his father, a party member and an employee of a military unit that sold fish in China. During his early childhood, Kim, his father and elder brother lived in relative comfort in a high-rise apartment in the Sunam district.

When the government stopped handing out rations in 1993, Kim’s father used his connections to place his sons in an orphanage 60 miles away.

Kim, who was about 12 at the time, wasn’t sorry to be sent away. It was considered a privilege because the orphanages had food.

In 1997, just before his 16th birthday, Kim “graduated” from the orphanage. He caught a train back to Chongjin, but when he got to his neighborhood, things looked unfamiliar. The electricity was off. Many apartment buildings had no glass in the windows and appeared vacant.

Climbing the eight flights in pitch dark to his family’s unit, he heard a baby crying and wondered whose it might be. Confused and scared, he knocked on the door.

A young couple opened the door and told him his father had moved long ago but left a message: Look for him at the train station.

The phenomenon of vagrancy is testament to how much North Korea has changed. Before the famine, the government controlled people’s movements so strictly that they could not dream of visiting a relative in a nearby town without a travel permit, let alone selling their homes. Not showing up for work could bring a visit from police.

But as people embarked on increasingly desperate hunts for food, families broke apart. With few telephones and a barely functional postal service, parents and children became separated.

“People just started wandering around because they were hungry,” Kim said. “They would sell their apartments for a few bags of rice.”

Kim never found his father. He also never found his brother, who had left the orphanage a year earlier.

With no place to go, Kim ended up at the train station. By night, he slept squeezed into a narrow space designed for a sliding iron gate. By day, he loitered near the food vendors on the plaza. He often worked with a gang of other kids — a few would topple a vendor’s cart and the others would scoop up whatever spilled.

“If you’re not fast, you can’t eat,” said Kim, who even today in South Korea bears the signs of chronic malnutrition, with a head that looks oversized on a shockingly short frame.

Kim began hopping the slow-moving trains that pass through Chongjin on their way to the Chinese border. Once on board, Kim would scramble up to the top of a car, flatten himself to avoid the electric lines above and, using his pack as a pillow, ride for hours.

At the border, he would wade across the river to hawk the items in his pack: household goods on consignment from Chongjin residents, who were selling off their possessions.

In 1998, Kim was arrested by Chinese authorities, who do not recognize North Koreans as refugees. He was sent back to North Korea and spent two years in a prison camp before escaping again in 2000 to China, where he was eventually taken in by missionaries and brought to South Korea.

For every homeless person who survived, many more likely died. Kim Hui Suk recalled a particularly ghoulish scene at the train station.

“Once I saw them loading three bodies into a cart,” Kim said. “One guy, a man in his 40s, was still conscious. His eyes were sort of blinking, but they still were taking him away.”

Although the ranks of the homeless have thinned since the height of the famine, North Korean residents say their numbers are still considerable.

“If somebody disappears, you don’t know whether he dropped dead on the road or went to China,” the coal miner said.

About 100,000 North Koreans have escaped to China in the last 10 years. Many have ended up returning to North Korea, either because they were deported or because they missed their families. They often bring back money, goods to trade and strange new ideas.

Smugglers carry chests that can hold up to 1,000 pirated DVDs. South Korean soap operas, movies about the Korean War and Hollywood action films are among the most popular. Even pornography is making its way in.

This is a radical change for a country so prudish that until recently women were not permitted to ride bicycles because it was thought too provocative. Seo Kyong Hui, the kindergarten teacher, said that when she left North Korea in 1998, “I was 26 years old, and I still didn’t know how a baby was conceived.”

Even today, women are prohibited from wearing short skirts or sleeveless shirts, and both sexes are forbidden to wear blue jeans. Infractions bring rebukes from the public standards police.

But it is a losing battle to maintain what used to be a hermetic seal around the country. Just a few years ago, ordinary North Koreans could make telephone calls only from post offices. Dialing abroad was virtually impossible. Now some people carry Chinese cellphones and pay for rides to the border to pick up a signal and call overseas.

Smugglers also bring in cheap Chinese radios. Unlike North Korean radios, which are preset to government channels, the Chinese models can be tuned to anything, even South Korean programs or the Korean-language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia.

In the past, being caught with such contraband would land a person in political prison. Nowadays, security personnel will more likely confiscate the illicit item for personal use.

When a policeman caught Ok Hui, the entrepreneur’s daughter, with a Chinese radio in 2001, the first question he asked was, “So how do you work this thing?”

She wrote down the frequencies for South Korean radio stations.

“Don’t you have earphones so you can listen without anybody hearing you?” the officer then demanded.

North Korea instructs its citizens that the country is a socialist paradise, but the government knows outside influences can puncture its carefully crafted illusions.

“Bourgeois anti-communist ideology is paralyzing the people’s sound mind-set,” warns a Workers’ Party document dated April 2005. “If we allow ourselves to be affected by these novel ideas, our absolute idolization for the marshal [Kim Il Sung] will disappear.”

Among those who make it to China, many describe a moment of epiphany when they find out just how bad off North Koreans are.

Kim Ji Eun, a doctor from Chongjin, remembers wading across the partially frozen Tumen River in March 1999, staggering to a Chinese farmhouse and seeing a dish of white rice and meat set out in a courtyard.

“I couldn’t figure it out at first. I thought maybe it was for refrigeration,” recalled Kim, who now lives in South Korea. “Then I realized that dogs in China live better than even party members in North Korea.”

Many Chongjin residents who are caught trying to flee the country end up back in the city, behind the barbed wire of Nongpo Detention Center.

It sits near the railroad tracks in a swampy waterfront area. Prisoners are assigned back-breaking jobs in the nearby rice paddies or brick factory, where the workday begins at 5 a.m.

Ok Hui was one of those who served time in Nongpo. A rebel by nature, she had become fed up with North Korea and a difficult marriage.

In September 2001, during one of several failed attempts to escape, she was arrested in Musan and brought back to Chongjin by train. Guards tied the female prisoners to one another by tightly winding shoelaces around their thumbs.

In Nongpo, the inmates bunked in rows of 10, squeezed so tightly together that they had to sleep on their sides. Newcomers sometimes had to bed down in the corridor near overflowing toilets. Meals consisted of a thin, salty soup, sometimes supplemented by a few kernels of raw corn or a chunk of uncooked potato.

“The walls were very high and surrounded by wire,” Ok Hui said. “One woman tried to climb the wall. They beat her almost to death. You can’t imagine. They made us stand and watch.”

One day, when she was assigned to work in the fields, she spotted an old woman. She took off her underwear and offered it to the woman in exchange for sending a message to her mother. Underwear is scarce in North Korea, so the woman accepted and agreed to send a telegram to Ok Hui’s mother.

With her market earnings, Kim Hui Suk bought 10 packs of cigarettes for a security official to arrange her daughter’s release.

Some days later, the prison administrator came to talk to Ok Hui and other female prisoners who were picking corn. They were all due to be freed shortly, and the administrator urged them to resist the temptations of capitalism and imperialism, and to devote themselves to North Korea.

Then, he asked for a show of hands: Who would promise not to run away again to China?

Not a single woman raised her arm.

“We were all just thinking that our whole lives we had been told lies,” Ok Hui recalled. “Our whole lives, in fact, were lies. We just felt this immense rage toward the system.”

The prison administrator looked at the women squatting sullenly in silence in the cornfield.

“Well,” he said, “if you go again to China, next time don’t get caught.”

Forty days after her release, Ok Hui escaped again to China and made her way to South Korea. She used $8,000 in resettlement money from South Korea’s government to pay a broker to smuggle her mother out of North Korea. Today Ok Hui works in a funeral home and her mother as a housekeeper.