The operation to distribute emergency supplies in Hamgyong-bukto, North Korea was a success. Through one of our clandestine local networks, we were able to provide extremely needy people with a total of one ton of rice, as well as clothing and antibiotics. The value of all items supplied equaled 300,000 yen (about US$2,500). The extra supplies were financed by recent donations. Late November of last year, five members of LFNKR’s local group JYO entered Hoeryong-si, North Korea from China, carrying several boxes filled with winter clothing, antibiotics and penicillin.
To avoid indefinite delays at customs, bribes had to be paid to the North Korean customs personnel. Beyond the customs gate, many hungry day workers waited, hoping to earn money by carrying boxes. The JYO members had to keep a firm grip on their supplies so they wouldn’t be snatched away. The rescue team stayed in Hoeryong-si 10 days completing the mission.
They found that the people in the area are cut off from aid from abroad. Local prices are soaring, which adds to the people’s frustration. Although Hoeryong-si has open marketplaces, business hours are restricted. They may only stay open for the 9 hours from 8:00am to 5:00pm. Transactions earlier or later than the specified hours are strictly prohibited. One of the merchants who owns a small market stall (1m x 2m) complained that the restrictions are so severe, he hardly makes enough to survive.
In early September, the marketplace managers were repeatedly confronted by merchants protesting the strict business rules, including the tight business hours. During one protest, the national security guards in Hoeryong-si were called out to suppress the crowd of protesting merchants because one of the protesters had been trampled to death and several others were injured during the demonstration. But the severe restrictions on market activities continued, and that provoked another large demonstration in November. At this protest, 20 to 30 people were reportedly arrested.
The reason for the ongoing protests is simple. A majority of people in North Korea are still starving, and their only option is to engage in trade. Meanwhile, the authorities place unreasonably tight controls on merchandise and free trade at the marketplaces.
According to our local members, the authorities have been strictly limiting the number of people they allow to travel into China. Even with people bribing the authorities, only 2 or 3 out of every hundred applicants are issued permits.
Recently, Chinese people seeking to visit relatives are no longer allowed to enter North Korea unless they are properly registered and can prove they are related. Even tighter restrictions have been placed on North Koreans wishing to visit relatives living in China. In addition, no one is allowed to invite relatives from China without submitting beforehand a set of registration documents showing detailed descriptions of the relatives for identification. The documents are minutely scrutinized by all relevant agents, including the local foreign affairs office, the national security department, and the customs house. Incidentally, the fee for this process is 6,000 won.
Here are a few typical prices of food items in Hoeryong-si in December 2006 (unit: NK won):
Rice (1kg): 1300W
Corn (1kg): 550
Sugar (1kg): 1800
Wheat flour (1kg) 750
Pork (1kg): 3300
Our JYO rescue team handed out winter clothing to people who could not afford to buy warm garments, and also distributed antibiotics to those needing them. The shortage of medicines in the market places is obvious. A single package of antibiotics was selling for at least 12,000 to 16,000 won, while in China it is sold for less than half that, or 15RMB (about 6,000 won).
After the JYO team’s return from North Korea, they received news that the marketplace closing time had finally been extended to 7:00pm as a result of the two large protest demonstrations. The authorities were forced to accept the fact that the merchants can barely survive unless they work extra hours, even if they have to use kerosene lamps to continue business after dark.