Archive for the ‘1990s Famine’ Category

What Are N. Koreans Up to?

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Korea Times
Marcus Noland, Stephan Haggard

Last summer North Korea conducted provocative missile and nuclear tests. Yet only four months later, Pyongyang signed on to a roadmap that included a return of international inspectors, a full declaration of contested nuclear activities, closing down existing facilities and ultimately disabling them.

American negotiator Christopher Hill predicted this last step could take place as early as the end of the year.

What are the North Koreans up to?

The cynical, some would say realistic, view in the United States _ advanced by departed Bush administration hawks such as John Bolton _ is that Kim Jong-il is raising false hopes.

The appearance of cooperation has several tactical advantages. Sanctions and ongoing uncertainty have had substantial economic costs. The February agreement was preceded by secret meetings in Berlin to resolve the Banco Delta Asia issue.

In return, the North Koreans closed their nuclear facilities, but they have not firmly committed to the difficult aspects of the agreement _ providing a full accounting of their programs, disabling their programs, and giving up actual stores of fissile material and weapons.

Cooperation also drives wedges between the U.S., South Korea and China. If North Korea appears to be making concessions, it is easier for South Korea and China to continue diplomatic and financial support.

Next month, President Roh Moo-hyun will travel to Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-il. Expect him to come bearing gifts to cement his legacy as a peacemaker.

Other politicians in the presidential race have also offered extraordinarily ambitious and generous programs of support for the North as well.

Recent studies we have done on North Korea’s changing external economic relations are consistent with some of this cynical picture, but also suggest a sliver of hope for more substantial change.

To understand why, requires a brief tour of the miserable history of North Korea over the last two decades. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Korean economy went into a steep decline ending in full-blown famine.

By our estimates, as many as one million people _ five percent of the entire population _ perished in the mid-1990s. Out of the human ashes of this tragedy, however, the North Korean economy began to undergo a profound transformation.

As households and work units scrambled for food, they engaged in barter, trade and new economic activities.

The desperation of the famine also saw an upturn in illicit activities, from missile sales to drugs and the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. But trade and investment also started to flow across the Chinese border.

Chinese companies, small-scale traders and North Korean firms pursued business opportunities, from large-scale mining operations to the import of South Korean videos.

The regime was always hesitant about the emergence of the market. In July 2002, the government initiated economic policy changes that decriminalized some private activities. But reforms have taken a zig-zag path, always subject to reversal.

Sanctions and closer scrutiny have limited the country’s arms sales and illicit activities.
With these sources of revenue increasingly foreclosed, North Korea has two alternatives _ open the economy and increase normal commercial activities or cooperate primarily to obtain aid. In terms of internal change, these two options may actually push North Korea in opposite directions.

Consider the aid tack. Given the regime’s concerns about internal stability, aid could provide a lifeline, allowing the regime to sustain a modicum of current consumption while forgoing deeper reforms. Under this option, North Korea trades away its nuclear program for assistance precisely to maintain the political and economic status quo.

Alternatively, North Korea could use the resolution of diplomatic tensions to deepen the economic reform process.

The military has been engaged in commercial activities and could potentially benefit from such a course. But real reform will reshuffle power and influence within North Korea in ways that are unpredictable and risky.

So what can we expect from Pyongyang? The nuclear program is the regime’s one major asset and we should not expect them to bargain it away easily.

Rather we should expect prolonged and difficult negotiations as they try to extract tribute for their “Dear Leader.”

In the end, we may eliminate North Korea’s capacity for making additional nuclear weapons, but this will not necessarily be accompanied by economic or political reforms.

An important lesson learned elsewhere in the developing world is that aid is not a substitute for reform.

Ambitious schemes for infrastructure and other investment in North Korea will only generate large economic pay-offs if they are accompanied by genuine opening and a more aggressive embrace of the market.

The key issue, therefore, is how tightly South Korea will link its offer of aid to progress in the resolution of the nuclear issue. Properly conditioned, South Korean aid could be a powerful carrot in the nuclear negotiations, whether it ultimately encourages internal reforms or not.

But if the South Korean offers at the summit are large, unconditional and open-ended, they could permit the regime in Pyongyang to stall the nuclear negotiations while actually discouraging deeper reform.


Class Divergence on the Rise as Market Economics Spred in DPRK

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Institute for Far East Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 07-9-21-1

The recent growth in the private-sector economy in DPRK markets and other areas of society has brought with it some significant social changes worth noting. According to most defectors from the North, following the massive famine suffered in the mid 1990s, the biggest change to emerge in the DPRK was the reshuffling of the social class structure. In North Korean society, there are reportedly five identifiable social classes.

The first of these classes is the ruling class, made up of those elite surrounding Kim Jong Il. This class survives off of Kim Jong Il’s government funds, aid sent from South Korea, and from exploitation of the general public.

The second class is made up of business traders with access to foreign capital. A portion of money earned through foreign currency exchange businesses is turned over to the Kim Jong Il regime, while the rest can amassed in order to lead a relatively comfortable life.

The third class is made up of organized thugs who make their money through public trading and markets. These people control regional markets and local trading by using money and violence to employ extortion tactics much like the Russian mafia

The fourth class scrapes by on government rations. This mercantile class comprises an estimated 20~30 percent of the North’s overall population.

The fifth distinct class in North Korea is made up of commoners who support their way of life through farming private plots and selling goods in markets. An overwhelming majority of the population falls into this class; more than 60 percent of the people in North Korea live hand-to-mouth each day on the fruits of their own labor.

The remainder of the population falls beneath even these classes, because they either lack labor skills or are feeble elderly, handicapped, hospitalized, homeless, or wandering from city to city.


Great Review of ‘Famine in North Korea’

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

noland-haggard.jpgFor several months I have been meaning to post a review of Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland’s book, Famine in North Korea, but for thousands of reasons it was always pushed back.

Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland wrote the definitive book on the DPRK’s Arduous March, and it is required reading for any serious North Korea watcher.

Now…Joshua at One Free Korea has written the definitive review of the book, so I will just put links to his posts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.


Price of Rice and Inflation

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Sometimes even Stalinist propaganda tells the truth. When the North Korean newspapers occasionally told grossly exaggerated horror stories about South Korean inflation, they stressed that nothing like that could possibly happen in North Korea. This was the case indeed. For nearly half a century, from the late 1950s to the late 1980s retail prices in North Korea remained essentially unchanged. One kilogram of rice cost 0.08 won in 1960. It was still the same price in 1990.

This was possible because almost nothing was actually “sold’’ in North Korea. Communist states often rationed goods distributed through retail trade, but in most cases it was only a handful of most prestigious goods that were subjected to rationing _ like, say, cars. North Korea went much further: by the early 1970s, retail trade in the North ceased to exist, being completely replaced by an elaborate public distribution system. Rations depended on a type of work performed, but also on one’s position within a complicated hierarchy of social groups, as well as one’s place of residence (inhabitants of major cities, and Pyongyang in particular, enjoyed much better rations than those in the countryside).

There were some markets, of course, barely tolerated by the government. But until the late 1980s markets were small, with their trade volume being almost negligible. It seems that most people were reasonably satisfied with what they could get from the state distribution system _ of course, it helped that they knew next to nothing about the situation in other countries, so they could not compare.

The situation began to change around 1990 when the old distribution system collapsed under the pressure of an economic crisis. From 1993-94 there were increasing problems with rations, and from around 1996 rations pretty much stopped altogether. Some food was still distributed in major urban centers, but even there the distributed amount was so meager that nobody could survive on rations alone. A large-scale famine ensued, with at least half to one million dead (the oft-cited figure of three million victims seems to be an exaggeration).

People turned to trade and handicrafts, and with this arrival of a market economy inflation became a North Korean phenomenon as well. Even in the 1980s market prices exceeded the official prices in the state shops. By the mid-1990s, the difference was much greater. In theory, rice still cost 0.08 a kilo, but by 2000 its price on the market reached 45-50 won. Official wages remained unchanged, however, so around 2001 the average salary was approximately 20 times less than the income necessary for physical survival. People had no choice but to augment their income.

The government understood that there was no way to restore the old system: a decade of economic crisis had undermined the basic machinery of distribution and obviously the system was beyond repair. Thus, in 2002 the much trumpeted “July 1 Reforms” were introduced.

It’s difficult to describe these measures as “reforms”–the government simply gave official recognition to the situation which had existed for quite a few years.

The distribution system (long defunct) was curtailed. There was a dramatic increase in the retail prices of basic goods and services _ obviously in an attempt to approximate the prices of the market. Thus, that one-kilo of rice which cost 0.08 won since July cost 44 won.

Wages increased as well. Obviously, the wage increase was not even, and some groups have gained _ or lost _ more than others. It was estimated that the average increase in wages has been approximately 2500 percent (that is, 25 times). At the same time, prices have increased 3000-4000 percent (that is, 30-40 times). This necessitated the issue of 1000 won bills _ the largest denomination in North Korean financial history since the 1959 currency reform. Later, 5000 won bills were issued as well.

But the measures had another effect. The increase in salaries meant that the market was instantly flooded with cash. Needless to say, the only outcome could be inflation. Some people speculated that this was the intention of the Pyongyang leaders who hoped to kick-start the economy in such a way. Perhaps. But I would not be surprised if in 15 or 20 years down the track we learn from interviews and talks with the planners of this reform that they did not really expect inflation. Pyongyang economic managers have not had much exposure to market theory, and are sometimes very naive in their understanding of these questions.

Indeed, by October 2002 the market price of rice had increased to 120 won per kilo. In 2003, the price doubled to 250-300 won, and now it is about 1000 won. Inflation has become a part of North Korean life.

What will happen next? Will the North Korean leaders manage to stabilize the situation, or will a new wave of economic crisis wipe out the entire North Korean system? We do not know yet. But it is clear that there is no return to old days when a kilo of rice could be had for 0.08 won _ that is, if you were lucky enough to live in an area where they distributed grain rations in rice, not in maize.


Famine: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

aid.jpgNowadays, the severity of famine appears to be a thing of the past _ at least outside Africa. Indeed, modern technology makes it possible to feed crowded cities almost effortlessly. Thus, any reports of famine nowadays can be argued to be the direct result of mismanagement and deliberate political decisions. The recent North Korean famine of 1996-2000 vividly demonstrates this and supports such a theory.

Stalinist agriculture has never been very efficient. The lack of incentive makes it sluggish and wasteful. However, in some cases, the heavy investments in machinery and fertilizers did, in fact, help to overcome some of the deficiencies created by the inept social system.

This was the case in North Korea. In the late 1950s all North Korean farmers were herded into the so-called “agricultural co-operatives.’’ While less restrictive than the “people’s communes’’ in Mao’s China, they imposed a harsher control than Stalin’s “kolkhozs.’’

The North Korean government invested heavily in agriculture. Its efforts produced a remarkably energy-intensive agricultural system. Electric pumps were running huge irrigation projects; chemical fertilizers and tractors were used on a grand scale. In attempts to reclaim arable land, steep hills were made into terrace fields. These fields, endorsed by Kim Il-sung himself, remained the poster image of North Korean agriculture until the mid-1990s.

Initially these efforts seemingly paid off. In the 1980s North Korea produced some 5-6 million tons of grain (largely, rice and maize) a year. Its population never enjoyed anything like the present-day South Korean abundance: meat or fruits were rare delicacies. Nonetheless, the 6 million tons of grain was sufficient to feed the country’s population. This was done through the rationing system. Depending on one’s position in the complicated hierarchy of social groups, daily rations varied from 500 to 900 grams per adult _ sufficient to provide enough calories.

But in 1991 the situation changed. The much trumpeted “self-reliance’’ of North Korea proved to be a complete fake. The Soviet decision to discontinue sales of oil and other goods at hugely discounted prices wrought havoc in the country’s economy. The agricultural sector was especially vulnerable, since without the heavy input of energy and resources it stood no chance of survival. Tractors required diesel oil, which was not forthcoming, and electric pumps could not operate when power stations were idle due to a shortage of spare parts.

In 1992-1993 the North Korean media began to argue the benefits of having only two meals a day as opposed to the traditional three, claiming the latter was unhealthy and excessive. By 1994, people in some remote areas could not get food for days at a time. They were issued the usual rationing coupons, but no foodstuffs were available in the shops. Rations were also cut. These were signs of things to come.

However, the North Korean government did not follow the example of China or Vietnam, where the return to private agriculture led to an instant revival in food production. In the early 1990s the Pyongyang leaders saw how the reformist Communist governments of East Europe had been wiped out, and they considered any reform potentially dangerous to their own survival. Thus, no reform was undertaken, and in the years 1992-1995 agricultural production continued its free fall.

And then the real catastrophe came. In July and August 1995 unusually heavy rains led to disastrous floods. The North Korean authorities blamed the floods for all subsequent developments. In the aftermath of the disaster, they even decided to break with the decades-old tradition of covering or playing down all the problems of their country. Pyongyang stated that some 5.4 million people had been displaced by the 1995 floods (the subsequent U.N. survey indicated that the actual figure was much smaller _ probably, by an order of ten). Politically, this was understandable: if the country was hit by a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions, the authorities were not to be held responsible!

There is, however, good reason to doubt these statements. After all, the Korean Peninsular is small, but impact of the very same floods on the South was negligible. However, the contribution of the flood to the disaster is undeniable. The already strained power grid was destroyed, and entire irrigation systems were wiped out. Most of the terrace fields, the pride of the “juche agriculture,’’ were simply washed away.

In 1996, the country harvested some 3 million tons of grain _ just above half the pre-crisis level. This meant famine. It was to last for four years and take between half million and one million lives.


NKorea food crisis complicated by politics: WFP

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

Philippe Agret

After being ravaged by famine in the 1990s, North Korea again faces serious food shortages, with a UN official based here saying that politics are making things worse.

On the road from the capital Pyongyang to Kaesong in the south, every hill lot is developed for agriculture, with all farm work done by hand.

But only 17 percent of the land in North Korea is arable, one of the lowest ratios in the world, according to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP).

“North Korea is suffering a chronic food shortage due to structural problems and limited food imports and food aid,” said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP’s representative in the communist state.

He lamented the international community’s lack of commitment to North Korea amid the deadlock in six-nation talks on disarming Pyongyang, and what some consider to be “hidden sanctions” linking a large part of aid to politics.

“There is no evidence that holding back food or humanitarian aid destined to civilian populations would have an impact on the government or its behaviour,” he said.

North Korea’s worst period came from 1995 to 1999 when drought, flooding and the disappearance of Soviet aid led to a famine that killed between 800,000 and two million people, according to independent estimates.

The scars of the famine still run deep, with a 2004 United Nations study finding that 37 percent of North Korean children suffered chronic malnutrition.

Some experts use the term “7, 8, 9, 10” — as an adult, a seven-year-old born during the famine will be eight kilograms (18 pounds) lighter, stand nine inches (23 centimeters) shorter and live 10 years less than a South Korean of the same age.

The groups most at risk are young children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

After a record harvest in 2005, 2006 was “very difficult” due to heavy floods in the summer and a dramatic drop in food aid and food imports; 2007 could also be dire, de Margerie warned.

Amid the international furore over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests last year, China reduced its aid by half and        South Korea temporarily halted shipments.

Seoul has since resumed fertiliser aid and promised to provide 400,000 tons of rice to North Korea starting in late May.

But the food aid is linked to political conditions, such as Pyongyang shutting its nuclear reactor in line with a multilateral disarmament deal reached in February.

The impoverished country faces a shortfall of one million tons of food this year, or 20 percent of its needs, according to the WFP and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Up to one third of North Korea’s 23 million people may need assistance ahead of the next harvest, warns the WFP.

So is there a danger of another famine?

“No, not yet,” said de Margerie. “But if the trend continues, pockets of severe malnutrition could develop.”

In Pyongyang, not everyone is pessimistic as there is a lack of reliable agricultural data. Some observers say the problems lie in the distribution system and access to food, rather than in actual production.

North Korea’s leaders — whose ruling motto is “juche,” or self-reliance — say they have made food security their priority, but Pyongyang has nonetheless relied on foreign help.

The WFP has collected two billion dollars in 10 years, supplying four million tons of food between 1995 and 2005 that assisted one-third of North Korea in its biggest operation at the time.

Since 2001, multilateral aid from the WFP has been gradually replaced by assistance from China and South Korea. While bilateral aid goes to the government and may be distributed to the elite, the WFP says it closely monitors its aid so that it reaches those most in need.

This year, donor countries have promised only 12,000 tons of food.

The WFP has received only 20 percent of the financing for its programme up to March 2008, assisting three percent of the population, or 600,000 people, instead of the initial objective of reaching nearly two million North Koreans.

De Margerie says he hopes the international community will set aside political concerns to focus on the human tragedy unfolding in North Korea.

“You only see negative images of North Korea. But it has a human face,” he stressed.

“An eight-month-old child or pregnant woman does not engage in politics. It’s the most vulnerable in the civilian population who pay the price.”


Kim Jong Il Gets the Gifts, and All North Korea Ends Up Paying

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Bradley Martin

For decades, tourists visiting North Korea have been brought to a 200-room, 70,000-square-meter palace completed in 1978 that displays presents to Kim Il Sung, the “Great Leader,” who died in 1994.

Starting with Joseph Stalin’s 1945 gift of a bulletproof railway carriage, the items include a stuffed bird from American evangelist Billy Graham and a piece of the Berlin Wall donated by a German writer.

These days most visiting foreign dignitaries bring gifts for Kim’s eldest son and successor, Kim Jong Il, 65. The junior Kim’s loot is housed in a 20,000-square-meter (215,278-square- foot) annex that was completed in 1996 — a time when a famine was starving tens of thousands of North Koreans.

Why would the country have spent vast sums on four-ton bronze doors and polished marble floors? “Our people couldn’t display all these precious gifts in a poor palace,” says tour guide Hong Myong Gun. “So we built this palace with our best.”

The gifts in the windowless “International Friendship Exhibition” at Mt. Myohyang, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Pyongyang, range from the trivial to the grandiose.

Cable News Network founder Ted Turner donated paperweights with the CNN logo. A tribal chief in Nigeria offered a throne featuring carved lions, with matching crown and walking stick. Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu brought the stuffed head of a bear he had hunted and killed.

Giving and Receiving

In Asia, the protocol of gift-giving has been well established since Chinese emperors began expecting visitors to bear tribute. The Chinese know how to give as well as to receive: Pride of place in the exhibit goes to one of their presents, a life-sized wax figure of Kim Il Sung standing on a three-dimensional representation of a lake shore.

Reverent music, calculated to induce bowing, plays in the background of the posthumous gift, the final exhibit viewed by visitors to the hall.

The elder Kim’s title of President for Eternity makes him the world’s only dead head of state, and Hong says he continues to receive gifts. As of last year, his presents numbered 221,411.

“No other president could draw so many presents, so our people live in pride,” she says. “Except for this place, where can you see such a sight?”

The annex for Kim Jong Il, whose titles include secretary general of the Workers’ Party and chairman of the Military Commission, houses 55,423 additional presents, Hong says. As with his father’s gifts, most of them were never used but were immediately donated to the exhibition.

A Dynasty Sedan

Some highlights in the annex: a 1998 luxury sedan from the founder of South Korea’s Hyundai group — the model named, appropriately enough, Dynasty — and two roomfuls of carved, gilded furniture from South Korea’s Ace Bed Co.

From time to time, groups of uniformed soldiers troop past to see the gifts. A high percentage of them are five feet tall or shorter. In the 1990s, North Korea reduced the minimum height for military service to 148 centimeters (4 foot 9 inches) from 150 centimeters and the minimum weight to 43 kilograms (95 pounds) from 48 kilograms, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

A 2004 World Food Program nutritional survey found that 37 percent of North Korean children suffered chronic malnutrition. The state “bears central responsibility” for the shrinking of North Koreans, says Marcus Noland of Washington’s Peterson Institute for International Economics, co-author of a new book about the famine.

Freeing Up Foreign Exchange

“As aid began arriving, the North Koreans cut commercial food imports, freeing up foreign exchange,” Noland said in an e-mail exchange.

The saved money was used to purchase surplus military aircraft from Kazakhstan and to build monuments “to the recently departed Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son,” Noland says. If the regime had maintained the rate of commercial food imports during the 1990s, using aid as a supplement instead of a substitute, he says, “the famine could have been avoided.”

Noland estimates the death toll at 600,000 to 1 million; others have said as many as 4 million people may have died.

Tour guide Hong, 27, places the blame elsewhere. “From 1993 to 2000 our people suffered from countless natural disasters and also from other pressure in the economic field owing to the U.S. aggressors,” she says, referring to sanctions. Even during such hardships, she says, constructing the annex with the best materials was “the greatest desire of our people.”

As she speaks, there is a brief power blackout, a frequent occurrence in the energy-short country. When the lights come back on, Hong continues.

“Our people are very grateful because the Great Leader Kim Jong Il sent all the gifts here for the people to look at freely,” she says. “It was our duty to preserve them and show them to the new generation.”


How Can I Desert Our Leader & Our Motherland?

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

Daily NK
Choi Myung Chul

I defected at a young age and arrived in South Korea in 2004, where I was admitted into third of year of middle school. In North Korea, I had been attending school and was in second year high school.

At first, I found it difficult assimilating into a South Korean school. Social interests were different and the fact that 9 out of 10 South Korean children enjoyed going to an internet café and playing games was intriguing on its own. Though I find computer games challenging and fun today, back then it was hard enough trying to figure out a computer, let along mastering a game.

There are no opportunities to see computers in North Korea. That’s because no one owns a computer. Comparatively, North Korea is like South Korea in the 1970’s. I played outside with top spins, paper-flipping, slides and soccer. I also caught fish as our family lived in Hoiryeong nearby the Tumen River, though catching fish was not only a game but our means of survival.

At that time, the greatest obstacle to our play was hunger. When you run around and play, you need food to regain your energy. There were even times we had no strength to sit up and play. Rather we lay, slumped. During those times, we sat around day-dreaming. We would play truth or dare and pretend to smoke with cigarette butts we had secretly collected and talked nonsense while lamenting over our lives.

Satisfying hunger through the generosity of an affluent friend

We often had fights with kids from other schools. There was one incident where a child even got his head seriously hurt, but back then your friends were all you had. Even as we lay lifeless, I felt secure because of my friends.

Though I was starving, I even got to watch TV, that is during the short times our village was supplied energy. Though the majority of us were poor, one of my friends had a TV in his home, as his mother had done well at the markets. Even though only one station was broadcasting, the North Korea program, it was still very fun. I remember seeing one movie, “Order 027” which was about the People’s Army invading the Blue House (South Korea’s presidential building). The action wasn’t too bad, even interesting to a point.

Once in a blue moon, a friend would come into some money and then we would go to the markets to buy snacks. We bought bread made of corn powder and tofu rice. Even though the serving was small, my friend always shared his food with me.

Actually, all our friends did this. It was a time where we were all starving, yet we were willing to share our food, even half a corn cob.

Then one day, my mother left and I starving of hunger, left for China. On my way to Dalian in search for relatives, I was caught and forcefully repatriated back to North Korea. So I went looking for my best friend Hakjoo. Hakjoo and I had grown up together and had experienced so many things including severe hunger.

Offer to escape but offer denied

I informed Hakjoo of my plans and tried to persuade him to come. He replied, “Nevertheless, my homeland is here. If I died, I am going to die here. I cannot go with you.” We got into a huge argument and he said I had been brainwashed by capitalism.

Ever since we were little, we studied that Chosun (North Korea) was a socialist paradise and learned of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song’s revolutionary history. Even at that time, many of us were ignorant of the outside world. My friend’s loyalty to the great leader stood firm and he denied leaving our motherland.

By the time I had seen and heard of China, my devotion to Kim Jong Il had disappeared. I tried to convince Hakjoo that China was rich in food and much more abundant than North Korea but, failed to persuade him. I remember him saying, “Still. How can I desert our leader and our motherland?”

Hakjoo did not agree with my dreams but he still wished me health and safety. He also promised me that he would not report me to the authorities and said, “Don’t worry. But you must go in safety. Do not get caught and be safe.”

North Korea is a society where each person regulates one another. It is a society where trust is nonexistent. However, I trusted that friend and because I believed that he would not report me, I was able to safely defect the country.

As I left, I said to me friend, “I will return without fail… I’ll see you then.”

That was ’98. I found my way to my relatives home in Dlian, worked as a farmer in China for 3 years and then at a restaurant for 3 years.

At first, I planned to live in China. I had no intention of coming to Korea as I felt it would then be harder for me to return to North Korea. However, I could not continue to live hidden as an illegal immigrant and in the end, I followed the footsteps of another friend in 2004.

Whenever I face a hard time I think, ‘If I came with Hakjoo, it wouldn’t have been so hard,’ If we had defected together, the hardships in China and the loneliness would not have been so bad.

No matter how difficult the task, that friend always pulled through. However, he is not here now and so all the decisions have to be made by me. It’s tough because there is not one person I can fully trust and be dependent on.

But I am going to live well. Every day, I have just enough to scrape by and though it’s not easy, I am attending university. When I return to North Korea one day, there are many things for me to do. My dream is to construct a company there and rebuild a North Korea that has fallen to devastation.

And above all, I study because I made a promise to my friend. When I return to my hometown, my aim is to meet my friend standing tall and proud.


19 Dollars a Month Means Three Corn Meals a Day

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Daily NK
Han Young Jin

“100,000 won (approx. US$32.2) doesn’t cut it.” This is a sigh-ridden comment of a North Korean citizen, who states that even if he has 100,000 won, it is not much to spend.

The recent currency depreciation of the North Korean won has been exacerbating the North Korean citizens’ burdens of their costs of living.

Such a situation has been ongoing since the July 1st Economic Measure in 2002, but with the concentration of money in the privileged class, the grim realities of life of vulnerable persons have been becoming more difficult.

Hoiryeong citizen Park Hyun Sik (pseudonym), in a phone conversation with Daily NK on the 30th, stated that “a decent Chinese jumper costs 30,000 ~50,000 (approx. US$ 9.7~16) won for one, 3,000 won for 1kg of meat, and 2,700 won per a bottle of oil. After eagerly awaiting a month, I go to the market with 100,000 won (approx. US$ 32.2), but end up with nothing even though I did not buy much.”

Mr. Park, who conducts the wholesale business of relaying goods received from overseas Chinese emigrants to the provinces, receives a monthly income of 300,000 won. This puts him in a good class in North Korea. Mr. Park’s family, which consists of his wife and son, plans to secure food with this money.

Evidently, a family of four needs 50kg (50,000 won) of rice, which costs 1,000 won per kg, and 20 kg (7,000 won) of corn, which costs 350 won per kg, to survive. Additionally, the cost of buying a bottle of bean oil at 2,700 won as well as pepper powder, vinegar, garlic, onions and other vegetables is almost equal in value to the cost of buying rice.

On top of this, the family says they eat pork meat about once a month, which costs 3,000 won per kg. The rest of the money goes to the three family members’ clothing and cigarettes and drinks for Mr. Park, all of which cost about 300,000 won. Even then, Mr. Park tends to be on the well-fed side.

Working Citizens Cannot Eat Meat Even Once A Month

Kim Jung Ok (Alias), who sustains her living through a noodle business in the Hyeryung South Gate jang (market), has a monthly living expense of approximately 60,000 won. Ms. Kim is a housewife, who has taken on the responsibility of her three-member family.

Even if she sells noodles all day, she only makes 2,000~3,000 won. She merely earns around 60,000 won per month, all of which goes to food. Making a profit from her business is a mere dream, she expresses. She cannot even think about rice; after buying 70 kg of corn (23,000 won), bean oil, beans (950 won per kg) and other vegetables, she has nothing left.

The monthly income of her husband, who works at a machine shop in Hoiryeong, is 4,000 won. That is enough to buy 4kg of rice. Fearing starvation if she solely depended on her husband, she opened her noodle shop 10 years ago. “Even if we are both working like this, it is barely enough for corn meals. It is difficult to buy a kg of meat in a month. It has been a long time since I fed meat to my child,” she confessed.

Currently, with the exception of storekeepers who trade with Chinese emigrants, foreign currency traders, and those who have relatives in China, a majority of residents in Hoiryeong live daily as Mr. Park.

Recently, the Ministry of People’s Safety Agency issued the order that “Rations will be distributed in April. So, stop engaging in illegal trade.” Due to this decree, the control of the jangmadang (market) has been tightened. Discontent among residents who sell Chinese industrial products has climaxed, “How can we live if they feign ignorance while not providing the rations?”

The regulation of jangmadang (market) by ministry officials has only raised the price of Chinese industrial products. Before that, there would be joint bargains, but now, purchasers are visiting the merchants and so the costs of products are going up.

On one hand, the influence of the dollar’s recent bearish turn in the international market is fully reflected in the North Korean black market. The exchange rate of 800 won to a dollar between the Chinese Yuan and the dollar remains unchanging, but the North Korean currency following suit to the dollar and the Yuan changes day to day. Ultimately, North Korea is not “a region with a fixed exchange rate” due to the fact that exchange merchants occasionally apply the exchange information received from China.

Due to the dollar’s slump, the ratio of the North Korean won to the dollar and to the Yuan has been on the decline for several months. Mr. Park said, “In January, the North Korean currency went up to 42,000 won per 100 won RMB, but has drastically gone down to 36,500 won per 100 won.”


North Korea’s Middle Class…“Money is Power”

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

Daily NK
Kim Min Se

In socialism, the laborer and the peasant dominate the nation and society. However, since the late `60’s, the role of the laborer and peasant has decreased with the bureaucracy taking power, to the extent that a country can no longer remain in traditional socialism.

Currently, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il with a minority of the central class surround this core power. In North Korea, the laborers and peasants are rather subject to extortion.

Amidst a North Korean market economy, a middle class is being established. The middle class comprises of people who have assets that the average citizen cannot afford and own medium-sized businesses or engage in wholesale trade.

Undoubtedly, this group of people are dominating the middle class as well as playing a vital role in the lifeline of North Korean citizens and market, a fact that could not have been fathomable in North Korea’s past.

Until the 80’s, North Korea’s economy was a planned economy. Supply and demand of goods was distributed according to the national plan. However, in the late-80’s, small holes began to emerge in the socialist planned economic system and with a lack of daily necessities, people began to rely on the black market.

Arising from the major cities, goods were secretively traded in the black market and eventually the majority of North Koreans acquired their needed goods through this system. This system operated evading the control and regulation of North Korean authorities, but when caught, a person was condemned to severe punishment and the goods confiscated.

However, the mass food crisis of the mid-90’s completely collapsed the remnants of a socialist planned economy that had subsided unto the time. What had happened was the end of the national food distribution system.

In particular, the collapse of the food distribution meant the death sentence. Tens and hundreds of thousands of North Koreans began to die of starvation and as a means to live, people became active in the market and trade began to emerge in different regions of North Korea.

Mass starvation which created expert tradesmen

The immobilization of a socialist planned economy activated Jangmadang (North Korea’s integrated markets) which then led to the formation of a new class within North Korea’s own expert tradesmen. North Korean authorities who had no other countermeasures had little choice but to comply as the lives of the citizens were now left to the hands of trade.

In the mid-90’s, North Korean authorities approved personal trade to occur between North Korea and China and then permitted markets to exist along the border districts. Simply put, the mass food crisis created a new class which actually gave North Koreans an opportunity to trade.

At first, people would sell goods that they already had such as household appliances, television, recorder and bicycle. Furthermore, any type of stock accessible, particularly clothing, candy and other foods coming from China such as rice, flour and corn were also traded.

As people gained more experience and came to know the basics of marketing, tradesmen became more specialized. People who sold rice, only sold rice, whereas people who traded fabric only sold fabric.

North Koreans began to realize that specializing in a particular field was the way to make money and the people who were unable to assimilate to this culture broke away penniless.

Accordingly, the market gradually became a center for specialized tradesmen to provide goods and daily necessities. The goods sold by these tradesmen eventually became the mark for the middle class merchant. During this time, stabilized distributors began to dominate the market and more individualized entrepreneurs surfaced.

People skilled at cooking, baked decorative and delicious bread in their homes and then sell them at the markets. In addition, candy distributors have made a mark at the markets with candy making having become an advanced skill. People who once made candy in their homes now brag that they have been able to produce a small-scale sugar factory. In particular, clothes making and candy making has become enterprises leading to great money.

Today, 50% of candy, home-made clothing and 30% of uniforms, sold at North Korean markets are products made from home. Through goods such as these, Chinese merchants, tradesmen and the middle class are earning money through North Korea’s markets supplying the customers, the majority of the lower class.