Beating Starvation Has Social Costs

[What NK People Think in 2011 ]
The Daily NK Research Team  |  2011-06-16 18:13
During the month of May, people The Daily NK spoke to in areas along the Chinese border all testified to one thing: survival is the only serious goal of the people of North Korea. They do not have the luxury of concerning themselves with politics or their future leader, Kim Jong Eun. Obtaining the food they need to survive consumes them.

It is now rare to find an ordinary North Korean who depends on state rations. A factory workers monthly wage is 2000~3000 won, little more than the price of 1.5kg of rice. Trading in the jangmadang guarantees a better income. People also engage in private farming and gather wild plants, those well placed may pan for gold, and for some the remittances sent by family members who have defected can help to keep the family going.

As such circumstances persist, of course the society grows more unstable, with high rates of suicide, depression and drug use, and problems looking after senior citizens and homeless children.

This past March, a WFP-led joint investigation team reported that North Korea will run out of food at some point between May and July. The groups report claimed that around 6 million citizens continue to receive and rely on rations from the government, and called for the international community to help.

However, according to interviews conducted by The Daily NK, only a very small number of North Korean citizens actually receive food rations from the government anyway. The Public Distribution System collapsed long ago, and even workers on cooperative farms receive insufficient supplies. One such worker remarked, for example, My family of four received only 150kg of distribution for a year of work on the farm.

Meanwhile, a total of 80% of interviewees testified to the statement, The government no longer provides rations and nobody expects or depends on them.

One defector couple currently residing in Hunchun, China said, The 40kg of grain my children received from their state-run nursery school is what the entire family is supposed to live on for the whole year.

Hong Nan Hee, a factory worker from Pyongyang agreed that the situation is appalling, saying, On special occasions like February 16th and April 15th we sometimes receive food, but normally none at all.

Those working for companies or factories that produce more generally also receive more rations, according to Li Young Sil, a loyal female Party member in her forties, though this is hard to verify.

In theory, border troops are top priority for rationing, but they, too, receive insufficient supplies. Li Young Hwan, a border guard said, Guards receive 700g of rice and corn and 200g of crackers and candies per day, but thats not nearly enough. Many look for other means of getting more.

Li was also notable for being the only interviewee to know he had received South Korean food aid, evidence of nothing so much as that South Korean food aid does little more than feed the Chosun Peoples Army.

Peoples Fight for Life Becoming Social Issue

Though their meals consist mostly of rice mixed with corn, which is considered undesirable compared with rice alone, people do eat at least two or three times a day now. Some say they occasionally eat portions of rice, though these are small. Though people agree that there are people going hungry, there are very few people dying of starvation.

Lim Sung Tae, a smuggler from Shinuiju reflected, People know that their situation is better than during the March of Tribulation. People who couldnt be flexible all died then. The people who survived were us. People who live in Chosun live on the tacit understanding that you do whatever you have to in order to live.

Lee Young Sil, the loyal Party member, when asked by one reporter why she had no complaints about the inadequate rations, answered, That is just a fact of life. You have to make enough to feed yourself and live.

However, commerce has become much harder since the 2009 currency reform. Park Young Min, who recently returned to China after a spell doing business in North Korea, explained, There were many people selling stuff on the streets. Even if it just a little, people gather what they have, be it pork or artificial meat, and go to sell it. However, there were almost no buyers. When the security forces appear, people pack and run away.

In agricultural regions, meanwhile, farming on individual plots of land is a key survival mechanism. Lee In Suk, one half of a married couple explained, There are no mountains in our area, so my husband built a small house near a mountain 30-ri away and we live off farming. There are many robbers.

She went on, If land is cultivated, then people from all around come there to start farming. That is because if we somehow manage to cultivate and work the land for a few years, it becomes ours. When official boundaries become obscure, we use our own signs to divide it.

One farm worker from a collective farm explained the way people survive there, saying, During May and June when there is no rice, people steal from the farm and then sell the vegetables. At night they catch fish then sell it in the market to buy rice to eat. Carp and catfish can be caught. When it rains, youre able to catch many fish in a day.

The chronic food shortages in North Korea have persisted for more than ten years now, so of course people have found other ways to provide for themselves, for example the jangmadang and other ways, Kwon Tae Jin of the Korea Rural Economic Institute explained. They may be hungry, but it is nothing like the March of Tribulation, and this is because people now have coping mechanisms.

Though they may be surviving, however, the North Korean peoples hardships have led to social problems. In order to obtain food, they are working hard and are forced to neglect the welfare of family members. Males must go to their official place of work even if it is non-operational, and are also mobilized frequently. Women are busy selling goods in the jangmadang. As a result, children and the elderly are left to their own devices, leading to deaths and separation.

The Struggle for Survival of North Koreans and Association to Societal Problems

The busy lives of North Koreans lead to a number of problems. Most North Koreans are so busy getting enough food to eat that they cannot concern themselves with domestic issues. The elderly or children are often neglected within the household. The destruction of households is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored.

North Koreans point to the elderly as a serious problem.

When people are busy, its difficult to manage their responsibilities. So every now and then an elderly person dies on the street. There are cases of them just sitting somewhere like the hallway of a building and dying there like that, Lee In Suk noted. They also sometimes die of starvation while wandering around in the jangmadang.

Lee Gil Ja, a Korean-Chinese in her 70s who supports North Korean defectors in China said, The elderly are the most unfortunate in North Korea. Their children have to work to feed themselves, so they have to find food for themselves. There are even situations where the children have such a hard time that they tell the elderly to leave.

My younger brother lives in Chosun, Lee continued. When he came to China, he told me that he had seen the hardships of life annihilate his family.

Jin Gi Taek, a paper mill repairman in North Hamkyung Province said, My father was a laborer in a glass factory, and lived on only what he was given for the work that he did. But after food distribution suddenly ended and there was no food any more, his wife and daughter committed suicide by eating rat poison.

Rising use of drugs is another well-documented social problem caused by the lack of food. Since medicine is difficult to obtain, many use illegal drugs to medicate themselves, becoming addicted in the process. The authorities are trying to crack down on it, but that is not easy.

One woman born near Nampo Steel Mill said, Children are mobilized by the government to build many power plants. In many cases, they smoke bingdu (methamphetamines), complain of feeling pain and ask to be sent home. In March, a special team to combat bingdu use was formed.
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