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Defector's story

Sitting Still and Starving

Oh Kwang Jin  |  2012-05-24 15:21
There are reports emerging of starvation deaths occurring in North and South Pyongan Province during this years spring hardship period between March and early June. Yet people faced with this news tend to reject it, for it is rather hard to understand. With just cause, they question why North Koreans would be willing to just sit there and starve. But the answer is easy to find.

The process of starvation starts with hunger, which leads to malnutrition, loss of energy, extreme mental confusion and finally death. It takes about ten days on balance, although the fact is that North Koreans are not even particularly strong and so reviving them becomes hard after just four. Unhelpfully, if the individual has already fallen victim to malnutrition, even eating corn or porridge can result in dehydration and death brought on by diarrhea. In the mid 90s, many died this way.

Famine for the First Time: March of Tribulation

During that eras March of Tribulation, a particularly large number of people starved in the Ranam district of Chongjin. This was because the Ranam district, lying as it did around 20-ri away from the city, had no markets. People elsewhere in the city were selling whatever they had to get a meal; food insecurity was rampant, hunger was all-pervading, but the markets were active and death was avoided.

The unfortunate Ranam district had been renovated by the Kim Il Sung regime in the 80s so that workers from Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex who were then living in downtown Chongjin could be moved in. 15-floor apartments were built, which at that time were very modern, just like the ones in Pyongyang. They truly were something to envy.

But by the time food shortages had set in, even those high end apartments could be swapped for 30 loaves of bread. Their wood window frames were used for heating, and they rapidly turned into something awful. Meanwhile, more and more people were not eating for two and three days at a time, but the state did nothing.

The elderly, the first to lose their energy, died in their homes. The young died at the entrance to train stations having failed to obtain enough to survive by begging.

Famine Redux: the Currency Redenomination

In November, 2009 people lost all their money in the redenomination, and many more starved to death. Our state has turned all of us into kotjebbi (beggar children), people said. An elderly couple in their 60s who had thus far been making ends meet by repairing bicycles at the side of the road were just two of the victims.

The old man and his wife had earned 50 to 100 won per day repairing bicycles for a number of years. During the currency redenomination, however, with people permitted to exchange just 100,000 won per person, most of this money became worthless. The money that they could keep was just 2,000 won. That would have been alright if rice had stayed cheap, but within a week it was up to 200 won and barely stopped rising.

People could no longer pay to repair their bicycles, so the elderly couple had no source of income. Yet that didnt stop the state demanding support from them for the Peoples Army, gravel collection for roadbuilding and the construction of a historical site to commemorate Kim Jong Suk in the Chongam area of the city.

The elderly couple was reduced to one meal a day, and soon enough had no energy to leave their home. They spent a week lying under a blanket, and just a few days later died at almost exactly the same time. Their dead bodies were so thin that the skin was stuck to the bones.

It was no different for the four members of a family unable to overcome hunger in the Songpyeong area of the city. Only the ending changed, as they chose to commit suicide together.

The two parents in their forties and two teenage kids ended it by jumping off the bridge across Sucheong Stream. No money was left; a month after the authorities issued the new money, they had sold all their household items but only had enough for 2kg of rice.

Word is that the family ate one good meal with the money they had left and then committed suicide together. But as people all thought at that time, Thats not suicide; they were killed by the state.
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