Sources: DailyNK Book NK People Speak
In May this year, four members of the Daily NK staff went to the Sino-North Korean border to interview refugees about circumstances in the country: factory workers, traders, even Workers' Party members. Chris Green and his team on the English-language side of DailyNK have now translated ten of these interviews into a book. And they make a great read.
One theme that comes through repeatedly is the powerful role that control of information plays; repeatedly, respondents underline the eye-opening effects of crossing the border. But at the same time, respondents underline that people are smart and see things; even those who have not crossed the border understand the circumstances in which they are operating surprisingly well.
The interviews hit on a number of common themes, including the penetration of South Korean media and the adverse effects of the currency conversion. Here is a selection of tidbits that highlight points we have made in Witness to Transformation. As always, the usual caveats apply: these interviewees voted with their feet and some of what they report is rumor. But these common beliefs are interesting whether true or not and opinion is by no means homogenous. The book has the courage to include the views of one interesting respondent who continues to support the Kim-ist project, seeing its problems in part as a result not of the leadership but of cadres.
Some exchanges we found particularly interesting:
DailyNK: “The North Korean government has said the ‘Strong and Prosperous State’ is going to be ushered in during 2012…”
Hong Nam Hee, female trader: “… So how can it become one by 2012, all of a sudden and from absolutely nothing?”
Hong Nam Hee on the currency conversion: “At first it was good… You give 100,000 won and 1000 won comes back. As a family of 3, we were given 1500 [additional] won in compensation, which meant that we had 2500 won. At the time, the state lowered prices in the new currency, so the price of rice went down to 15 won….
Believing that the price would go down even more we waited, thinking that this could really be the dawn of a new life. However, the price shot up again and later recovered to 2000 won. And at that, the money we had just disappeared right before our very eyes.”
Im Song Tae, a man in mid-50s, talks about the distribution of rations, but also hints at how official cover is useful for trading:
“We are trading and my son is a Party cadre, so the whole family gets food distribution from the state. Distribution has never been cut off, although it has been delayed at times. We get distribution 10 months out of 12.”
Daily NK: “I am told that distribution is given to a very limited group…”
Im Song Tae: “‘We’ means the families of revolutionary patriots and the security forces. We come before the glorious soldiers. My wife, through the money she earned trading, funded our children’s studies. She had a stall to trade from.”
Im Song Tae on the Cheonan, the sinking of which the North Koreans continue to deny: “The outside say that it was us, but our Party doesn’t acknowledge it. The 1987 Korean Air terrorist attack (KAL-858) and the Rangoon bombing (of 1983) are just the same. All were done by Chosun. A poster came out; it was a poster showing a South Korean battle ship being sunk by the People’s Army. That was last September. That has to be seen as the Cheonan.”
Kim Eun Hye, mid-30s trader who lost assets in the currency conversion, on the food situation in the military: “Going into the military, there is something called the ‘sandball period’. It means a period of malnourishment. Everybody goes through it. It seems that poor quality food together with extensive physical labor causes malnutrition. Outside Pyongyang, no solders have access to white rice. They mix corn flour and husks and eat that. A few pieces of potato and a couple of bits of sweetcorn. Maybe that’s why they learn to steal in the military.”
Daily NK: “Why are there no protests in North Korea?”
Kim Eun Hye: “If anyone leads or participates in a riot, then three generations of the family will be exterminated.”
Im Bae Chun, male farmer, late-1950s, North Hwanghae Province, on food distribution to the cooperatives and the internal terms of trade: “The food we get given lasts a few months, so when it's time for rice threshing, people are forced to steal. In the past, the army would guard the fields but now farmers do it…During harvest season I stole about 220kg to eat. When we go to the jangmadang to buy pork, oil, red pepper powder and such like, we have to sell rice. This year the rice price was around 2000 won. From the perspective of the seller, that is good. That is how a farmer sees it.”
Park Yong Hwa, 74, Korean-Chinese working with refugees on the cross-border trade in methamphetamines (“bingdu”): “In 2003, the Chief of Police in Dandong got arrested and sentenced to death for smuggling drugs. Many other people involved in it got arrested and punished, too…”
Daily NK: “Have you ever been asked to sell it by anyone?”
Park Yong Hwa: “I was once asked to help establish a channel in China. There’s very high demand for drugs in China, but if you get caught with more than 100g, you will be shot. In 2007 a guy from Chosun smuggled drugs into Dandong. He smuggled 10 tons of drugs made in North Korea. He was caught sending them on to Congo.”
DailyNK: “How do the drugs get out of North Korea?”
Park Yong Hwa: “Military bases on the North Korean border are involved with cadres in drug smuggling.Without help from the military bases, drug smuggling is impossible. My brother-in-law is a Chinese policeman. He said to be careful of drugs. They say tons of drugs are smuggled by North Korean military units.”
Jeon Gi Taek, electrician in North Hamkyung Province, on problems at the factory level:
“Provincial factories in Chosun do get electricity part of the time, but there are not enough raw materials so very few are actually operating. And even if they say they’ll guarantee those things, the facilities often go down, making operations very difficult. Monthly electricity consumption for a given factory is also decided in advance. First it goes to military factories, and then the rest goes to normal factories. My factory is also not functioning at the moment. We go to work but there is nothing to do, so we work on farming instead.”
Oh Gil Tae, 33, border guard, on interrogations of border crossers.
DailyNK: “Is the offender beaten?”
Oh Gil Tae: “Beaten heavily. First, they are forced to kneel and they are hit in the face. From the off, female prisoners are usually very scared and their fear… you can see urine on their clothes. They are so scared. It’s from the beginning; their heads are stamped on to make them scared. During the investigation process, if a lie is so much as felt by the investigator, the prisoner is hit hard across the face. The 1958 automatic rifle does not break easily but the ’68 version does, the butt of the rifle snaps off completely. They are hit that hard.”
Oh on food rations to the military; his caught our eye because it refers to units in the border area: “Usually a platoon has 27 members, but this extends to 40 members in places of importance. A normal aluminum rice bowl holds one full scoop, which is 500g of uncooked rice. We, as a platoon, are given 3 or 4 of these at one time. When you consider that one platoon has 27 people, this leaves each member with less than 100g. Of course we are hungry.”
Cho Sook Hee, 40s, a factory work, provides some interesting contrasts with the standard refugee line, and increases the credibility of this nice volume. We close with some of her views.
DailyNK: “What do the people think of Kim Jong Il?”
Cho Sook Hee: “The common view of Kim Jong Il is good. It is said that our country’s current state is the fault of mid-level cadres. I agree with this, of course. Having never met General Kim Jong Il, I cannot say whether he is bad or not. I just think that some [party] workers are distorting things a lot, and so our lives are difficult.”
Cho Sook Hee on the comparison of Kim Senior and Junior: “Kim Il Sung is our loving father. At New Year’s celebrations he would hug each child in turn and ask them what their wish was, they would say they wanted him to do his all for the country. He would go to city, village and beach; if there was hard work to do or someone desired for something he would fix it there and then, but Kim Jong Il is not like that.”
Finally, on nuclear weapons:
DailyNK: “Do you know about nuclear weapons tests?”
Cho: “Yes, I am proud of that.”
DailyNK: But haven’t things gotten worse economically because of nuclear weapons?
Cho: “I think we must keep our nuclear weapons. I think I must protect my country…”