Out in the cold
“If we could go to Yanji, why would we stay? We might as well go to Seoul. Tension is very high here,” a resident of Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province, North Korea, told me when I managed to contact him a few days ago.
The international call was made possible by dodging the guards’ control on the border between North Korea and China. We couldn’t talk for more than three minutes. If the conversation lasted longer, North Korean security authorities would have tracked down the caller’s location. Covert contact was made using a Chinese cell phone smuggled into North Korea, and the caller made calls by moving to different locations.
“It’s minus 30 degrees Celsius,” he said. “This is an arduous march.”
The lives of average North Koreans are brutal in the winters. They struggle to get food and necessities amid a collapsed ration-distribution network. The average monthly salary for a North Korean worker is 3,000 North Korean won ($3.33). But a kilogram of rice is traded in the markets for 7,000 to 8,000 North Korean won.
“It’s impossible to survive on this salary,” my source said.
In October, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered a bonus equivalent to 100 percent of that salary to all citizens in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Workers’ Party, but the response was lukewarm.
Could the markets be a breakthrough? Korean authorities and experts say that they can supplement what the party and state fail to provide.
But an emerging wealthy class dominates these markets, so most residents suffer, and the magic of the exchange rate adds an additional strain. In the official exchange rate, $1 is about 900 North Korean won. But in the black market, $1 is traded for as much as 8,000 North Korean won. Naturally, U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan control the markets.
My source told me that his father had recently suffered a stroke, which put him $1,800 in debt with the treatment. When the hospital runs out of medicine, patients and families are asked to get medicines at premium prices. “It was like searching for herbs in the middle of the winter. I had to sell my house to pay for the medicine,” he said.
North Korea used to take pride in its free medical services, but so much has changed.
The nuclear test made the lives of North Koreans even harder, he added. In the past, they only had to memorize Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, published on the state-run Rodong Sinmun. But this year, they have to fight the historic cold snap and attend the assemblies celebrating the country’s “successful hydrogen bomb test.”
They have to report to the square two to three hours before the event and shout the pledge of alliance for more than one hour.
Couldn’t they defect?
It’s become increasingly difficult to cross into China to make money or to defect to Seoul. Since the Kim Jong-un regime’s establishment four years ago, controls on defectors became severe.
“We fear the surveillance cameras that have been installed to catch river-crossers,” my source said.
Security authorities track down these movements and capture the people who aided a defector’s escape. Rumors are that special detectors were installed under the river. China has also built barbed wire fences and tightened controls.
Last year, monthly average defectors entering South Korea fell below 100 for the first time in 20 years. According to the Ministry of Unification, 2,900 North Koreans escaped and came to South Korea in 2011, shortly before Kim Jong-un came to power, but that number has halved now.
“It’s nonsense that defections have decreased because we are better off,” my contact said.
Not many could reach Seoul because the border to China is blocked. And the reality is far from what North Korean official propaganda organs promote. In his fifth year in power, Kim Jong-un built the Munsu Water Park, a year-round facility, in Pyongyang. Equestrian clubs and golf courses have been built; the Masikryong ski resort in Wonsan, Gangwon Province, has 12 slopes. A 210-meter-tall (689-feet-tall) Unha Residential-Commercial Complex was completed by the Taedong River last year.
All these are facilities exclusively for the elite class: Workers’ Party members, military authorities and foreign currency-earning agency employees. There are about 60,000 of them among the 24 million people.
If each had a family of four, that would mean there are 240,000 North Koreans monopolizing wealth and power in the North, a South Korean agency analyzed. Outside Pyongyang, owned by the top 1 percent, the remaining 99 percent is part of the underprivileged class.
In his first public address four years ago, Kim declared that he would not force the people to tighten their belts and let them enjoy the prosperity and wealth of socialism. But it was a diagnosis without prescription. He also proposed the parallel pursuit of economic and nuclear development, a replica of the dual pursuit of economic and defense development touted by his grandfather Kim Il Sung 54 years earlier.
Prospects, however, aren’t bright. Kim Jong-un cannot distinguish friends from enemies and is playing a dangerous nuclear game with the international community. He will only end up repeating the mistakes of his predecessors. A helping hand for the North Korean people is distant this winter.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 27, Page 28
*The author is a special writer for unification for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Young-jong