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Frequently Asked Questions

About the Work We Do for NK Refugees

Q: What kind of work does Life Funds for North Korean Refugees do?

A: Life Funds’ work can be divided up into a number of different areas:

  1. Work with defectors from North Korea

    • Protection of defectors, and provision of material support (food, clothing, medicine, etc) to shelters in China;

    • Support of those who went to North Korea during the North’s recruitment program of the 1960s (including ethnic Korean residents of Japan and their Japanese spouses) who now wish to return to and settle in Japan;

    • Assistance of defectors living in hiding in China who wish to escape to a third country.

  2. Provision of food and a basic education to children who fled North Korea, through our Education Sponsorship Plan

  3. Provision of food, clothing, and medical supplies to those living in poverty in North Korea (without going through internal channels)

  4. Lobbying for the recognition of the refugee status of defectors from North Korea, and the dissemination of information about them both domestically and internationally

  5. Assistance of North Korean refugees, as well as humanitarian activists, who have been imprisoned by Chinese authorities

  6. Provision of resettlement assistance to defectors who have reached Japan

Q: Who are the children in the Education Sponsorship Program?

A: Our Education Sponsorship Plan covers children who are either living in shelters or in hiding with their parent(s). Although our primary focus is school-age children, older children who have not received a basic primary education are also included in our program.

It is very difficult for us to estimate the amount required per month per child for food and other costs. This is because of the sudden nature of additional costs such as bribes (when defectors are arrested), increased security at the shelters, and moving to a safer area. To cope with these unpredictable costs, we budget $130 (US) per child per month.

Q: What happens to children in the program when they become adults?

A: Once they “graduate” from the program, they are treated in the same way as adult defectors.

Q: What is the average monthly salary in North Korea?

A: Approximately 2,000-3,500 won. This doesn’t go very far, however. Because of the aging of factory buildings and equipment, as well as extreme energy shortages, productivity is only running at about 20-30%.

Despite this, if workers (especially men) do not report to their workplaces, whether or not there is any work to be done, they face stiff fines as punishment. Because of this, it is mainly women who work peddling goods for a small profit, or make clothing at home to sell, or otherwise engaging in commerce to make ends meet.

Q: Compare the average income above with typical costs for food items in North Korea.

A: We checked out the cost of staple items in the following major towns and cities as of November 2006:

Chongjin, Haeju, Haesan, Hamhung, Hoeryong, Nampo, Pyongsong, Sariwon, Sinijiu, and Wonsan.

Item Price (NK Won) Price (US Dollars)
North Korean rice, 1 kg *
700 - 1,100
0.22 - 0.34
Chinese rice, 1 kg *
650 - 900
0.20 - 0.28
South Korean rice, 1 kg *
650 - 1,000
0.20 - 0.31
Corn (maize), 1 kg **
300 - 400
0.09 - 0.13
Flour, 1 kg
600 - 900
0.19 - 0.28
Flour noodles
500 - 600
0.16 - 0.19
Tofu, one block
200 - 300
0.06 - 0.09
Soybeans, 1 kg
500 - 600
0.16 - 0.19
Apple (1)
200 - 500
0.06 - 0.16
Pork, 1 kg
2,500 - 2,800
0.78 - 0.88
Egg (1)
250 - 300
0.08 - 0.09
Frozen cod (1)
2,400 - 2,800
0.75 - 0.88
Dried cod (1)
2,700 - 3,500
0.84 - 1.09
Cuttlefish (20)
5,000 - 12,000
1.56 - 3.75

* cheaper in the rice-producing areas of Haeju and Sariwon, more expensive along the Chinese border

** cheaper along the west coast

(The actual exchange rate is:1RMB = 384-418NKWon; US$1 = 3,200 NKWon)

Q: How do North Koreans make a living?

A: North Korea’s food self-sufficiency rate is low, which normally would mean that it would be necessary to import the shortfall in foodstuffs. However, in North Korea’s military-first political system, almost nothing is budgeted for the import of such foodstuffs, including staples like cereals. Instead, North Korea has come to rely on international humanitarian aid to provide this shortfall. Even so, the discrepancy between the amount of food needed by North Korea’s people and the amount that actually reaches them is something the international community is well aware of.

Strangely enough, there has been almost no fluctuation in market prices of foodstuffs as of March 2007. From this we can infer that for those who can afford to buy, there is no shortage in foodstuffs whatsoever. The problem is the effect this has on people who do not have the financial resources to buy food. For them, it matters very little whether food is available in the market since they cannot buy it in any case.

Since North Korea’s food distribution system is essentially not functioning, except with respect to some elite groups and the security forces, for people suffering financially, the food situation has unquestionably gotten worse. Thus, those without the means of obtaining food—whether through economic resources, connections, freedom to travel inside and outside of the country, etc—are vulnerable to starvation.

Q: I've heard that the food situation in North Korea is so bad that many people are dying from starvation. How did this come about? And when did it start?

A: When the Korean War ended in 1953, the Korean Peninsula was in much worse condition than Japan had been just after the Second World War. In North Korea, which is smaller than Japan (North Korea: 120,000 sq. km; Japan: 370,000 sq. km; South Korea: 99,000 sq. km), the carpet bombing was several times greater than in Japan during World War II.

The Korean War resulted from a combination of several things. There was the ambition of Kim Il Sung, as well as the Cold War between the communist bloc and the liberal bloc. And there was the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union in terms of military and warfare technology rather than territorial possession or doctrine. During this time North Korea received enormous amounts of aid from the East-European socialist countries during their postwar recovery years.

It is known that North Korea received particularly generous help from East Germany and Hungary, as well as from Czechoslovakia, which was known for the high level of its technology, including ceramics. There was also help from the Soviet Union, Mongolia and China (Mao Tse-tung's son, Mao An Ying, died in the Korean War).

All that aid is considered the reason for North Korea's extremely rapid recovery. In 1959, only six years after the war, North Koreans returning from Japan arrived at Pyongyang and were astounded by the high-rise apartment buildings lining the street in front of the station. This was a surprise to the entire world.

South Korea lagged far behind. The world was surprised when former president Kim Yong Sam mentioned that, until 1972, the food situation had been better in North Korea than in South Korea. Economic development in South Korea didn't actually begin until the 1980s when the country initiated a spurt of development in preparation for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Meanwhile, the postwar food shortage in Japan was extremely serious. Even some public officials died from starvation, as some in the United States felt that because Japan was responsible for the war, its people deserved punishment. Then the Korean War broke out, bringing a lively procurement boom to Japan.

Hence, it is not true that the food situation in North Korea was better than it was in Japan in 1959 when the homecoming project was started. I still remember eating kim- chi at the Japanese Red Cross Center in Niigata Prefecture in Japan in June 1961. It had been transported from Chunjin, and it tasted delicious, probably because of the various seasonings used. I was there to join the people going back to North Korea. The staple food was corn rather than rice, and fish was dried cod or the like.

North Korea then interrupted its seven-year national economic plan to improve the living standard. It shifted its national focus and began reinforcing itself for possible war after it seized the Pueblo, an American espionage boat. It had also watched other events such as the American U-2 espionage aircraft being shot down in Soviet territory, the Vietnam War becoming bogged down, and South Korea dispatching its soldiers to the Vietnam War.

Judging from those facts, it is reasonable to assume that the living standard (the food situation) in North Korea has not been improved since the mid-1960s. It appears that Kim Il Sung and the top Labor Party members abandoned their efforts to improve the national economy; they gave themselves over to luxury, depending heavily on money received from Japan. This included money donated by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, as well as other donations, gifts, and various joint ventures. Many such ventures failed, however, including the Kim Man Yoo Hospital, due to the departure of participants.

Still, we heard nothing of the new "starvation hell" until the 1990s.

This coincides with the stories that I myself personally heard from nearly one hundred North Korean interviewees, including defectors from that country, as well as refugees who had escaped into China and those who temporarily escaped and then had to return again to North Korea.

The starvation in North Korea became critical primarily due to several major external elements: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of the socialist system in Eastern Europe; the recognition of South Korea by China; and the diplomatic ties with South Korea that China and Russia concluded. Thus, the flow of aid to North Korea in the form of petroleum and military economic assistance ended.

Domestically, the farming methods failed, including terraced fields and high-density farming, as instructed by Kim Il Sung, who was an absolute amateur in the field. At the same time, they had difficulty securing adequate transportation and storage, electric power, fertilizers, and petroleum. In addition, unfair distribution of profits discouraged people from working. All these factors contributed to the worsening of their food situation.

The personality cult system led to disapproval of engineers, false accusations, and negligence. If people protested the teachings of Kim Il Sung, the force of law was brought to bear, and punishment or execution awaited them. This is a sure sign of self-destruction that characterizes a totalitarian state.

The current starvation was brought about by the external and internal factors mentioned above, which is a great tragedy.

Q: They say that people are dying from starvation in North Korea, but people who have visited Pyongyang for sightseeing say that they saw no signs of a bad food situation. I wonder if the story about starving people is just a vicious rumor made up by an anti-communist group hostile to North Korea, or possibly a rumor spread by North Korea in attempts to get aid?

A: Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea. Foreigners visit there and foreign legations and mass communication media facilities are concentrated in the city. Pyongyang is the face of North Korea.

There are extreme restrictions in North Korea on the people's freedom of movement and on travel. Without a special permit specifically indicating the necessity for a visit, ordinary citizens of North Korea are prohibited from access to Pyongyang.

They long ago expelled every physically handicapped person from Pyongyang, calling them disgraceful. This is highly aberrant, especially in view of today's international trend in which symbiosis between physically/mentally handicapped persons and physically unimpaired persons is accepted as a barometer of social welfare.

Even in Pyongyang, however, the people recently have grown increasingly vocal about food supplies being in such short supply.

However, they will never ever allow sightseers from abroad to glimpse such a situation. Sightseers will find lots of food, beer and other beverages, fruits, and candies.

I am not sure, however, how you would react if you ever get the chance to try any candies in North Korea.

I once got candies as a souvenir from that country. They were dry and tasted quite flat (not sweet at all).

The people in North Korea are very proud people. They continued to insist until about 1980 that it was no one's business if they worshiped one particular person, maintained their hereditary system, or poured 60% of their GNP into military expenditures. They also insisted that they were self-sufficient (although they actually depended heavily on financial support from China, the Soviet Union, and Japan).

We would be quite happy if the starvation were simply a vicious rumor spread by anti-communists, and if the people in North Korea were really living in comfort.

Unfortunately, however, the truth is different. The food shortage worsened after 1990, and especially so after 1994. Rations were completely stopped. Workers do not go to work. Children do not go to school; instead, they go to the hills in their neighborhoods and try to fill their stomachs with grass.

Murders and the sale of human flesh in markets were no longer uncommon. Drowned bodies of people who had starved to death have been found floating in the rivers at the border - bodies so swollen from being in the water that their clothes had split.

I directly heard the following story in China from one of the priests who care for orphans. Dead bodies become caught in the reeds and grass along the riverbank on the Chinese side, where they gave off a foul smell. The priests cannot stand the stench, and in one month alone they had to dig fifteen graves along the riverside to bury the decomposed bodies of starved victims.

Q: Despite reports that the North Korean people are starving, I recently saw on TV showing black markets in North Korea, and it looked like they had lots of goods there. Isn't the starvation an exaggeration by mass communication media to earn high audience ratings?

A: It is true that the black markets have become more active recently, since the authorities are no longer able to keep a tight lid on them after government rations were discontinued. To begin with, even the authorities have to use the black markets to get food, and they probably are taking bribes and dominating the black markets.

It is also true that you can get anything, if you have enough money. The prices are extremely high. The average worker's monthly salary ranges from 60 to 70 won, and this will barely buy 200 grams of rice or one pack of cigarettes.

In July 1995, we invited Mr. Kang Chul Hwan and Mr. An Hyuk, who had been in a North Korean Prison Camp, to lecture meetings in several places in Japan.

Because his grandfather committed a crime (he made the mistake of criticizing Han DukSoo, one of the managers of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), Mr. Kang Chul Hwan was confined in the prison camp located in Ham Gyong, South for ten years. He entered when he was nine years old. When he was released from the prison camp at age nineteen, he was only 153 cm (about 5 ft.) tall and weighed only 39 kg (about 86 lb.). In the next ten years, he grew to 173 cm (about 5.8 ft.) and his weight increased to 75 kg (about 165 lb.) This demonstrates how malnutrition can affect the growth period.

The recent food shortage has turned the entire North Korean country into a prison camp.

During the past four or five years, I have met probably almost one hundred people who have escaped from North Korea. Some of them have gone into exile in South Korea, some are refugees hiding in China, some are working in China away from home (North Korea), some illegally left North Korea, and some are children repeatedly crossing the border.

The children protected by groups of volunteers in China enjoy good nutritional conditions. However, when those children get a chance to eat in a restaurant, they are all interested in eating only meat because they are fed only greens. (However, this same eating-meat trend also applies to many Japanese kids.)

The children repeatedly crossing the border are in tragic condition. For example, a 20-year-old boy looks like he is only 15 years old, or a 17-year-old boy looks only 11. A 16-year-old girl who looked 11 didn't even know about menstruation. Her classmates and seniors looked like they had completely stopped growing.

One 10-year-old girl had crossed the border fifteen times. Children are not supposed to be executed, shot, or imprisoned, but who can assure that they will not be shot by mistake from a distance? Age is hard to judge from a distance. If they are arrested, they are beaten and threatened, even tortured. One boy was attacked by a thief who left a sword scar on his face.

We clothed those children, who had neither underwear nor socks, and who had no alternative but sleep in open fields in temperatures of -30 degrees centigrade (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). We also bathed them (most looked like they had not bathed for five years, judging from the thickness of their grime). They had never seen shampoo. We fed them, and interviewed them to find out how their parents had died or been killed.

We found how limited our options were for helping those children; we could do nothing but shed helpless tears for the tragic circumstances of these children.

Q: I hear that the people in North Korea are required to get permits just to travel. Despite that, how do so many people manage to get to the borders?

A: That's a good question.

In June 1961, I was at the Red Cross Center, preparing to enter North Korea the next day. Even the tax-free shop at the Center carried no maps or timetables. They said the maps and timetables were military secrets.

So, you can easily image how difficult it is to get travel permits. More detailed information is provided in the book entitled "Escape from North Korea" co- authored by Kang Chul Hwan and An Hyuk.

However, for the past several years, it seems that the issuance of travel permits has become practically impossible due to the discontinuation of rations in the food shortage.

The food shortage caused rations to be discontinued, even to authorities. This includes the police (security officers) and the army; it also applies to their families, of course. They are responsible for clamping down, but of course they cannot continue their jobs without food. The result is a lawless world.

Thus, people take any kind of opportunities to use transportation. They climb onto the roofs of trains or hang onto the couplings between coaches.

They risk their lives on the roofs of the trains; they may be shaken off or crushed inside tunnels. Do you suppose that those people paid to get train tickets or to carry travel permit cards?

One cannot expect to see such illegal free riders carrying permits or certificates.

Of course, not everybody gets the chance to move about freely. There are very few trains. Further, I have heard that it now takes five days from Chunjin to Pyongyang, while it used to take only three days. Likewise, it now takes three days from Chunjin to HangHum on the east coast, while it used to take less than one day. The problem is due to the shortage of electric power, which most seriously affects the operation of electric locomotives. Their great efforts to expedite electrification in the 1960s are now working against them.

It would be illogical to assume that many people make it as far as the border, because the borders are heavily guarded. The children from North Korea told us that few people make it to the borders; instead, they go to the area neighboring the train station in an up-country town (HamHung, for example) and try to board the trains, but that they die in ditches near the train stations.

It seems that many escapees jump off the trains midway and instead go over the mountains to avoid guards rather than taking the trains all the way to the border.

Such a route may be confidential, and should probably not be disclosed like this.

Q: How do the people in North Korea make a living?

A: Discontinuation of the rations has completely broken down the livelihood of the North Korean people except for some among the upper class.

As was mentioned, the average worker's monthly income is 60 to 80 won, and this is hardly enough to buy anything.

Back in 1960 when the average monthly income of workers was also around 60 won, the monthly rent for a high-rise apartment averaged about 2 won. Rice was available for extremely low prices, and lots of other kinds of food, including fish and meat, were rationed. The utility charges were almost free, medical treatments including full nursing were completely free, and school expenses were of course free. If anyone wished, they could go to the Kim Il Sung University or even Moscow University.

People were able to save some money every month, and they got one-month paid holidays for enjoying hot springs. All daily necessities were provided, so even returnees who entered North Korea empty-handed could fully enjoy the warmth of their fatherland.

But all of that was false propaganda developed by the mass communication media in Japan. The returnees who believed those claims went back to North Korea and encountered a cruel fate at the hands of their fatherland.

It is known, however, that the returnees who had relatives sending them money from Japan, and the executives of the General Association of Korean Residents who were also lucky enough to have someone sending money from Japan were known to be wealthier than the original citizens of North Korea.

A woman I met in China in September 1998 said that she had been receiving two million yen (about US $16,400 dollars at $1=122 yen) a year from her uncle in Japan for forty years. After her uncle died, her cousins told her that they could not afford to keep on sending her the money. She, however, refused to believe that her cousins could not afford the money. She concluded, "In Japan, surely two million yen is just chicken feed. Bring me the money now."

Here is another incredible true story. A child from North Korea begged me for money at the border between China and North Korea. I discovered that he was seventeen (hard to believe from his appearance) after we started to talk, and also discovered that he absolutely had to return home by election day to avoid serious trouble. Specifically, if he failed to make it home by election day, not only he but all his family members would be indicted for a criminal offense and sent to a prison camp.

I asked him, "How much do you need to save your four family members from starvation right now? I know you have risked your life by crossing the river and illegally entering China to beg. How much do you have to bring back to Korea?" He answered that he needed 150 yuan (about 2,500 yen or US $30).

I was shocked by the big difference from the foregoing story. This answer motivated us to start our campaign "One thousand yen will help an entire four-member family survive for a month. Donate the money you would spend for one lunch."

Here is a recent private letter addressed to a cousin living in Japan.

"The situation here began worsening last spring, and we are now in terrible shape. The food rationed by the government stopped, and we have no other choice but buy black-market rice. My monthly salary is 100 won (note: this person is an elite living in the capital area), while one kilogram (about 2.2 lb.) of rice now costs 110 to 120 won. We cannot buy anything at government-run stores. Although starving to death never before even entered our minds, it is becoming quite believable these days. Because of malnutrition, minor health disorders easily turn into fatal diseases."

Here is another private letter from a returnee to a mother living in Japan.

"My wage is 89 won, and my two younger brothers each earn about 80 to 90 won. However, we get only 20 to 50% of the wages because of the extreme shortage of cash. So, we get 10 to 20 won a month - 25 to 30 won at the most. From this amount, the fees for insurance, union, and social sentry are withdrawn from the wages, so the actual amount of money that we get is 10 to 20 won.

In the black market, 180 grams (about 0.4 lb.) of rice costs 65 won, one egg costs 5 to 5.5 won, 180 grams (about 0.4 lb.) of corn costs 35 won, one apple costs 7 to 10 won, and one persimmon costs 3 to 5 won.

There is a lot of uproar currently because we now have lots of thieves. Family suicides are not uncommon.

We are so lucky that we can afford to buy the black- market rice thanks to you, Mother. People over here are having a really hard time. They have swollen, yellow faces because of starvation."

Does this mean that poor people must die? As a matter of fact, many people are dying from starvation. What a tragedy!

Q: How many North Korean refugees are there in China? A: Because of the Chinese government’s tight control, it is impossible to conduct surveys to determine the numbers with any accuracy, but based on past figures provided by NGOs working in the field, it is estimated that there are approximately 100,000 North Koreans in China as of 2007. Some of these refugees are in shelters; others are living and working in hiding in autonomous ethnic-Korean areas. Female refugees frequently become the “brides” of local men—but in reality these marriages are little more than human-trafficking arrangements. Q: Why does China forcibly repatriate North Korean refugees? A: China continues to violate the International Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees by refusing to recognize North Korean defectors as refugees. China and North Korea have a secret agreement with regard to the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees. China is probably considering its own position in northeast Asia and the consequences if North Korea were to collapse. China fears that a mass influx of North Korean refugees could precipitate a collapse of the North Korean system. Both of those events would have an adverse effect on Chinese economic growth. It is likely also that China fears what the effect would be on the two million ethnic Koreans living in the border region, as well as on other, smaller, ethnic groups.