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