NK Eyewitnesses Describe Winter Nightmare

Conditions Along Chinese-NK Border as of January

According to Kim (40), who runs one of our organization’s shelters on the Chinese-North Korean border, 118 North Korean defectors sought shelter between November 18 and December 25, 2007. During the winter, food and winter clothing are the biggest problems for North Korean citizens. Most defectors are dressed lightly in summer wear and without socks. This is unbearable in the Yanbian region, when the Tumen River is already frozen and the temperature falls to -20C at night.

The following is an exchange between Kim and Mr. Lee, a 37-year-old defector from North Hamgyong Province:

Q: Don’t you have socks in North Korea?

A: There is a big market in Musan (a city along the Tumen River, in North Hamgyong Province). You can get anything there that you would find at a market in China. The only item made in North Korea is salt; everything else is made in China. The prices are too high for the average person to buy anything, so there are more people selling than buying. With no rationing system and no guarantees by the state of even a minimal standard of living, everyone is just trying to make a living by selling things.

Q: Have you ever tried your hand at it?

A: Even if I wanted to, I can’t as I have no money. The only thing you can do without any money is to grow something and sell it in the market.

Q: Do you own any land?

A: I have only a small plot of land, but every year I grow some corn [maize] and potatoes. The corn I eat myself and the potatoes I use to trade at the market.

Q: Can anybody plant crops?

A: No. You have to go up in the mountains, miles away from your house, and plant so that no one knows about it.

Another defector from Musan, 30-year-old Ms. Choi, told us that in order to survive in North Korean society, you have to swallow your pride and steal. It is impossible to survive otherwise. This suffering has gone on for ten years; the people who are left are breaking the law to survive. This has gone on so long and we have suffered so much that we are not just going to sit around. All that matters is having enough to eat and being able to live in freedom.

The village in Musan where Ms. Choi lives has been thrown into activity due to a command from above for production of fertilizer. “At the start of the year we should be able to produce what we like,” she says. “This is really causing us hardship.” According to Ms. Choi, every day, residents have to load fertilizer into wheelbarrows and take it to the fields. Each person is responsible for moving two tonnes of fertilizer, which is such an arduous task that those with money simply buy the fertilizer to fill their quota. People face many challenges in meeting their fertilizer production quotas, but there is hell to pay if they do not. Ultimately, if they cannot meet their quotas, they must pay 5,000 won, a heavy penalty (5,000 North Korean won = 16.5 RMB).

Many North Koreans cross the border into China in January because of the problems they have meeting their fertilizer production quotas. No matter how hard they try to save enough money to buy their share, they are rarely successful.

Kim says that in November 2007, a slightly overweight middle-aged couple came to the shelter and claimed to be defectors from North Korea; in a fluster, they begged for money to travel to Beijing. Kim was used to seeing underweight North Koreans asking for plain rice, but found it strange to see this overweight couple asking for cash right at the outset.

The couple answered Kim’s questions, but did not talk in detail about some points. The man said that he had been stationed with the army in a certain county, and that they had fled to China in order to be able to go to South Korea. They kept insisting that they had to leave the area immediately, and that they needed funds for travel. Clearly, they were different from most North Korean defectors, but knowing what would happen to them if they were sent back to North Korea, Kim scraped together 150 RMB to give them, and told them how to leave the village safely.

According to a Mrs. Pak (53) who visited the shelter, it is not easy to make a living selling goods in the Musan market. She said that since January 2008, the price of manufactured goods in Musan market has risen by 20 to 30 percent. As of January, the price per kilogram of rice was 1,500 won, for corn 500 won, for soybeans 1,000 won, and for wheat 1,300 won. So although there are goods in the market, there are very few people able to buy them.