Sat, Dec 15, 2012 - Page 9 News List

North Korean life in the shadow of Kim Jong-il

As the country commemorates the anniversary of the former leader’s death, many North Koreans focus instead on finding enough to eat

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, YANJI, China

One woman learned of April’s rocket launch only days later due to routine power cuts in her area. Pyongyang boasts of its military first policy, but troops steal to live.

“If you wake up and things have gone, everyone assumes it was the army,” said Song, a farmer, who lost a 50kg pig she had hoped to trade for five months’ worth of corn.

Unusually, through her connections, she managed to win compensation.

She should not have complained, she added: “I too sacrifice for the military, but because my life is so hard, I can’t survive without this money. Soldiers get some distribution, but very little, so they are always hungry.”

Won’s niece suffered malnutrition in the army; her son fell sick while serving and could not be saved. Her husband is long dead, as are his brother’s two children. So is her son-in-law. She has come to China to support her fatherless seven-year-old grandson and buy medicine for her widowed daughter, who has heart disease.

In her mid-sixties, she was voluble — “There’s no end if I start talking” of the country’s troubles — and stylish, with penciled brows, a brightly striped top and jeans that, she said, were forbidden at home.

“I used to be very pretty,” she said wistfully. “I have wrinkles from crying all the time.”

Life is particularly painful for those who grew up in the 60s and 70s, when North Korea was a regional success story.

“We really believed we had nothing to envy. We ate well and were happy,” Song said.

The country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, said communism was rice, and eating it every day was common; often there was meat and seafood, even snacks. The leader’s birthday would bring gifts of candy and new uniforms for children.

Now North Korea is falling further and further behind. Its inhabitants struggle to understand what happened. White rice is usually replaced by, or sometimes mixed into, the hated cornmeal — itself served in small quantities.

“It’s unbearable for a Korean person to live without rice,” said Song, who grows cabbage and pumpkin to supplement their diet, but says she and her husband are always hungry.

The distribution system began to fail in the late 1980s, recalled Won.

Soon after that came the famine: “We were worse than pigs. We would mix grass and corn powder and make it into porridge and eat that.”

In the cities, the desperate stretched out their hands for food, she said.

Though the mass deaths from starvation have ended, malnutrition and early mortality are rife.

“The country is totally broken,” Won said. “Even teachers and nurses are selling corn noodles in the markets.”

Children and beggars scavenge for scraps of broken rice cakes that have fallen into the dirt, she added.

Won survives by buying up rice when she can find it cheaply, portioning it out and selling it on. However, trading around the country is illegal, even after bribing her way to travel permits.

“You are always trembling when you get onto trains because you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no way you can live normally in our country,” she said.

Her province was hit by floods and a typhoon this year, damaging crops and halting factory production.

“The price of rice is going up so quickly and the value of the yuan is more expensive every day. How can you buy rice or eat?” she said.

Coal is in even shorter supply: “Maybe rich people sometimes have it, but not every day,” she said.

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