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

Poorer people break the law by chopping down trees in the mountains; a few months ago, she watched as a young girl was killed by a landslide while searching for firewood. Used as she is to premature deaths, she found the sight devastating.

Winter temperatures can drop to minus-10℃ or -20℃.

“You are cold all the time. You use a blanket and cover yourself up like this,” she said, pulling her coat over her head. “After being here I don’t know how I’m going to do it; I don’t think I will last long there.”

For many the nadir was 2009, when a currency devaluation wiped out savings — though Song owned so little it barely affected her. It further destroyed confidence in the North Korean won and in border areas the economy has become heavily reliant on foreign currency; even the local shoe repairer takes yuan, she said.

Smugglers send minerals, medicinal herbs and crystal meth to China.

Rice, clothes, and other basic goods come the other way: “Of course, the military need to be there in the middle and you pay whatever they ask,” she said.

A few years ago there was a rash of Western and South Korean DVDs, but crackdowns have eradicated all but Chinese ones in her area. Previously, people might escape with a fine and a bribe for smuggling; more recently, some have been sent to prison camps simply for watching foreign movies, she said.

Song still remembers the handful she saw, including Home Alone and Luc Besson’s Taxi.

“The reality of the movies was so different from ours that of course they made a strong impression on me,” she said.

Even Yanji, a small and somewhat shabby third-tier Chinese city, is a marvel to new arrivals. Won is used to buildings that reach no higher than three storeys, built slowly by workers with basic tools.

“Here, I saw big machines taking out the earth and moving it,” she said, clawing in the air to depict an excavator. “When could you do that in North Korea? It’s just something that can’t be done. You have electricity here. You have rice cookers. I had never seen a rice cooker before and didn’t know how to use it — to you it may sound funny, but to me it was incredible.”

Like many women she has found work caring for the old and sick. Her earnings go home to her family, but at present no parcels can be smuggled across; the anniversary of Kim’s death has meant tighter controls.

Authorities have also clamped down on visas and restricted movements within the North.

“Apparently there are crackdowns on everything at the moment,” Won said. “During the mourning period you can’t walk around with big boxes [for trading]; it would be very dangerous.”

Others say that smuggled Chinese mobile phones, which rely on the signal from masts across the border, have stopped working, suggesting increased use of jammers. Soldiers who facilitate illegal crossings have told brokers to wait.

The rocket launch is also regarded as a commemoration of Kim’s death.

“Probably we wish this money would go to the people instead, but this is something the government does, so we have no say,” one woman said.

There will be, North Koreans assume, more ceremonies to mark Kim’s death and more tears. Those brought up in North Korea could not but feel uneasy when he died, Won said.

“You are surprised, you are listening to very sad music; how could you not cry?” she added.

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