North Korea’s marketization leaves elderly out in the cold

Unification Media Group (UMG): As North Korea’s gradual marketization continues, social values are changing. According to inside sources, materialism is displacing traditional cultural traits, such as respecting one’s parents. The elderly are no longer viewed in the same esteem as they once were. As they get older, their lives get more difficult and they are viewed as the weak link of society. Kim Jong Un’s regime, while purporting to support and care for the elderly in propaganda, has not taken any concrete steps. Indeed, in North Korea, even the idea of social welfare for the elderly does not exist. To learn more, we turn to Reporter Seol Song Ah. 

Seol Song Ah (Seol): The march of marketization is creating some unfavorable side effects. In particular, the traditional idea that it is important to care for one’s elders is being overtaken by the notion that even the elderly should financially fend for themselves.

This has caused tension and fighting between fathers and sons. Some elderly have even been chased out into the streets. Others are left to themselves to battle disease and meet their eventual fate in nursing homes. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at how North Korea’s elderly class is collectively getting left out in the cold more and more.

UMG: The elderly class has contributed their fair share and more to society by caring for their children and helping the country develop through their hard work. In normal cases, the state recognizes these efforts and provides a safety net to ensure that the elderly are well taken care of. But that is not what happens in North Korea, is it?

Seol: When I first came to South Korea, one of the things that really made me feel good was the social welfare system that has been put in place to support the old. There were care centers in every region, and the elderly seemed to be able to enjoy a life of leisure. On the other hand, the concept of an elderly care facility is inconceivable in North Korea. Kim Jong Un used a visit to the Pyongyang Nursing Home on October 1st (World Elderly Day) for propaganda purposes. In reality, there are no such facilities outside the capital city.

Elderly life begins at 60, more or less. When the public distribution system was still functioning in North Korea, the elderly could access it through their children, who were employed in state factories. The elderly would live at home with their son and daughter-in-law, tending to the garden and looking after the grandchildren. During anniversaries and holidays, the elderly people’s children would present them with gifts and delicious food.

The situation changed drastically after a famine knocked out the public distribution system and market activity began to develop in the mid 1990s. The elderly, from that time on, were responsible for making their own money. Elderly people who retired as cadres from state factories could find work in the markets as bicycle guards or market management personnel. Ordinary elderly people, however, had a tougher time making money, and they became pariahs. Family schisms erupted here and there.

UMG: In the end, it seems like the economic depression that struck in the 90s hurt the elderly and children the most.

Seol: Yes. During wartime, children and the elderly become a burden to society. The 90s was similar to wartime in that regard. During the depression, some of the abandoned children were able to survive by hanging out by the train stations and begging or stealing food. The elderly couldn’t really do that, and many died as a result. From that point on, earning money became a matter of life and death.  

Male elderly people can earn money in the jangmadang by repairing things like bikes and shoes, or making small objects with their hands to sell. Female elderly people can earn money by selling food, seeds, and candies. As the markets expanded, the domain of the the elderly diversified. Now they also help raise children and do housework.  

Because of this, there are cases in which the parents split up when their children get married off, with only the mother accompanying the daughter as she moves into her husband’s house. This causes fights between the daughter-in-law and the sister-in-law tend to get into fights. Neither is eager to take on the burden of supporting the parents financially, with people saying, “I wouldn’t care for my step parents even if they paid me for it!” The parents have thus started to live separately in order to ease the economic burden on their children.

UMG: I’m assuming that things are a bit different for the nouveau riche, called donju in North Korea? Do the rich treat their parents with a level or respect that is proportionate to the size of their wallet?

Seol: Donju actually aren’t that different from ordinary folks. In fact, there are cases of donju respecting their parents even less than average. Some are said to buy a separate house and live apart from their folks. Enraged parents will on occasion tell their children, “Pay us our due for raising you for 30 years!” The children’s response to this is even more noteworthy, as they say: “In your time, things went by the state prices, but now things go by the market rate.”   

UMG: Can you tell us what this response means exactly?

Seol: Back when the markets didn’t exist, parents worked at the factory and got access to the public distribution system. School uniforms were free and food came from the state, so it wasn’t too burdensome to raise even seven or eight children.

But now things are different. Everyone has to earn their own keep, and young people are finding it very difficult to care for their parents and look after their own families. Political implications for declining loyalty towards the regime is also included in this line of thinking as money becomes the most important aspect of everyone’s life.

UMG: Are there any other social changes worth noting?

Seol: Yes, there is another interesting trend. In some cases, the parents and adult children will live together, but they are estranged from one another. They eat meals separately, for instance. As marketization advances, these kinds of outcomes are increasingly viewed as natural.

In relation to this, Daily NK spoke to a defector from South Pyongan Province this May who said, “This year, I visited my relatives house in the Potonggang Region of Pyongyang and discovered that the mother and daughter-in-law were living together, but eating separately. The mother-in-law was earning money by selling in the markets, so she was buying meat and side dishes (panchan) to cook and eat in her room alone. If urban elderly people trust their children to care for them and relax in the house all day, they will starve to death. That’s why they’ve started working.”   

UMG: Seems like there are two prominent problems here: the disappearance of family cohesion and the deterioration of elder respect.

Seol: It’s possible to view these elderly people as independent, but what happens if they get sick? Things can get desperate fast if that happens. Partial paralysis can result from a stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease can set in. Who is ready and able to take care of them in such situations? It is extremely unfortunate when they get neglected in a time of need like that.  

One defector from Ryanggang Province Hyesan City who left North Korea in 2015 told Daily NK, “My mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. But I had to be in the market every day from morning to night. So I would just leave her in the house and lock the door. I would come home to find feces spread all over the wall, and the whole situation seemed so hopeless.”

The defector continued, “Some elderly people who aren’t able to earn money have been abandoned and now wander the streets, but everyone just ignores them. The aimless and abandoned elderly end up being sent to the regional nursing home.”

UMG: Once they are sent to such nursing homes, how are they treated?

Seol: North Korea’s nursing homes are world’s apart from those in South Korea. Down here, the elderly are checked and treated every day by professionals like nurses, physical therapists, nutritionists, and social welfare coordinators. I did some volunteer work at one such facility in Gyeonggi Province along with the defector from Ryanggang Province. We were quite impressed. Seeing South Korea’s Alzheimer’s patients getting treated so well made me think of my mother in the North, which made me cry.  

There is a nursing home in North Korea’s South Pyongan Province Unsan County located next to a military base that I can describe for the sake of comparison. The old people who can move are forced to do yard work. Those who can’t, such as the sick and feeble, simply lie still in their spots. If foreign missionaries or aid groups donate flour, the quality of the food improves slightly. When they die, they are buried in tombs on the mountain.

If the millions of dollars spent on weapons development got rerouted to the populations that really need it, North Korea might be a better place.

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