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Defector's story

Beating the Korean Summer Heat

Kim Da Seul, intern  |  2012-08-08 16:49

A period of unusually scorching heat has reached its peak on the Korean peninsula. According to Korea Meteorological Administration, the temperature in the South Korean capital recently reached 35°C for twelve straight days. North Korea gets no exemption from this tropical heat. According to Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA), the temperature in areas along the country’s west coast hit 32-34°C, as much as five degrees higher than in a normal August.

This summer heat is enough to remind people of Kim Il Sung’s death in July 1994, when sadness intermingled with the repressive heat. How are they dealing with this heat wave, 18 years later? Daily NK interviewed North Korean defectors to learn how they used to overcome the unbearable heat before they came south to a place where air conditioning is overwhelmingly prevalent.

▲ Outdoor sleep to get away from the heat

Kim, who lives in Mokdong, Seoul, said that the best way to escape the heat is simply to open the windows and doors and allow the throughflow of air to act as a free fan.

This is important because even electric fans are rare. Even if a household does own such an item, it is of little use when the electricity supply is so unstable and the power that does come often comes at night. In recent years, many households have overcome this problem in general terms using 12V car batteries, but this does not provide enough power for fans.

When it comes to it, North Koreans simply sleep outdoors. Nobody stops them these days, even in cities like Pyongsung and Nampo. As a result, mosquito nets imported from China are growing in popularity. One big enough for two people sells for 30,000 to 50,000 won.

Rivers are a blessing, of course. Taking a dip in the river is the best way to cool down. Swimming in exposed wastewater streams is not for the faint of heart, but the rivers on the outskirts of the city are usually clean enough and people love to take a dip.

Alas, however, it is rare for an entire North Korean family to be able to go swimming for fun. Usually, sets of work colleagues take the odd day trip to the river. However, even this is a luxury when disposable funds are minimal and getting food on the table can be a struggle.

Choi, a second defector living in Incheon said, “In North Korea, there is a saying that ‘the people watching are embarrassed,” which refers to children and men swimming naked in the river and not caring what others think.” In rural areas, where water supplies are really poor, women bathe when the sun is about to set. Of course most bathe with clothes on, but sometimes there may be a woman who does not care.

Park, another defector who lives in eastern Seoul said, “Women are humans too. How can they go without a cold bath in this hot weather? When I was in my 20s, I was ashamed of bathing even inside my home, but as things became difficult I let go and went out to the Yalu naked to take a bath.”

▲ North Korea’s best summer foods; ‘Corn Noodles and Kakao’

Cold noodles and noodles made from corn are the things rural people want to eat during the summer season. But how often is it possible?

In North Korea, even homes with refrigerators do not have ice because the electricity is so hit and miss. In areas with cold spring water, however, corn noodles can be eaten in the cold water.

Meanwhile, there is also ice cream, known colloquially as ‘Kakao’. Not only does it relieve the heat and quench thirst, but it is also cheap and filling. Factories make better quality versions, but most people usually put up with cheaper, handmade stuff.

Kakao is a mixture of flour, water and saccharine. There is nothing special about the taste; it is just sweet and cold. But because it is mostly made in poor conditions, it can also bring about some unsavory effects.

▲ Summer vacation? Dream on!

There are no such things as vacations. According to North Korean labor laws, workers are owed fourteen days of paid vacation, but do not get it. Even assuming they did use their vacation days, it would be for family occasions or second jobs. Maternity leave is the only break that people actually get to use properly.

Song, another defector who now lives in Nowon said, “A family trip in North Korea is only dreamed of; it is the very meaning of ‘dream.’” Song has never met anyone from North Korea who has been on a family trip. The only reason the whole family would travel in North Korea would be for a parent’s 60th birthday or a wedding, he claims.

Even crossing provincial lines is a hassle. First train tickets and travel permits are essential. Trains are the only long distance transportation available, but there are not many trains operating these days, and timetables are hugely erratic.

“It is very difficult to get a train ticket without bribing cadres,” Song said. “The economic situation is bad enough that most people don’t really think about moving far.”
 
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