[imText1]Stories of starvation continue to trickle out of North Korea, and although it is clear that the situation is not at the level of the famine of the 1990s, food shortages evidently persist.
What is more, with 20,000 defectors now in South Korea, there is no shortage of testimony about the ongoing struggle for survival, even as the economic policies of the Kim Jong Il regime send the country further down the road to ruin.
Those who survived the so-called ‘March of Tribulation’ have been forced to accept that the regime is not going to solve their problems, and have tried to develop their own methods of survival.
Of course, things continue to be hard for a great many people. Here’s one example of real life in North Korea; gold mining on the Chinese border.
Located at the base of Mt Nokbong, near Hyesan in Yangkang Province, one particular village of 24 households saw its schools, public facilities and all other vestiges of welfare disappear following the construction of the Samsoo Power Station in 2004, which deprived the area of power.
And yet this village is now overflowing with people. They are here from all over the country, cramming homes and the nearby valley with one purpose in mind; searching for gold. Housewives, workers, university students, farmers, children, drifters, criminals, soldiers and bureaucrats; men and women alike from all different classes are living in this one place with the same aim.
The majority of people dig, without permission from the authorities and with only rudimentary tools. Their only wish is to avoid having to leave town and, hopefully, find some gold. The soldiers and bureaucrats, on the other hand, do not dig, instead using their authority to cream a share of others’ profits.
The daily mission of most people is to dig a hole to extract the ore, take it to the riverside to wash, and then sell it to buy food. With work clothes and a hammer, wash bowl, strong burlap sack, metal bucket, candles, shovel, rope, and a washcloth and drain (with a wooden partition to make it easier to trap gold), they enter the mine.
First the ore has to be dug out of the mine, at which point it can be taken up to the riverbank in the bucket and sprayed with water to remove stones and dirt, then the gold separated off with the washcloth.
Those who get on the wrong side of the bureaucrats or armed forces in this process have their tools confiscated, and any gold they have sweated for as well. Complaint is out of the question. Men who show the slightest resistance are flogged and women sprayed with water and sworn at. For this reason, many people consider bribes of cigarettes or alcohol to be a necessary cost of doing business there.
Those without money enter the mines under the cover of darkness, collect large quantities of dirt and take it away to clean.
As you would expect in these circumstances, accidents are commonplace.
On June 16, 2008, a 39-year old man from Hyesan who had carried more than 200 bags full of soil to the riverbank since dawn finally stopped for lunch, when he heard a cry for help from a person who had tried, and failed, to cross the river. The rescue mission became a tragedy when the man himself drowned.
That particular spot had been used to hunt for gold when the reservoir was dry; but now it was more than 10m underwater. The man, exhausted from hours of backbreaking labor, had been unable to get out. Other people who had been dealing with their own ore nearby tried to save him, but it was no easy task.
The security forces and army eventually combined to retrieve the man two days later. Two days after that, the deceased man’s widow returned to dig for gold on the same riverbank where she had lost both her husband and 9-year old son.
This is just one story that amply demonstrates the heart wrenching reality of life in North Korea. Even to the present day hunger continues to drive people to the foothills of Mt Nokbong. The struggle to survive goes on as ordinary people dig away at the riverbed, all the while hoping to avoid becoming a victim of the regime.