North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s focus recently has been on his country’s capital city of Pyongyang.

Kim, during a Politburo meeting held last month, called on his government to urgently take care of denizens of the capital city. More recently, he visited the construction site of the Pyongyang General Hospital to criticize the slow pace of the project. All of this was, of course, part of long-standing efforts to show his “love for the people.”

In light of these recent events, Daily NK recently conducted interviews with three Pyongyang residents to better understand the realities on the ground.

The interviewees include:

A : A housewife living on Tongil Street, Pyongyang
B : A university student living in Pyongyang’s Pyongchon District
C : A mid-level official in Pyongyang

Q. We’ve heard that the government isn’t providing enough rations to feed people in Pyongyang. What do you think about this? 

A : “We faced tough times from 2012 to 2014. They didn’t provide rations over several months at a time; but they did [eventually] hand them over all at once. Now, however, the authorities have said they’ll provide rations, but they’ve either not handed much out, or have blamed the ‘country’s situation’ for not being able to give out as much. How, I ask, can people then get enough to eat?”

B : “Students [at my school] received a loaf of corn bread at the school cafeteria in May for about a week. Students were so hungry that they complained about not being able to clearly see the writing on blackboards during lectures. I was able to get some money from my parents to buy more food, but people coming up from other parts of the country ended up just having to drink more water to get by. They really looked miserable.”

C : “I have enough US dollars to survive even if the government doesn’t hand out rations for around two years. Any longer than that, though, and my family wouldn’t survive. Even someone like me is facing this situation, so I expect low-ranking government officials and ordinary people are facing very difficult times.”

Q. We’ve heard that Pyongyangites were given rations in July. 

A : “We were happy to receive them, but we will still face food shortages if we don’t get rations after July. I’ve heard that the authorities will hand out rations they didn’t give us [rations for April, May and June] by Oct. 10, but it’s hard to believe that. When it comes to vegetables, we can go the local markets and find all sorts of fresh things to buy, but the vegetables handed out by the state are not [as fresh]. I’ve only brought back half of what was portioned out to me from the local vegetable and fruit wholesaler.”

B : “Schools went on vacation from July 1 and I’m doing my [schoolwork] at home. My parents liked that the state handed out a month’s worth of rations. When I talk to my friends from other parts of the country [outside of Pyongyang] they tell me that they haven’t gotten anything.”

C : “I’ve heard that fresh vegetables transported [into Pyongyang] from nearby farms and other areas of the country and distributed to people in the city aren’t popular because they’re poor quality. As a result, officials managing the distribution of the vegetables are saying amongst themselves that Pyongyangites still have enough food to get by [because they aren’t picking up the food].”

Q. We’ve also heard that the country’s Cabinet plans to provide water to Pyongyangites. What do you think about that? 

A : “In the past, we’ve heard that the authorities will increase the water pressure and distribute [potable] water, but none of that happened. We already have a three-ton water tank at our apartment building. I think it’s best to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

B : “[The authorities] hand out plenty of water to people in my neighborhood. We get deliveries about once a day. People living in old apartment buildings or high-rises have to use a pulley to bring up water [from wells]. Entire neighborhoods fight over water. Some neighborhoods, I’ve heard, are worse than others in this regard. I don’t expect this kind of issue to be resolved anytime soon.”

C : “The officials implementing [the order to distribute more water] are those who don’t have to worry about getting water themselves. These officials don’t have to rely on the public water works; they receive several 50-liter bottles of water at night from government officials they know. That’s how I get my water. The authorities always talk about improving the distribution of water. Most of Pyongyang’s water pipes were last replaced in the late 1980s, which means they are very old. Will this situation ever get better? I’d like it if officials actually took responsibility for what they say.”

Q. How would you rate your life overall? 

A : “When I sit around with others in my apartment building’s guardhouse to talk, I hear some people saying they can’t survive without rations. We’re the same, you know. Women need to go to the markets to make money, but they can’t because of [COVID-19]. [Before the pandemic], people could go this way and that way without a travel pass – just their Pyongyang residence card – but that’s not the case anymore. There’s just no more servi-cha [small vans/buses that shuttle people around] anymore people can hitch a ride on. All the servi-cha do these days is transport goods [not people]. What this all means is that people who have survived making little bits of money here and there are facing dire circumstances, but the donju are still making money shuttling around goods.”

B : “I tried to start a business using my bicycle when schools shutdown to help my parents financially, but I couldn’t get it off the ground because of travel restrictions due to COVID-19. My mother has said we should just eat as little as possible [to save money]. I think the only way to survive now is to be as frugal as possible.”

C : “I don’t live completely comfortably, but I also don’t starve. Ordinary people, however, are clearly facing tough times. I’ve heard that only 30% of people working [at an unspecified business in Pyongyang] actually go to work now. When I visit the homes of families that have run out of food, their faces are all bloated. I really think something bad is going to happen if the government doesn’t step in [to solve the food shortages].”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Sang Yong Lee is editor-in-chief of Daily NK and previously spent a number of years working as one of the publication’s foreign correspondents in China. He can be reached at dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.