Unification Media Group (UMG): Let’s hear this week’s news from North Korea. Today we are joined again by journalist Kang Mi Jin. I think North Korean university students are on summer vacation around this time. How are things going?
Kang Mi Jin (Kang): Yes, their “medicinal herb break” began in North Korea recently. The intense heat of the summer has many North Koreans concerned, particularly medical students who have a quota of medicinal herbs to contribute to the authorities.
A resident of Ryanggang Province said that her daughter had left to go to another area for a medicinal herb break. They told me that the heat was so bad that they were worried about their daughter. North Korean medical school students go to Ryanggang Province each year to pick the herbs. They don’t have time to study because they have to fill quotas. Universities give students 20 days to gather the herbs.
UMG: Do all medical students go out to gather medicinal herbs?
Kang: Some wealthy families purchase medicinal herbs from the markets to fill their children’s quotas because they are worried about the heat. The poorer families, however, have to gather the herbs themselves. Parents worry so much about their kids that they make the effort to give them extra side dishes to eat while they’re gathering.
Some university students pick more medicinal herbs than they are required to and sell them in the markets to buy gifts for their parents. It really warms the heart to think about that.
UMG: Let’s hope the intense heat doesn’t tire out the students too much. What other news is there?
Kang: The authorities in North Hamgyong Province are discriminating against some families who have relatives in South Korea, according to sources there. For example, some of the children of these families attending universities are being kicked out of school. Some are even restricted from getting promotions to become government cadres.
These measures were taken after the authorities conducted a census. The investigations have uncovered cases where parents have disappeared suddenly only to be found to have turned up in South Korea, and some people have been found living outside of their designated places of residence before returning home.
UMG: So the authorities are using a census to exert control over the population. I heard there are changes in the domestic situation of the country. Are there gradual improvements in the facilities that house young orphans?
Kang: Yes – from 2014, North Korea expanded facilities for the disadvantaged including the construction of orphanages, childcare centers and nursery homes. Because of this, many orphans who were living on the streets are now reportedly living in a stable environment.
Moreover, food supplies to these facilities have normalized so many of the orphans are reportedly in a better condition, nutritionally. Last week I was talking to a female defector who said that her children are in North Korea and live in an orphanage. She said she sent some money because it was her children’s birthday recently. The kids asked her to buy them food last year, but this year they asked for nice socks and math and English workbooks. This made her feel better about their living conditions.
It was honestly difficult for me to believe that changes like these could happen in North Korea, but I had to admit that change is occuring to some extent after hearing her story.
UMG: I’m curious as to how the markets are doing in the intense heat. Have there been any changes?
Kang: Sources report that summer products are selling well in markets throughout the country. A resident of North Hamgyong Province said that children’s clothes are selling well in the markets and women’s clothes are selling better than anything else.
The same source said that their daughter asked for stockings and sandals. But when they went to the market there were a lot of people gathered at the childrenswear shops. She also noted that because women are now earning money, products for women are selling well.
UMG: In South Korea, garlic and peaches among other seasonal food products are being sold. What about in North Korea?
Kang: I bought a pack of 100 garlic bulbs some time ago. In North Korea, the markets usually sell fresh garlic, while aged garlic is only sold in the fall. Most North Koreans still don’t have refrigerators so they preserve the garlic with salt to make side dishes. The fresh garlic being sold these days is used in this way. They preserve the fresh garlic in salt and then take out three or four bulbs and preserve it with sesame leaves in a jar. It’s then eaten as a side dish and has a sesame flavor.
It’s peak season for peaches in South Korea. Sources report peaches are also being sold in North Korea. The country used to have poor logistical infrastructure, so fruits that spoil quickly like peaches were only sold in their area of production or very close by. From the 2010s, however, as [refrigerated] containers started being used by logistics companies, peaches are being transported across the country in a day or two. Other goods are shipped this way and I will speak more about that next time.
UMG: It’s amazing to hear that people can receive produce a day or two after ordering it. The logistics system must have developed quite a bit.
Kang: They say that trucks are used to transport goods in North Hamgyong Province. The traders call the customer to say that the product has been shipped, and the customer calls the shipper to confirm that the product has arrived.
It was only a couple of years ago that North Koreans carrying bags would sit on top of the trucks to get around. A North Korean told me that items can now be shipped back and forth through a single shipper who coordinates every step of the process from the point of production to receipt of delivery at the point of sale, by phone. I was happy to hear that they benefiting from improved conditions.