A Chinese trader who resides in Pyeongseong, North Korea, arrived in Dandong on January 21 for the start of the Lunar New Year holiday period. The trader, who in this article we will call ‘John’, received permission to visit China after waiting over a month to leave the country since the death of Kim Jong Il. John met with his suppliers in Dandong to order items he would take back into North Korea, before departing for Shenyang to visit relatives.
Daily NK met with John in Shenyang on January 22 to ask him whether or not the rations announced by North Korean authorities had actually been distributed as planned. As he is a Chinese expatriate, he says he did not receive any rations this time, however “ordinary people did get them. The rations were half white rice and half mixed-grain rice.”
“Even within Pyeongseong, people got different rations depending on what street or neighborhood they live in – some got 3 days worth, others got 5. Our People’s Unit gave 3 days. But that wasn’t the problem; in one area people got grain rice mixed with corn, and the really unlucky amongst them were disappointed to find that their rations had already gone off.”
“On the way here I also heard from people living in Sinuiju who were given corn soup rather than rice of any sort,” John says. Given that corn soup costs roughly half as much to provide as other grain rations, evidently the government distributed corn-based rations in some cities and counties in order to help carry out its plan.
According to John, authorities also offered to supply fish to citizens. “They handed out coupons to buy a sailfin sandfish for 2,800 won and called this an order from Kim Jong Eun.” With this coupon citizens could head to a government-run store and purchase the fish for 2,800 won, however John says that most people declined to buy from the government-run stores when fresh sandfish could be bought from the market for 3,300 won.
Regarding crackdowns on foreign currency, John said that “It would be hard for people like me to live if the government stopped people using the Yuan. When I purchase stock I have to pay for it in Yuan, so if I wasn’t able to do that I wouldn’t be able to trade. That might end up being the case again. The ‘gruppas’ (inspection teams) are showing up to carry out crackdowns on illegal foreign exchange transactions, but this has just driven most people to do it in the privacy of their own houses.”
“Even people who lose their foreign currency in the crackdowns can get it back with a bribe. How can you stop that? Even cadres like foreign currency, so how can it work if they order a crackdown?”
John was also happy to convey what he heard and saw in North Korea during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il. “It is said by some people that Kim died of pent up anger. They say that he came to China travelling far and wide to improve the lives of the people, but when this didn’t go as planned he eventually became weak of mind and body. They say that he suffered after that and this is how he died.”
“Other people say that Kim Il Sung lived like a god into his 80s, but Kim Jong Il died an early death because he was just a man,” John continues. “Despite that though, the problem is what happens from now on. People are worried that it is going to be like the 1990s again.”
John also says that glorification of Kim Jong Eun is in full swing. “I heard he visited the 105th Tank Divison for the New Year. He is supposed to be quite a talented tank operator since he was young. There is a lot of such praise for him.
Even within North Korea speculation continues over Kim’s exact age. “Last year it was said he was 30 years old but this year he is apparently 33.”
“(But) the thing people say most about him is that he looks like his grandfather,” John added.
Asked whether there were people who didn’t cry during the mourning period, he was coy, saying only “People surely get together in private and say various things.”
John says that there have been no further commemorative events for Kim Jong Il since January 10. Asked whether much has changed since the death of Kim Jong Il he says “Nothing major, although the atmosphere is uneasy. People are worried because they don’t know what is going to happen from here on.”