The Kkotjebi Advantage

Kim Jong Eun visits an orphanage in Pyongyang on June 2nd, 2014.
 Image: Rodong Sinmun

Earlier this year, in a declaration of
“love for future generations”, Kim Jong Eun pledged better treatment for the kkotjebi, North Korea’s large population
of homeless children of whom many beg for food around the country’s public
markets, but Daily NK has learned that the ones benefiting are not the
children, but residents after the benefits they can receive by caring for them.

A source in South Pyongan Province reported to
Daily NK on August 19, “As aid from the UN and South Korea ebbed, the numbers
of kkotjebi dying from malnutrition
rose, but concerned residents were few and far between.” He added that after the news of Kim Jong Eun’s visit to an orphanage spread, “societal interest is up

Most kkotjebi
are products of abandonment by parents lacking the economic means to care for
them, broken homes, or a combination of the two. “The donju [the new affluent middle class] use the orphans to gain
market influence,” he explained, adding that 40 something women take in as many
as 30 of the orphans to receive benefits like restaurant operating licenses.

“State and privately-run restaurants are
all required to contribute 10% of their total monthly profits to the inminban [people’s unit], but those with
orphans in their care, are exempt from additional taxes and even receive electricity
provisions.” As Daily NK previously reported here, electricity can be hard to come by, especially without the proper connections and funds. 

Kim Jong Eun recently ordered all regional inminban to form a 9.27 task forces,
separate the kkotjebi in their
respective quarters, and send them to designated orphanages. The 9.27 task
force asserts to provide temporary residence to the homeless, but the
comprehensive 9.27 operation origins are more ominous, some of which is still
apparent in the recent initiative. The 9.27 Committee, an ad hoc control
mechanism initiated by the authorities in the 1990s, during the apex of the
North Korean famine, was charged with the task of removing corpses on the
streets during the night so that people would not perceive the magnitude of the
mass starvation.

At the beginning of this year, Kim Jong Eun
declared “there should not be a single weak child under the care of the Party,”
as reported by Chosun Central News Agency. The report went on, “After learning
about the work at the baby homes and orphanages across the country in February
last, he was told that there were physically weak children at the baby home and
orphanage in South Phyongan Province. He gave an instruction to the KPA to
bring them to the Taesongsan General Hospital and take care of their health
there.” He called for continued efforts by orphanage employees “to pay
deep attention to their nutrition” after the children were released from the

Repudiated by Daily NK’s source, these
claims run contrary to the situation on the ground, where no evidence of the
purported aid for the kkotjebi is
readily apparent.

Beset with concerns about the Party’s
image, there is tacit pressure on the donju
[new ascendant middle class] to get the kkotjebi
off the streets and prevent them from begging around the markets and city centers.
As compensation, they enjoy relatively unhampered freedom from regulation on
their activities. Traders, also privy to special benefits under the measure,
actively seek out these homeless children to take and care for in their homes,
diminishing the number of those in orphanages, though this practice is
technically illegal. However, as oft-reported, it, like many other of the
country’s statutes, continues unobstructed.

“One trader can bring enough rice, clothes,
and flour in from China to send to their required share to the children’s home
and still raise 17 orphans at home, he said. 
“Because of that, the authorities grant them the privilege of increased
trade activity.”

This collaborative effort by authorities, the
donju, and traders should not be
construed as “volunteer work”, he is quick to note, but instead as a
remunerative measure, creating a new onslaught of societal problems in the

“In many cases these disenfranchised
children are performing forced labor on pig farms and contract diseases as a
result. Rather than sending them to receive the proper treatment, they are
exchanged for a healthier child at the orphanage.” As is often the case by a
country replete with corruption, “this kind of behavior goes unpunished; the
authorities just look the other way.” He went on to explain that when orphanage
employees fail to receive their salaries, a fairly common occurrence, they
often use the children to perform personal tasks in their stead.

Moreover, the cessation of the food
distribution system leaves the kkotjebi
wondering, “How is this any different than when we were begging?” Miserable in
the abject conditions, many attempt to flee, resulting in skirmishes with
guardians desperate to keep them on for the advantages they afford.

“The funds to maintain operations for these
orphanages does not come through inminban
units but instead through provincial Trade Department channels,” which the
source notes as another cause for concern. “The emergency supplies and funds
sent from the Trade Department are utilized by the orphanage employees as
bribes to pay off the proper authorities,” he concluded.