Market official on patrol in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province
Market official on patrol in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province. (Daily NK)

North Koreans have recently begun facing a worsening economic situation, evidenced by reports that people are starving to death even within the country’s major cities.

In an early 2012 speech given immediately after he assumed national leadership, Kim Jong Un said he would simultaneously pursue nuclear armament and economic development. However, North Korea now faces severe economic troubles after years of international sanctions and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, early on in Kim’s reign, things were looking up, economically speaking. Kim prioritized policies embracing market economics, and with the market steadily growing, most observers felt the economy had grown. Many experts believed the purchasing power of North Koreans was continuing to grow, too.

However, the economy gradually deteriorated as international sanctions tightened due to nuclear tests and ICBM launches. And then fell the heavy blow of COVID-19.

With supplies from China falling, North Korea’s efforts to marketize the economy and shift to domestic production took hits. Without a proper flow of raw materials, factories and enterprises had to suspend operations, and worker salaries naturally fell as a result. In turn, more and more North Koreans now struggle to make a living.

In particular, North Korea’s unique brand of “COVID zero” policies have led to an almost complete shutdown of not only official trade, but also smuggling by companies or individuals. Of course, some government-sanctioned “state smuggling” has gone on through the port of Nampo, but most of that benefits only Pyongyang residents or the vested elite.

North Korea relaunched freight train service with China in mid-January, bringing food and other items into the country. However, ordinary people appear to benefit little from this, either. Essentially, ordinary people are failing to receive normal provisions of food and supplies amid the government’s indifference.

Recently, Daily NK sought to catch a better glimpse of North Korea’s recent economic situation through interviews with three ordinary North Koreans.

Fewer smoking chimneys and dead families in the mountains

The three North Koreans interviewed by Daily NK — an individual in his 50s from Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province identified by his family name of Ri, an individual in his 30s from Pochon County, Yanggang Province identified by his family name of Pak, and an individual in his 40s from Chasong County, Chagang Province identified by his family name of Kim — said that since the border closure, people who used to live day-by-day have been “dying one after the other.”

Ri said tragedy has struck his neighbors. He said he has seen many cases where neighbors have gone around begging for food, only for “smoke to stop rising from the chimneys of their homes a short time later.”

Kim offered more specific numbers. He said in Chasong County, about 40 people have starved to death, as have about 10 people in Hwapyong County. He said he just happened to overhear the figures, which were from a three-month period from January to March.

Pak, too, said the situation on the ground is miserable. He said people have quietly been disappearing from several villages since last November. Pak noted that the police have been unable to find them, even if you file a missing person report with the inminban (people’s units). He added that for the last several months, families continue to be found dead in hillside farm shacks.

Civilian search teams mobilized by the police have discovered these tragic scenes. Pak said people talk of discovering bodies in caves deep in the mountains.

Authorities focus on self-reliance, and warn against “incidents” around Kim Il Sung’s birthday

What are North Korea authorities doing about this? The three North Koreans all said the authorities are responding to starvation deaths by stressing “self-reliance.”

Kim said the authorities have tasked one person per four homes, or one person per each “harmonica housing unit” (North Korea’s particular form of multi-unit housing) with conducting morning inspections. This means one person is checking on several households.

The authorities are reportedly doing something similar in Pochon County, too. Pak said since the middle of last month, the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Social Security have been calling on locals to go around every morning and see if smoke is rising from their neighbors’ chimneys. If there is no smoke, locals should knock on their doors and help them.

Moreover, the authorities are taking no particular measures regarding starvation deaths. Amid the neglect, locals are looking for their own solutions. In fact, Ri said leaders say nothing when people die, so the inminban simply go into the hills and bury the dead.

Locals complain that the authorities nonetheless focus their efforts on political propaganda. Ri said the Ministry of Social Security has been calling on locals to ensure there are no deaths — particularly of starvation — or disappearances on the 110th birthday of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il Sung.

Ri said the county party and a team from the people’s committee tasked with preparing for the Day of the Sun — the holiday marking Kim Il Sung’s birthday — have been going around the county holding lectures that call on people to find out which households are starving to prevent “unfortunate deaths” on the holiday. 

Despair as people “quietly die off”

As the situation continues, people are reportedly growing pessimistic over the possibility of circumstances improving.

Kim said a person who starved to death in Chunggang several days ago left behind a note saying if he could die in peace even if he had “just a single mackerel and a single Pukchong apple to eat.”

Kim said struggling families are saying they would happily die if they could feed their children a meal of rice mixed with corn and some soybean soup. He noted that people have been quietly dying everywhere after holding out for two years since the closure of the border.

Park recalled that one day beggars turned up at a local market. Enforcement teams chased them out, and now they have all disappeared. He said more and more locals complain with the border closed and smuggling banned, they now have no hope at all.

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

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