KIM IL-SUNG’S DEATH had, in fact, not changed much in the country. Kim Jong-il had gradually been assuming power over the decade preceding his father’s death. The economy’s inevitable collapse had been set in motion years before under the weight of its own inefficiencies. But North Korea’s Great Leader picked a convenient time to die, one that would prevent his legacy from being tarnished by the catastrophic events of the coming years. Had he lived a moment longer, North Koreans today would not be able to look back with nostalgia at the relative plenty they had enjoyed during his lifetime. His passing coincided with the last gasps of his Communist dream.
By 1995, North Korea’s economy was as stone-cold dead as the Great Leader’s body. Per capita income was plummeting, from $2,460 in 1991 to $719 in 1995. North Korea’s merchandise exports dropped from $2 billion to about $800 million. The collapse of the economy had an organic quality to it, as though a living being were slowly shutting down and dying.
In Chongjin, the hulking factories along the waterfront looked like a wall of rust, their smokestacks lined up like the bars of a prison. The smokestacks were the most reliable indicators. On most days, only a few spat out smoke from their furnaces. You could count the distinct puffs of smoke—one, two, at most three—and see that the heartbeat of the city was fading. The main gates of the factories were now coiled shut with chains and padlocks—that is, if the locks hadn’t been spirited away by the thieves who had already dismantled and removed the machinery.
Just north of the industrial district the waves lapped quietly against the empty piers of the port. The Japanese and Soviet freighters that used to make regular calls to pick up steel plates from the mills were gone. Now there was only North Korea’s fleet of rusting fishing vessels. Perched on a cliff above the port, giant letters proclaimed KIM JONG-IL, SUN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, but even they appeared to be crumbling into the landscape. The red lettering on the propaganda signs along the road hadn’t been repainted for years and had faded to a dull pink.
One of the most polluted cities in North Korea, Chongjin now took on a new beauty, stark and quiet. In autumn and winter, the dry seasons in northeast Asia, the sky was crisp and blue. The sharp odor of sulfur from the steelworks had lifted, allowing people once more to smell the sea. In summer, hollyhocks crept up the sides of concrete walls. Even the garbage was gone. Not that North Korea ever had much litter—there was never enough of anything to go to waste—but with economic life at a standstill, the detritus of civilization was disappearing. There were no plastic bags or candy wrappers wafting in the breeze, no soda cans floating in the harbor. If somebody stamped out a cigarette on the pavement, somebody else would pick it up to extract a few flecks of tobacco to roll again with newspaper.
28 November 2014
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 1810-1832:
27 November 2014
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 534-548:
In fact, Japanese Koreans, who were known as kitachosenjin, after the Japanese term for North Korea, Kita Chosen, lived in a world apart. They had distinctive accents and tended to marry one another. Although they were far from rich by Japanese standards, they were wealthy compared with ordinary North Koreans. They had arrived in the new country with leather shoes and nice woolen sweaters, while North Koreans wore canvas on their feet and shiny polyester. Their relatives regularly sent them Japanese yen, which could be used in special hard-currency shops to buy appliances. Some had even brought over automobiles, although soon enough they would break down for lack of spare parts and have to be donated to the North Korean government. Years after they arrived, Japanese Koreans received regular visits from their relatives who would travel over on the Mangyongbong-92 ferry with money and gifts. The ferry was operated by the pro-regime Chosen Soren and its visits to North Korea were encouraged as a way of bringing currency into the country. The regime skimmed off a portion of the money sent by relatives. Yet for all their wealth, the Japanese Koreans occupied a lowly position in the North Korean hierarchy. No matter that they were avowed Communists who gave up comfortable lives in Japan, they were lumped in with the hostile class. The regime couldn’t trust anyone with money who wasn’t a member of the Workers’ Party. They were among the few North Koreans permitted to have contact with the outside, and that in itself made them unreliable; the strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.
The new immigrants from Japan quickly shed their idealism. Some of the early immigrants who arrived in North Korea wrote letters home warning others not to come, but those letters were intercepted and destroyed. Many of the Japanese Koreans, including some prominent in Chosen Soren, ended up being purged in the early 1970s, the leaders executed, their families sent to the gulag.
26 November 2014
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2445-2482:
For the first time, the markets stocked household goods so cheap even North Koreans could buy them. The results of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1970s and 1980s were seeping into North Korea. From China came writing paper, pens and pencils, fragrant shampoos, hairbrushes, nail clippers, razor blades, batteries, cigarette lighters, umbrellas, toy cars, socks. It had been so long since North Korea could manufacture anything that the ordinary had become extraordinary.
The clothing was also a revelation, an invasion of alien colors from another world. Pink, yellow, tangerine, and turquoise—colors as luscious as the tropical fruits now on the market, in fabrics much softer and shinier than anything made in North Korea. Occasionally you’d see some better-quality clothes at the market with the labels ripped out. The vendors would whisper that these came from areh dongae, “the village below,” a euphemism for South Korea. People would pay more for clothing from the enemy state.
Every time Mrs. Song went to the market it seemed bigger and bigger. It was no longer just the old ladies squatting over tarpaulins in the dirt; there were hundreds of people laying out merchandise on wooden crates or carts. Vendors brought in tables and display cases and umbrellas to protect their wares from the sun.
The biggest market in Chongjin sprang up in an industrial wasteland near the Sunam River, which cut inland from the port through the center of the city. Behind the pitiful wreckage of the Chemical Textile factory, the Sunam Market would eventually become the largest market in North Korea. It was organized much like markets elsewhere in Asia—several aisles devoted to food, others to hardware, pots and pans, cosmetics, shoes, and clothing. It wasn’t until 2002 that Kim Jong-il belatedly legalized the markets. The Chongjin authorities, however, had recognized their de facto reality years earlier and begun to regulate them. The market authorities charged the vendors 70 won a day rent—about the price of a kilo of rice. The vendors who couldn’t afford the rent set up outside the gates, and so the market expanded further, spilling onto the sloping banks of the river. Mrs. Song’s cookie business never rose to the level where she would get her own booth. She didn’t want to pay the rent. But she did become part of a community of vendors who worked around the edges of a market in Songpyeon, a district west of the port where she moved once she made a little money.
The markets were magnets for all sorts of other businesses. Outside Sunam, along a whitewashed wall crawling with hollyhocks, was a line of crude wooden carts. Their owners usually slept on top, waiting for customers who needed merchandise transported. Chongjin had no taxis, not even the rickshaws or pedicabs of China (the North Korean government thought them demeaning), but people had decided to fill a void by setting themselves up as porters. Hairdressers and barbers trained by the government’s Convenience Bureau, the agency that was supposed to provide all services, set up mobile haircutting services. All they needed was a pair of scissors and a mirror. They worked near the food market, often getting into quarrels with the other vendors, who didn’t want hair wafting into their food. The hairdressers clipped quickly, one eye making sure a razor didn’t nick an ear, the other looking out for the police, who would confiscate their equipment if they were caught engaging in private business. Still, it was lucrative. Women with stomachs growling from hunger would shell out their last won for a perm.
By a market at the train tracks, people set up makeshift restaurants with planks of wood laid across bricks for tables, overturned buckets for chairs. The customers ate quickly, their spoons scraping small metal bowls of steaming soup or noodles. The cooks sweated over cylindrical metal stoves no bigger than paint cans, cranking old-fashioned bellows to fan the fires. It was not unusual to see a woman squatting over the fire with a baby strapped onto her back.
The vast majority of the vendors were women. Koreans accorded a low status to markets, so traditionally they were frequented only by women. This remained the case in the 1990s even as the markets expanded. Men had to stay with their work units, around which all life in North Korea revolved, but women were sufficiently expendable that they could wriggle out of their day jobs. Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector from Chongjin who became a journalist in Seoul, told me he believed that Kim Jong-il had tacitly agreed to let women work privately to relieve the pressure on families. “If the ajummas [married women] hadn’t been allowed to work, there would have been a revolution,” he said. The result was that the face of the new economy was increasingly female. The men were stuck in the unpaying state jobs; women were making the money. “Men aren’t worth as much as the dog that guards the house,” some of the ajummas would whisper among themselves. Women’s superior earnings couldn’t trump thousands of years of patriarchal culture, but they did confer a certain independence.
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2613-2626:
It is worth noting here how extraordinary it was for anyone to be homeless in North Korea. This was, after all, the country that had developed the most painstaking systems to keep track of its citizens. Everybody had a fixed address and a work unit and both were tied to food rations—if you left home, you couldn’t get fed. People didn’t dare visit a relative in the next town without a travel permit. Even overnight visitors were supposed to be registered with the inminban, which in turn had to report to the police the name, gender, registration number, travel permit number, and the purpose of the visit. Police conducted regular spot checks around midnight to make sure nobody had unauthorized visitors. One had to carry at all times a “citizen’s certificate,” a twelve-page passport-size booklet that contained a wealth of information about the bearer. It was modeled on the old Soviet ID.
All that changed with the famine. Without food distribution, there was no reason to stay at your fixed address. If sitting still meant you starved to death, no threat the regime levied could keep people home. For the first time, North Koreans were wandering around their own country with impunity. Among the homeless population, a disproportionate number were children or teenagers. In some cases, their parents had gone off in search of jobs or food. But there was another, even stranger, explanation. Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households—they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive. That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.
25 November 2014
From Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009), Kindle Loc. 1672-1694:
Making one’s own medicine is an integral part of being a doctor in North Korea. Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton as well to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect the herbs themselves; Dr. Kim’s work unit took off as much as a month in spring and autumn to gather herbs, during which time the doctors slept out in the open and washed only every few days. Each had a quota to fill. They had to bring their haul back to the hospital pharmacy, where it would be weighed, and if the amount was insufficient, they would be sent out again. Often, the doctors had to hike far into the mountains because the more accessible areas had already been scoured by ordinary citizens who sought to sell the herbs or use them for themselves. The most coveted was peony root, which was used as a muscle relaxant and to treat nervous disorders. Wild yam was thought to regulate menstrual cycles. Dandelion was used to stimulate digestion and ginger to prevent nausea. Atractylodes, which is also popular in Chinese medicine to strengthen immunity, was used when it was impossible to get antibiotics.
For years, North Korean hospitals had been using herbal remedies in combination with Western medicine. Instead of painkillers, the doctors used cupping, a technique in which a suction cup is applied to stimulate circulation to parts of the body. Another technique borrowed from the Chinese involved lighting sticks of mug-wort next to the afflicted area. With anesthesia in short supply, acupuncture would be used for simpler surgeries, such as appendectomies.
“When it works, it works very well,” Dr. Kim told me years later. And when it didn’t? Patients would be strapped to the operating table to prevent them from flailing about. For the most part, North Koreans were stoical about enduring pain during medical treatment. “They weren’t like South Koreans, who scream and holler about the slightest little thing,” Dr. Kim said.
For all its shortcomings, North Korea’s public health system provided the public with better care than they’d had in pre-Communist times. The right to “universal free medical service … to improve working people’s health” was in fact written into the North Korean constitution. Dr. Kim was proud to be a part of the health-care system and gratified by the service she provided her patients. But by the early 1990s, the deficiencies in the system became more pronounced. Much of the medical equipment was obsolete and broken down, with spare parts impossible to obtain since the factories in the Communist-bloc countries where they were manufactured were by now privatized. The pharmaceutical factory in Chongjin curtailed its production due to a lack of supplies and electricity. There was little money to import pharmaceuticals from abroad. The bag that Dr. Kim carried on her rounds had gotten progressively lighter until she had nothing inside but her stethoscope. All she could do for patients was write prescriptions and hope that they had a connection in China or Japan, or a stash of money to buy the drugs on the black market.