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Glimpses of a Hermit Nation

A decade after a massive famine, North Koreans are still struggling. In Chongjin, deprivation spurs change.

July 03, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

Tumen, China — His day begins at 4:30 a.m. The 64-year-old retired math teacher doesn't own a clock or even a watch, but the internal alarm that has kept him alive while so many of his fellow North Koreans have starved to death tells him he had better get out to pick grass if his family is to survive.

Soon the streets of his city, Chongjin, will be swarming with others doing the same. Some cook the grass to eat. The teacher feeds it to the rabbits his family sells at the market.

At 10 a.m., he eats a modest meal of corn porridge. A late breakfast is best as it allows him and his wife to skip lunch. Then he goes with a hand cart to collect firewood. He has to walk two hours from Chongjin, mostly uphill, to find a patch that has not been stripped bare of vegetation.

"There is no time for rest. If you stand still, you will not survive," said the teacher, a lean, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair who could be described as elegant if not for his threadbare trousers and his fingernails, as gnarled as oyster shells from chronic malnutrition.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korean leader -- An article about North Korea in the July 3 Section A incorrectly described a sign heralding leader Kim Jong Il. The sign called him the "Sun of the 21st Century," not the "Son of the 21st Century."

Later, if it is one of the rare evenings when there is electricity, he might indulge in reading Tolstoy. More often than not, he collapses for a few hours of sleep before the routine is replayed for yet another day.

Such is the quest for survival in North Korea, an impoverished country that is the most closed in the world.

Although North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons has captured the world's attention, outsiders know relatively little about its people or the miseries they have endured since a famine in the mid-1990s wiped out an estimated 2 million people. In the rare instances in which foreigners are admitted to the totalitarian country, it is on strictly escorted tours of the capital, Pyongyang, and a few other carefully selected sites.

To penetrate the secrecy, the Los Angeles Times spoke in China and South Korea with more than 30 people from Chongjin, North Korea's third-largest city. Their stories, along with hours of surreptitiously shot video, present a portrait of the city and of daily life in a nation struggling with deprivation and change.

Most of the factories in Chongjin, a former industrial port, are rusting into ruin. Those still operating can barely pay salaries; the average worker's wage amounts to $1 per month at current exchange rates.

Even with international aid, many people go to bed wondering whether they will eat the next day. Residents, along with officials of the United Nations World Food Program, say food shortages have grown worse again in the last year.

"Maybe people are not dying today out in the streets like they were before," said a coal miner who lives in Chongjin, "but they are still dying -- just quietly in their homes."

The prolonged hardship has left North Koreans increasingly disillusioned with leader Kim Jong Il and the ideology of national self-reliance that once held the nation together. People say the regime has less and less control.

With corruption running rampant, the state is no longer solely in charge of commerce. People hustle to sell anything they can -- prohibited videos of South Korean soap operas, real estate and official travel documents. In this free-for-all, some people have prospered. Many more are just a step ahead of starvation.

Like the retired math teacher, many of the people interviewed are Chongjin residents who have slipped into China temporarily to work or beg. Others are defectors who live in South Korea.

They may have prejudices. Current residents may minimize their difficulties out of lingering loyalty to their country. Some refuse to be quoted by name, fearing that they or their family members in North Korea might be punished -- unauthorized contact with foreigners is a serious crime in North Korea. Defectors are often bitter, sometimes recalling only the darkest aspects of their lives in North Korea, and may exaggerate hardships to win sympathy.

To a great degree, however, their stories are supported by the few foreigners who have visited the area. And their reminiscences overlap.

The retired math teacher, a well-spoken man who seems like he should be on a college campus, receives a monthly pension of 700 won, about 30 cents at the unofficial exchange rate. It is not even enough to buy 2 pounds of rice.

Although his wife, son and daughter-in-law work as hard as he does, the teacher's family survives on various "substitute" foods, mainly ground corn -- not corn meal, but a powder made from the entire plant, including husks, cobs, stems and leaves.

"We fry it like pancakes, we make it into cakes. We drop it in water like noodles," said the teacher, who cried unabashedly as he described his life in Chongjin. "We try to cook it this way or that, but it still gives you indigestion."

At first glance, visitors say, Chongjin almost looks like a pleasant place to live. The coastline in this remote northeastern stretch of the country is as rugged as Maine's, the ocean waters a vivid aquamarine.

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