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North Koreans fear another famine amid economic crisis

Women who fled to China describe acute shortages and anger after a disastrous currency devaluation. As an ailing Kim tries to secure his son's ascension, some people are beginning to speak out.

March 25, 2010|By Barbara Demick
  • North Korean workers in the northeastern port city of Chongjin sort enriched biscuits from the U.N. World Food Program.
North Korean workers in the northeastern port city of Chongjin sort enriched… (U.N. World Food Program )

Reporting from Yanji, China — North Koreans who recently fled to China say many of their fellow citizens are losing faith in the regime of Kim Jong Il after a disastrous currency revaluation that wiped out savings and left food scarcer than at any time since the famine of the mid-1990s, when as many as 2 million people died.

"People are outspoken. They complain," said a 56-year-old woman from the border city of Musan who gave her name as Li Mi Hee.

Lowering her voice to a whisper, she said, "My son thinks that something might happen. I don't know what, but I can tell you this: People have opinions. . . . It is not like the 1990s when people just died without saying what they thought."

Li was one of several North Korean women from different parts of the country interviewed this month near the border with China. Using pseudonyms, as many North Koreans do even outside their country to protect family members from retaliation, they told of panic in the wake of the bungled economic move, which left even a staple such as rice in the hands of black marketeers and sent the communist government scrambling to repair the damage.

"The whole economic structure has collapsed because of the currency reform," said James Kim, a Korean American educator and president of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, who is in the process of setting up a similar school in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "It is a very difficult situation for them. . . . It might end up being worse than the 1990s."

The economic disarray comes at a delicate time for North Korea as the 68-year-old Kim Jong Il, reportedly suffering the effects of a stroke, tries to hand the reins of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, a little-known figure who is in his 20s.

In the last few months, officials of the ruling Korean Workers' Party have been quietly told that the younger Kim is the designated successor; many expect his photograph soon to be hung next to the mandatory portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung.

"If his father is doing such a bad job, what can we expect of his son?" Li said.

Trying to deflect public anger, the government reportedly executed the senior bureaucrat who was the architect of the currency revaluation. South Korea's Yonhap news service reported last week that Pak Nam Ki, 77, chief of planning and finance for the Korean Workers' Party, had been shot by a firing squad in Pyongyang after being charged with "deliberately ruining the national economy."

Party officials have also issued rare public apologies over the mishandling of the currency, North Koreans say.

"They apologized, but it didn't do us any good. People already had lost all their money," said Song Hee, a 17-year-old from Musan.

She said party officials in Musan went door to door, speaking to neighborhood leaders of the inminban, or "people's committee," about the economic mistakes.

The teenager fled last month after the revaluation wiped out the cash her parents had been saving in hopes of sending her to college.

"My friends would leave too if they could. They see no future in North Korea," Song Hee said nervously, her bangs slick with sweat across her forehead.

Before the revaluation, Song Hee said, her mother had been making a modest living selling cheap socks, keeping the family reasonably well fed.

North Korea announced Nov. 30 that it was issuing new currency and that the old currency would become invalid. People were permitted to trade in their old money for new, but only the equivalent of about $30 on the black market. (The limit was later raised.)

Unlike in Pyongyang, where people had seven days' notice, the currency changeover in Musan took place within 48 hours, Song Hee said.

"People were in shock. Our money was becoming like water. With the psychological stress, many people had to go to the hospital," she said.

As far as she knew, nobody dared to disobey the order for fear of punishment.

"We were told that somebody decided he would burn the money instead of giving it to the government. The money had the picture of Kim Il Sung, and because he burned it he was shot to death for treason," Song Hee said.

The idea behind the currency exchange, economists say, was to confiscate the cash of people who had become relatively rich selling on the private market and to restore the equality espoused by the communist system.

"They wanted to make everybody the same," said Choi Kum Ok, a 54-year-old member of the Korean Workers' Party who left North Korea's Yanggang province in mid-December to work in China. Choi, who said she remains loyal to the regime, nonetheless acknowledged that the economic overhaul had backfired.

"There is no food, and what there is has become unaffordable," Choi said.

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