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The following is from a monthly Choson magazine article (Jan Wolgan, Choson, pp 443-449) summarizing a conversation in a “third country” between a Republic of Korea (ROK) citizen and a senior Korean Workers Party official (KWP), reportedly his relative, who describes North Korea's (NK) desolate living conditions, and notes its arrogant and oppressive military.
Frankly, the Fatherland is out of medicine. If you get sick, there is nothing you can do about it. Hospitals are empty buildings, doctors don't bother to go to work, and the state has stopped paying them salaries. If you happen to need an operation, you are in big trouble. You can find a lot of what you need for an operation on the black market, including medications, saline solution, and even hypodermic needles, but the price is very high. You acquire this stuff, and then you approach a physician. You buy him a drink, and then you pay him an enormous amount to perform the operation.
If you take somebody to a restaurant for dinner in the Fatherland, it costs you 500-700 North Korean won, a huge amount that is necessary because the restaurant had to buy the food on the black market (yami sijang). You get your bed free if you're admitted to a hospital, but that's because you have to bring all your food from home. Nobody bothers to go to the hospital. I got hepatitis 20 years ago and have yet to receive treatment worthy of the term.
I think I got hepatitis because I drank too much. I got a lot of free industrial alcohol and mixed it with water and drank a lot of it. I don't think there is a single person in North Korean who doesn't have or hasn't had hepatitis. It's a miracle I'm still alive at my age. Most of my juniors in the KWP are already dead. I contracted tuberculosis 15 years ago, and almost everybody in NK has tuberculosis. I ate cat in the spring and fall because cat meat is good for tuberculosis. You can't find a cat in NK today because so many people have tuberculosis that they've eaten all the cats.
Hepatitis, tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid fever, spotted fever, and malaria have reached epidemic proportions in NK today, but the Public Health Centers have no medications and can do nothing. Anyway, workers at the Centers don't get their salaries anymore, so they don't bother to go to work. We're at wit's end. It's been several years since the state stopped paying salaries. My salary is 260 NK won a month, but I haven't been paid in so long I can't remember. Laborers and office workers make at most 100 NK won per month, but the state can't even pay that. Nobody can trust a state or a government like this.
Everybody goes everywhere looking for food, and that has caused the de facto collapse of the system of controls on travel. NK proudly says it operates 170 free colleges and universities, but it costs a student 15,000-20,000 NK won to finish four years of college. College dining halls have been closed for years. They're filthy and vermin-ridden today. Regular lectures are not held, and few students attend those that are held because the students have left the schools in search of ways to make money to pay for school.
At final exam time at the end of a semester, the student leader of each class collects money from the students and gives it to the professor, along with their names and the amounts they paid. The professor grades them according to how much they pay. Three points is passing, four is outstanding, and five is most outstanding. That's why it costs so much to graduate. This practice is universal in NK. The professors don't get their salaries either, of course.
There are no jobs when students do graduate, and for the lucky few who manage to land a position, there is no salary. My son put in his 12 years in the military, came home, and went to college. He had paid 20,000 NK won to his professors by the time he graduated. He was assigned to a good position but there was no salary. He's in business now with smugglers who bring in stuff for the black market.
Black markets are active everywhere in NK. They set up shop outside the state-operated stores and throng with people. The price is high, but you can buy anything on the black market. Apples are 10 NK won each; eggs 10 won; rice 60 won per kilogram; a live chicken 300 won; a dog 1,500 won; a goat 1,600 won; a walleye (Alaska Pollack) 100 won; coal 50 won for a bucketful; and a bundle of kindling wood 10 won. You can exchange U.S. dollars anytime you want, at the rate of 20,000 NK won per $100. A hundred dollars buys the NK won what a laborer earns in 20 years. Everybody wants U.S. or Chinese money.
The NK people owe to Chinese smugglers the standard of living they have managed to preserve, and we are thankful to them for that. Everybody sells on the black market, professors and doctors included. They have no choice if they want to stay alive. There's worse. Young women put on makeup and dress as fancy as they can and crowd into back alleys to sell themselves for 10 Chinese yuan, or one U.S. dollar. They only sell their upper bodies, though. They make little, and live wretched lives. Crusty men ask the girls why they don't sell their lower bodies. The girls answer without a trace of embarrassment, saying that there is no piped water anymore, so they can't wash their lower bodies.
A walleye is 100 NK won, the amount a laborer should make in a month, but that's a good price. You can't get fish because the state can't supply the fishermen with fuel for their boats, so they can't go out. The fishermen are out of work, too, in other words. Many of them use rowboats to catch what they can, and they sell their catch on the black market. It's risky to go out to sea in those small boats, and that's why I say the price is reasonable.
The 50,000 tons of annual oil aid NK receives from the U.S. goes to a refinery in North Hamgyong Province's Hongi County. The plant can process one million tons a year. It refines the U.S. oil, and all the products are sent for use by the military. None of it gets to the fishermen. None of the 300,000 tons of petroleum that comes yearly from China via the pipeline across the Yalu to the Supung Power Plant ever reaches civilian hands, either. Rumor has it that NK gets 300,000 tons from the West (Yellow) Sea and even exports some of it, but that is ridiculous. Even if the oil were there, NK has no means to develop it.
A bucket of coal costs 50 NK won. That's half a month's salary for a laborer. In fact, the coalmines and the coalfields are insolvent, and the miners are out of work. To survive they're going back down in the pits as families and digging what coal they can to sell on the black market. Fathers tie ropes around their waists and lower themselves down crumbling shafts and dig the coal by hand. The whole family tugs up his coal on ropes, and at dawn every morning they hurry to the nearest community to sell their coal. It usually doesn't sell because the NK people are living cold. Our apartments are built with ondol floors that must be heated by a fire in the kitchen, on which the cooking is done simultaneously. People don't draw salaries anymore, they don't have any money, and they can't afford to buy coal.
Nobody lights fires in the kitchens anymore. We've grown accustomed to sleeping on cold floors. Cooking is done by everybody with stolen electricity. Junior KWP officials, senior KWP officials, it doesn't matter. Everybody, universally, steals electricity. The state puts out electricity three times a day, at meal times. The power is not provided for cooking purposes, but that's how it's used. People make simple and dangerous little electric cookers out of bricks and do a day's cooking when the electricity comes in at dinnertime. We get a little piped water timed to coincide with the arrival of the electricity. We've grown accustomed to living without lights at night.
The government provides a little electric power three times a day, and it does that because it wants the people to catch the day's propaganda on TV. TV fare everyday includes virtually identical scenes of “General Kim Chong Il” visiting some military unit. People turn off the TV, saying they've seen it all before. The people aren't taking in televised propaganda, they're stealing the TV electricity to hurry through a day of cooking.
NK launched the Kwangmyongsong 1 Rocket (Choson editor: Taepodong 1) one time, but replayed the launch day in and day out, the announcer solemnly saying that “The Dear Leader has sounded the roar of the guns of a great power state to all the world.” The people hated the scenes, hated the sounds. We spoke back to the TV, “Hey, stop! The roar of the guns is breaking our eardrums!”
The propaganda called the leader the “sun of the 21st Century,” so people said that was one sun too many. People don't speak out rashly, but everybody knows what everybody's thinking. We say that China lives 10 times better than NK, that the ROK lives 10 times better than China, and that the ROK, then, lives 100 times better than NK. We say that rumors which have no legs can leap great distances in a day. Well this one has spread everywhere.
As recently as the 1940s, Japan's Supung Power Plant on the Yalu provided the north all the electricity it needed and sent excess power not only to the south but even into northeast China. That plant is still there, but it's so old that only one generator remains in operation, and that requires daily maintenance. The NK government brags about the 400 small power plants it's built, hydro and thermal, but it's all a lie. f 400 were operating would we be wandering around in this dark country? It's a lie. Factories don't operate, including those meant to manufacture military goods. Special missile-related plants are the only ones operating, and they get electricity on a round-robin basis.
The NK People's Military today is arrogant and oppressive. General Kim Chong Il said in a directive, “The People's Military is the KWP.” That put the country under the thumb of the military. Military units in mountainous areas ambush trucks carrying food supplies, fire their weapons, and steal whatever food they want. This opens the door for escorts and drivers to help themselves to shares of whatever the military didn't take away. They share the booty with their superiors and then report that the food was stolen.
These reports make their way to the national level, and everybody in the chain knows the military did the stealing, but nobody dares say a word about it. He who would dare to do so would be charged and punished for breaking the law against profaning the National Defense Commission chairman.
Farmers hide their chickens, dogs, and goats from the military. Every farm family rounds up these animals as night falls and locks them in storerooms. That doesn't stop soldiers, who actually cut holes in storeroom roofs and let themselves down to get at the animals. A soldier is a professional thief by the time he completes his 12 year tour in the military. My own son spent his time in the military and came home a professional thief. It's so bad that people refer to the military as a “burglar training center.”
Farmers do their share of stealing. When the fall harvest is in, groups of farmers steal and hide underground large amounts of grain, and then underreport the harvest. We estimate that 30-40% of the total harvest is stolen in one way or another. I understand it is routine practice in the ROK for the president to steal money. Well, theft on this scale is routine practice in NK.