Shortages Anger Pyongyang Residents

Food distribution failures in North Korea’s capital hurt morale ahead of an expected power transition.
2010-08-17
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Kim Jong Il inspects food production at a factory in Pyongyang in an undated file photo released by the official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 11, 2010.
Kim Jong Il inspects food production at a factory in Pyongyang in an undated file photo released by the official Korean Central News Agency on Jan. 11, 2010.
AFP

SEOUL—Former residents of Pyongyang say the North Korean public is growing frustrated with increases in food prices, endless shortages of food and daily necessities, and the collapse of the state-controlled food distribution system.

Many of the city’s inhabitants, who traditionally have access to the nation’s best foodstuffs, are now forced to survive on only three or four potatoes a day, the former residents said.

“Market prices continue to rise—people are angry and complain about them—and probably about 60 percent of the people are now unhappy with the authorities,” one man said, on condition he not be named.

“Life just won’t return to normal, food distribution no longer works, and the complaints this time are different from what has been heard in the past,” said the former resident, who had traveled to China to find food.

“In July and August, only potatoes were distributed to workers and other residents of Pyongyang,” the former resident said.

According to the same source, members of the military and “special state agencies,” such as state security agencies, used to receive rice rations, but now even these privileged members of society have been given potatoes instead.

Botched currency reform

Currently, at open markets in the cities of Pyongyang and Pyongsung, a kilogram of rice sells for 1,500 North Korean won (approximately U.S. $1.10 according to black market exchange rates), the former resident said, adding that the prohibitively high cost has forced city-dwellers to purchase potatoes instead.

Pyongyang residents also appear to deeply resent the negative effects of North Korea’s currency reform implemented late last year, the source said.

North Korea issued its revalued won last December, dropping two zeroes off the old won and imposing limits on the amount that could be exchanged per person.

The move sent shock waves through the country, with reports of citizens rushing to black-market money changers to cash in their won for more stable U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan.

The source confirmed that former director of the Planning and Finance Department of the Workers’ Party of North Korea Park Nam Ki, charged with implementing the reform, was publicly executed.

However, the same source said, North Koreans are also angry with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who gave the green light to the ill-fated measures.

The situation is unlikely to change given the large-scale flooding currently affecting North Korean farmland. According to South Korea's Meteorological Administration, rainfall in North Korea jumped 139 percent above the monthly average to 12.6 inches in July.

North Korea's food shortages are caused by a combination of factors including a lack of arable land, erosion caused by deforestation, inadequate water reservoirs necessary to fight drought, shortages of fuel and fertilizer, outdated infrastructure, and a vulnerability to natural disasters, according to the U.N. World Food Programme.

The agency says in its North Korea profile that assessments during 2008 and 2009 indicated "a marginal improvement in household food security," but noted that "public rations are reportedly far from sufficient and daily food consumption for most households is poor."

Leaders scorned

Forty-year-old Han Jeong Soon, another former resident of Pyongyang who fled the country and is currently living in China awaiting approval to resettle in South Korea, described the current mood of Pyongyang residents as disillusioned.

“Once the State started hurting the people,” she said, she “lost her beliefs and confidence” in the system.

Han added that “in the absence of confidence, patriotism also fades away.”

The discontent now affecting Pyongyang residents is likely to harm the solidarity the regime needs to proceed with a successful change in national leadership, according to Han.

Kim Jong Un, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest son, now heads the Stalinist country’s powerful State Security Department, knowledgeable sources say, bolstering speculation he is being groomed to succeed his father.

Speculation on a possible succession has intensified since the 67-year-old current leader suffered a stroke in August 2008.

Original reporting by RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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