North Korea’s elderly, struggling to survive, sell what they can for food

Many seniors have taken to trading beer rations for money but only get pennies in return.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2022.08.19
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North Korea’s elderly, struggling to survive, sell what they can for food In this May 7, 2016 photo, men, wearing loyalty pins bearing portraits of former leaders Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, or both, take a break in a beer hall in Pyongyang, North Korea.
AP

Elderly people in North Korea, unable to live on their meager state pensions, are resorting to selling their beer ration tickets to earn enough money for food, another example of the dire state of the country’s economy.

The salaries and pensions provided by the North Korean government have not been enough to survive for at least several decades.  Border closures at the start of the coronavirus pandemic have devastated the country, including by creating food shortages that have pushed prices so high some residents are now struggling even more to come up with enough money to eat. 

For the aged, the options are limited. One is to sell the 12 beer ration coupons the government distributes every six months, which equates to about two liters (slightly more than four pints) per month.

“Now in the third consecutive year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hardships of the residents are high, but the living conditions among the elderly are even worse. Most of them are struggling to earn money for food,” a resident of the capital Pyongyang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“You can see the elderly who are old and weak selling beer tickets to earn money near the Taedonggang Beer Bar. These are elderly people who can't afford to live on their social security pension of only about 1,000 won (U.S. $0.12) per month, so they come out to earn a few pennies,” said the source.

It’s a buyer’s market because the coupons only give the bearer the right to buy the liter of beer. The beer itself is sold separately. 

 According to the source, the coupons are bought by the elderly traders, who then resell them for a profit of about $0.10 per ticket. If they sell an entire six-months of coupons, they can earn about 9,600 won, or about $1.20.

“They are outside all day sweating in the hot weather. But the elderly people who don’t have money saved up or are not in a situation to get support from their children have to do this,” the source said. “There are countless elderly people in this situation in the capital Pyongyang.”

Some elderly residents in the capital are even forced to sell their homes in order to feed themselves, according to the source.

“In early July, my friend’s parents, who were living in Chung district, sold their three-bedroom apartment and moved to a smaller one-bedroom in Mangyongdae district. My friend’s father, who was awarded the honorable ‘Hero of Labor’ title, and the family lived in the Youngwoong apartment near Pyongyang station,” the source said.

“However, as their livelihood became difficult and their children could not afford to support their parents, they couldn’t make ends meet. So they moved to a smaller house,” the source said, adding that their livelihood was now tied to the leftover money they had from selling the larger home.

The “Hero of Labor” title conferred additional food rations to the father and a pension five times higher than other elderly people at 5,000 won ($0.62), but that is only enough to buy one kilogram (2.2 lbs) of rice, according to the source.  

Government pensions are too small to live on and the harsh economic conditions brought on by the coronavirus has made it almost impossible for many elderly people to survive, a resident of the city of Hoeryong in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

These days, people are complaining that the unavailability of work makes it more difficult to live now than during the Arduous March,” the second source said, referring to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

“The lives of the elderly who either do not have children to look after them or are incapable of earning money in a business are truly miserable,” the second source said. 

North Koreans are expected to work at their jobs until they are 60 years old, the source said. After that they can receive a meager pension for the duration of their retirement, between 700 and 1,500 won ($0.09 to $0.19) per month.

“Regardless of your age, how can you live on only 1,000 won [$0.12] for an entire month?” the second source said. 

It is often the case that even the meager social security pension is not paid on time. In Hoeryong as well as in most provinces, the social security pension given to the elderly is covered by the tax from the market merchants,” the second source said.

The marketplace has not been operating at full capacity in Hoeryong due to recent lockdowns and restrictions of movement, according to the second source.

“The number of merchants has decreased significantly, so the People’s Committee of the city has no money for the pensions,” the second source said.

To address the problem of poverty among the elderly, North Korea recently built a new nursing home in each province, the second source said, but demand is extremely high and only the privileged can get a bed in any of them.

“In principle, the elderly who have no children to take care of them and the disabled who have lost their ability to work should be admitted to nursing homes. In reality, only seniors with strong backgrounds, such as veterans, people of merit, or officials can enter the homes,” the second source said.

It is a reality in our country that the lives of the elderly are getting worse day by day, no matter how many children they have.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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