|A letter from North Korea|
Editor's Note: This letter was written by a man living in a city in South Pyongan Province, North Korea.
The letter was forwarded last April to the Monthly Choson through a channel which cannot be divulged. To protect the writer, Monthly Choson has removed all reference to cations and names.
A letter from North Korea
What follows is the story of a family devastated by starvation, written by its sole surviving member, a man who lost his mother, younger sister, wife, son and two daughters.
It was on that road that my oldest daughter breathed her last, and after that the body of my youngest daughter was found in the garbage dump at Sunchon station, leaving me in a state of total desolation. My youngest daughter, my revolutionary comrade who remained true to me to the very end, was my last blood relative in a world. When I brought her body home and examined it I found a plastic bag on her chest containing some carefully chosen items -- a pear peel
and core, some pollack skin and a pork bone. I cried every time I thought about my daughter, who had probably restrained herself from eating those things so she could share them with me. I buried her on a sunny mountainside, placing the plastic bag over her mouth. This is written with a mixture of blood and tears. I hope it is read with that same understanding. Please forgive my countrymen who have committed so many transgressions quite out of their control. Three million people have starved in silence. They did their best for you, Great Leader! (Kim Il-sung) Now, General (Kim Jong-il), it is your turn to answer!"
A tragic life
This is how my life was patterned.
Please help bring an end to this tragedy so that my brothers and sisters will no longer have to die. 000, 00dong, 00 city, South Pyongan Province, Democratic People's Republic of Korea>
I was born in 1952, the second son of 000, my mother and 000, my father, in 00 district, 00-dong, Pyongyang. I began life during the Korean War, lulled to sleep by the sounds of battle. I have walked a thornier road than most, perhaps due to my fate of having experienced the upheaval of war and the frightening sound of guns. By the time I was 40, I had experienced the sorrow of losing my mother, sister, wife, son and daughters to starvation. By some miracle I am still alive today, but I have no guarantee about tomorrow. In North Korea, where it seems starvation is just a matter of time, I couldn't resist the desire to leave some kind of testament to my life.
My brothers and sisters are still walking the treacherous road I have walked. How many more people must become victims of starvation before the famine will end? As one of the bereaved, I can't suppress my anger any longer. Screaming at the top of my lungs and waving my fist at the perpetrators of this disaster will not ease my pain. Nor will it bring back my wife, son and daughters, who have all passed on to another world. When I think back on how hard it was to feed and clothe my own small family, I begin to get some understanding of the devotion of our Leader[Kim Il-song] and the Dear General[Kim Jong-il] to feed a huge family of 23 million.
I only wish that the outside door had not been locked, that precious foreign currency had not been squandered on an arms buildup and the perpetuation of a personality cult, so that even one of my family members might have lived to be with me until I die. If God were to ask me: 'What is your wish?' My reply would be: 'It is that the people of North Korea would not have to know what hunger is.' And if God were to ask me: 'What is your second wish?' My answer would be: 'My second wish is that the people of North Korea would not have to know what hunger is.' And if God were to ask me: 'What is your third wish?' I would have to say again: 'My third wish is that the people of North Korea would not have to know what hunger is.'
Finding consolation in talking about food
I wonder how many of my people the three-syllable word "star-va-tion!," has taken to the next world? How many children's smiles it has wiped out? How many tears has it poured into the eyes of mothers in this country? How many criminals has it made?
Surely, there is no one who doesn't realize the importance of food in sustaining life. As the old saying goes: "Eating is the most important thing in life."
But there is a strange philosophical argument people make: "Do we eat to live, or live to eat?" This question is taken up by all kinds of people, and my answer is always the same: "I eat to live." For some reason, I've always felt that as a human with a conscience, not just an animal, it was foolish to say that one lives purely to eat. The main reason this question comes up so often is that North Koreans have been so restricted by what they can eat for so long that their bodies are weak, and they desperately yearn for something that tastes oily, very oily. My father, who never got to eat much meat or oil, but only vegetables with salt and soy sauce, used to joke that, "if you took out my stomach and held it up to the sun you'd be able to see the next door neighbor's house." In the face of North Korea's food shortages, people are always talking about food, both at work and at home. From a young age, we managed to eat food like meat, oil, eggs, bean curd and bean sprouts only about five times per year. Under the circumstances, getting some comfort by talking about food was one of the few pleasures we enjoyed.
During breaks at work talking about food was standard fare, and we would brag about how we went to so-and-so's house and ate such-and-such.
Being a parent, I found that children, too, talked about food when they were playing. I felt sad that I couldn't fulfill their food fantasies, and it always left me wondering how I could get them enough to eat. I never had much success. I was in a terrible state when I started writing this. Just when I was beginning to forget the past and just when the scars were beginning to heal, I got goosebumps and became frightened of revisiting the past.
I'd imagine myself eating until I finally fell asleep exhausted
I beg the reader's understanding, as I'm writing out of a solemn obligation. There's no doubt that it's very difficult for me, an inexperienced writer, to find the words to describe the lack of food, never mind what it tastes like; to write about shortages of soy sauce, bean-paste sauce and even salt; to describe a place where there's nothing to eat except rotten food. I spent my childhood hungry. My life, which from the start has been overshadowed by hunger, can't be separated from my family history, nor can it be set apart from the history of our people and the history of our country.
We received rations of millet during the 1960s when I was in my teens. Back then the processing was not as advanced as it is now and it was often painful when the rough millet shells would get stuck in my throat. There was never enough, so my mother would add extra water to stretch out enough for the whole family. When I came in at nightfall after running around playing with the neighborhood kids, mom would put out some watery millet porridge and radish kimchi. I remember as if it was yesterday how difficult the winters were, where the days were short and the nights were so very long, how I would gulp down that bowl of millet gruel in a flash.
Our family of five would lie on the floor of a tiny room that was heated by pine needles. I would fantasize about eating with my older brother and fall asleep exhausted. It was a good day when I could gradually fall asleep, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get comfortable because I was too hungry to sleep. Every time my stomach growled a new thought would pop into my head. I even felt bitter towards my parents. Of the three children in our family, the youngest, who was still at the breast, was the luckiest. He didn't have to bear an empty stomach or food fantasies. I was envious of my younger brother for whom my mother's breast was available every time he cried.
After finishing the watery gruel, us kids would eye our parents' bowls hoping they would share some of theirs. I don't know how my mom could find the strength to give up a spoonful to each of us.
The smoke drifting up from the pine tree branches and dad's cigarettes made our small house unbearably gloomy. The sighs of hunger coming from all members of our family made it even more depressing. My brother and I would hold out some vague expectation that if we were restless enough mom might make us a bedtime snack, but those hopes would fade as it got later. In our young minds we got sadder as we realized that if she was going to make a snack, she'd have made it before midnight, not with dawn approaching.
Mother and Father
Mom was as careful as could be, using a small liquor glass to measure food portions. Once my dad got into trouble when he felt sorry for us and told mom: "Dear, make something for the kids to eat!" Mom gave him an icy stare, saying angrily: "What good will that do when I can barely feed them every day?" Dad didn't bother to respond. This made me like my dad better than my mom, who I secretly disliked for being so miserly. Once I got a spanking from my mom for wondering out loud if she was my stepmother. Inside she was crying, but all I could think about was my empty stomach. It was years before I came to understand her good intentions.
Dad was a very strict head of the family, except that he had absolutely no say regarding food management. Instead, my dad would make up for it by sneaking food to me if he came across some outside the house. My father would puff on a cigarette and tell my mom, "Dear, life is sure hard, isn't it?" Mom wouldn't even bother to reply. My dad was a "1945 communist party member," an honest and hardworking man with a steadfast belief in the Great Leader and party. Dad invested a lot of time trying to educate my mom, but mostly to no avail. She had lived during the Japanese colonial era and had experienced the privations of war. She held no illusions about the bright future which was forever being forecast in the state media. She was busy just trying to feed her family, and the sighs of her starving children only made her feel more miserable. The unfolding events in North Korea have only shown that mom's skepticism was justified.
Dad's conviction, that if we just trusted and followed the Great Leader, then OO's generation would prosper, was eventually turned upside down. In the end, I've been the only member of my family who's been left to suffer, but it's too late to demand an explanation from my father who has gone to the afterlife.
My memories of a picnic
One spring day when I was 13 our school went on a picnic. We went to Shimwon Temple at the far end of Cheonyeo Peak in Yontan-kun, Hwanghae Province.
When my teacher announced that we were going on a picnic, my classmates shouted for joy. But with nothing but millet gruel for lunch, it sounded like a death sentence to me. I hadn't bothered to tell my mom about the picnic. I knew there was no use holding out my hand when mom's pockets were empty. Poverty took its toll early.
As always, I left home feeling lousy with only a bottle of gruel in my bag. It was 15 li from our house to school. I wore Mom's pointed rubber shoes to school since I didn't have any shoes. I would normally hide the shoes in a bush near school and go to class barefoot, but on that day I had no choice. There was no way I could walk the 30-something li mountain road on bare feet, but I had to because group activities were considered obligatory. I reluctantly set off with my classmates but I felt like I was walking on eggshells, embarrassed by my lunch of millet gruel in a cider bottle. I felt terrible knowing that I'd be the laughing stock of my class come lunchtime when the rest of the kids would bring out their carefully prepared lunches and share them with the teacher and their friends, as was customary on picnics.
I announced that I was going to the toilet and quietly slipped out behind the temple toward the viewpoint. Against the awesome scenery of the fantastically-shaped cliff, my lunch was embarrassingly humble. "Ah, shoot! What do you have to worry about anyway? Did I ask you to eat this?", I mumbled as I poured the gruel into my mouth. It was better than nothing, but even now the pain of that day is carved indelibly on my heart.
Leaving my mom to join the army
That evening when mom went out into the neighborhood, a passing woman asked: "So what did you make for your children?" That's when mom found out I'd kept the picnic a secret.
Later, mom said:. "If you had only told me you were going, at least I would have made you some mugwort rice cakes."
Dad, whose eyes were full of tears, just kept patting my head saying nothing.
This happened when I was in grade 4.
One day as my mom was leaving the house very early to go and do her part-time job at a mountain approximately 10 li away where she wove baskets out of tree branches, she told my brother she didn't think she would be home for lunch and we should share the lunch she had left in the cupboard. Not long after my mom was out of sight, my brother brought out the pot from the cupboard. There were six corn-flour rice cakes in the pot. Three were for my older brother, two were for me and it appeared one was for mom. Mom always gave my brother one more than me since he was bigger and she always took one less than me. That was the way it was. My brother took his portion then asked: "You?". Not understanding his intention I asked: "What are we going to do?" Then he said: "I'm going to eat mine before I go out this morning." "Me too," I replied, grabbing my portion. Mom made delicious cakes by mixing the corn flour in gently boiling water, adding saccarine and salt, flattening out the dough and sticking it onto the cauldron to cook.
We finished off the rice cakes and looked down at mom's portion, all alone on the plate. I still recall thinking how I longed to eat that last one.
Everything was dark in front of my eyes as I wondered how we could possibly study and do our schoolwork all day after having eaten our lunch before all the rich cadres were still getting up. My brother looked at me wide-eyed, holding up his fist as he told me I'd get into a lot of trouble if I told mom we had eaten our lunch for breakfast. My brother must have been worried too. From then on mom stood steadfast, despite being the butt of jokes in the neighborhood, by putting a padlock on the food cabinet to make sure we ate at the right time, even though there was barely sufficient food. Somehow we came through that period and then it was time for me to leave to join the army. Things are different now, but back then it was a great honour to become a party member before returning to one's hometown. As I left home for the first time, I too aspired to defend the fatherland and join the party.
I didn't know how to comfort mom that day. She cried so hard when I went for the physical exam and passed. Then she couldn't stop crying, sending off her son not knowing if he would ever come back, feeling terrible that she'd never once been able to fill his stomach. Mom held up the bus as it was about to depart, crying out over and over. It was only after I became a father that I understood why she was crying so uncontrollably. Even when I joined the Korean People's Army, with mom's sorrow that she had never been able to fill our stomachs engraved in my mind, the pall of hunger was never lifted.
There was a variety of colours on the "nutritional tables" posted in front of the army restaurant. On one of the cards, inside a circle, the words "3774 calories" stood out. The information was completely new to me. In all my 18 years and mandatory education I had never been taught anything about calories. There on the chart were the computed number of calories that were present in x-number grams of rice, pork, eggs, beef, fruit, vegetables, sugar etc., along with the precise number of calories provided to soldiers on a daily basis. However, unlike the information on the chart, all we got to eat was 200 grams of corn rice, seaweed soup seasoned with salt and a few pieces of radish. For me, having grown up on skimpy portions of millet gruel, it was a bonus to have rice at every meal. On the other hand, the training was too harsh, the group living and discipline was nerve-wracking, making army life seem worse than having a bowl of my mom's gruel and then sitting peacefully at home.
When there was a lull in our training, my food would not go down properly as I thought of my siblings eating gruel at home. The calorie chart that was posted in the canteen was complete nonsense. Although I served in the army for 10 years, not once did I ever eat according to the chart. It was always salt soup and that was never posted on the chart.
"When it comes to eating you have to be as quick as a dog."
Whenever they had supposedly caught a pig, we never got to see any of it. Those of us soldiers only got two or three pieces of meat and some broth. The fact that the meat had been boiled in water was enough to make us hold out our bowls and ask for more. My pride kept me from asking for any broth at all. The old soldiers who liked to joke would get some soup and say: "The butcher must have just walked through this soup in his rubber boots." This remark made fun of the fact that there was no meat in the soup. Getting enough to eat in the army was always a problem, often resulting in corruption. No means or methods were off limits in trying to get enough to eat. We used to say: "When it comes to eating, you have to be as quick as a dog." You had to be calculating as well. Once we were enjoying a "theoretical meal" as we sat around cleaning our cap badges, when suddenly the squad leader awoke. "What are you eating?" he demanded to know, grabbing a chunk of shoe polish, sticking it in his mouth and chomping down on it, and then gagging and spitting it out. Being so hungry he must have been dreaming about eating. We couldn't possibly laugh about it in front of him, but instead we exchanged knowing glances while laughing uproariously on the inside.
Every morning at the army base, the senior soldiers and non-commissioned officers went to the mess hall and ordered the soldiers working in the kitchen to give them some rice. Come dawn, when breakfast was ready, the commanding officers would also make their way to the canteen, help themselves to some rice and then take off. The kitchen workers, too, would hide a portion for themselves. Then, after what remained was mixed with a shovel, there was hardly any rice left except for a hard golden crust. Ordinary soldiers only received portions you might expect to see at a children's daycare. The non-commissioned officers who had come in for something to eat at dawn were already hungry by breakfast time, so they would come back and stand in line as if they hadn't eaten. It's no wonder that there was never enough rice for the lower ranks. However, they too figured out ways to beat the system, frequently moving by the rice table and scooping some into their hats to eat later.
The uproar over the missing duck
Starting in the 1970s, a policy of tunnel-digging was launched by the army under the pretense of fortifying the nation. Our unit was assigned to begin digging mine shafts. To boost morale, Kim Jong-il sent everyone a duck as a present. When the person in charge of distributing the live ducks came around, he ordered us to pluck the feathers and hand back the ducks. Plucking feathers from a live bird was a noisy business. Somehow we managed to perform the necessary work and handed back the ducks. But there was a problem, 149 ducks had been handed out but only 148 were returned. On second count there were still only 148 ducks.
The officer in charge was furious. He ordered us to line up leaving a two-meter space between each soldier and then proceeded to carry out body checks. But not far from where I was standing I heard the frantic "quack quack," of a duck. Cho 00 had stuffed a duck in his pants while he was pulling out its feathers. The duck summoned all its strength to let out one last "quack" before it suffocated. The soldiers were flabbergasted. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I felt like it could have been me.
After this incident, Cho became known as "Cho Quack-quack." At first Cho was so afraid of his nickname that he couldn't eat, but he gradually came to accept it. The incident really wasn't that surprising, given that 400 grams of oil fed 150 people and all we basically ever got was salty cabbage soup.
We were fed meat on special days five times a year; on January 1, February 16, April 15, April 25 and September 9. We were given bean-curd about twice during my entire time in the army. The situation I described during my time in the army is now a thing of the past. Today, soldiers are forced to sell military gear on the black market so that they can feed themselves. We were much better off in my day.
Catching cats to supplement our diet
I heard about an incident that occurred in 1998, in a village called Namdaechon, Yangsujin, China. Around 3 a.m. one morning in February, two North Korean border guards went into a Chinese farmer's house and accosted him at gunpoint. The farmer was terrified, but the demands weren't that harsh in comparison to the fear they created. They only wanted a decent meal and some Chinese cigarettes, if there were any in the house. Their basic demands simply bespoke the state of their health and diet. These days, soldiers sneak into civilians' homes to plunder anything of value, they steal military equipment to sell on the black market, they lay in wait at night to overpower military authorities and steal their clothes to sell on the black market so they can buy food. When I was in the army, I received surgery to have my appendix taken out. To provide me with extra nutrition, my friend Kim 00 stole the cat that always sat by food storage depot and boiled it up for me to eat. There was a fellow named Kim 00 who had a harder time than anyone in getting enough to eat. Maybe it was because he was so big. He volunteered to take on the task of looking after the kitchen fire, a job no one else wanted to do. The job required bringing in a load of coal for each meal and sleeping beside the fire to make sure it didn't go out. Although he spent all his time in the military tending the fire, he comforted himself in the belief that it was better than hearing his stomach growl.
Even though his stomach didn't growl, when it came time for him to go back to his hometown, all he had to show for it was the backpack he was given on discharge. Even though he had dreamed of returning home a proud party member, he had sat beside the stove for 10 years and the honour of party membership still eluded him. I still have vivid memories of taking 000 all teary-eyed to the 00 station to send him off. I remember how reluctant he was to board the train. Basic hunger had erased any promise for this young man's future.
Look with your mouth and speak with your eyes!
Winter came early in 1974. One day when we had been hard at work on defense construction, the commanding officer came to the site, gathered the soldiers together and berated us for falling behind schedule. Choi 00, the son of a well-known cadre who was hoping something might change, stood up and said: "If we weren't so hungry, the work would proceed according to plan." The commanding officer spat out: "You rotten bastard!" We were all taken aback.
It was clear we were expected to obey party orders unequivocally, regardless of the circumstances, if we hoped to survive the oppression. Unfortunately Choi 00, who had had the temerity to suggest that we should work only if we had enough to eat, disappeared the next day and nothing was ever heard about him again.
From that incident I learned that if you speak out loud what's on your mind, you die! I learned that if you have something to say, it is much wiser to say it with your eyes. I learned to see with my lips and speak with my eyes! Having gleaned that one morsel of wisdom while I was still a young soldier, I have been able to survive this far without any major misfortune. Although millions of people have died of starvation in North Korea, no one has ever said anyone died of hunger. Every one of them is considered to have died of an illness. In this society, where "food is politics," you have to keep your mouth shut in order to survive. Thanks to having been able to control the hunger I experienced during my difficult military period, unlike 000, I was able to return to the mother who had once cried at not ever being able to fill our stomachs. The day I returned home, mom again shed tears at how hungry I must have been
My wife's strange rice bowl
Time quickly slipped by. The days where all I had to do was worry about my own mouth were soon gone. With a wife and children to feed, naturally the amount of food I consumed decreased.
I remember one incident when my wife and I were newlyweds. My wife sat facing the corner busily doing something. Curious, I looked over her shoulder and saw her carefully dividing up our rations. She took the rations meant to last us 15 days and divided them up evenly into three piles, the way a child might play house. With the government rations supposedly sufficient to last 15 days, in reality there might have been enough for us to get by for about six days, but when they were divided into 45 portions it was clearly not enough to live on.
As I studied the portions, I concluded that my wife was not getting anything to eat when she packed me a lunch.
With that realization, I started making excuses that I didn't feel like eating or that I had a stomachache. When I ate what she gave me, she got nothing. As my excuses began to multiply, at some point her rice bowl started getting fuller. She pleaded with me to go ahead and eat, insisting that one way or another she would get a bowl of rice to eat. Although I was sceptical about the increased amount of rice in her bowl, I relaxed and ate. Strangely though, I never saw her finish her portion. I wondered if she filled her bowl for me to see and then ate it over several days. Then one morning I traded bowls with my wife so she could eat the white rice she dished out for me, taking the boiled rice and cereal in her bowl. My startled wife put up a fuss. Ignoring her pleas, I tried to stick my spoon into her bowl. It wouldn't go in because the rice was too hard. I don't have the writing skill to properly describe the scene that day. When I scraped away the rice on top, I found a cheese cloth used for making bread inside. I slowly closed my eyes. I heard my wife's sobs. From that day forward, whether we were eating rice or gruel, we put all the food in one bowl and shared.
Life as a goat
As we had more children, my wife kept busy going all over the place in search of mountain vegetables to make gruel. Our children called it grass porridge.
Our main dish and side dishes were all made with weeds.
Even though we had no spices or oil to enhance the taste, only salt, our children never complained. By using dropwort and edible weeds, we were able to eat okay just by adding a bit of grain to make gruel. Although the kids were totally fed-up with weed gruel, come meal time they ate every bit of it. And compared to when my wife and I were growing up, our kids became more sure of themselves, saying and doing some very funny things.
At meal time, 00 would shout, "Hey, bring in the goat food!"
Then 00 and 00 would bleat like goats. When their mother came in, they would call in unison, "the goat's mom is here." Since weeds were such a central part of our diet, we compared everything to goats. My wife and I often laughed at the kids antics. I yearn for the days when we ate like goats, when there was some joy in our lives. Now, even white rice has no appeal to me. Although we didn't get much in the way of rations, those were still the good old days. In July, 1991, we didn't have a thing to eat. Although we had been doing hard labour for a month and a half, we hadn't heard a peep about rations. I hadn't had anything to eat for three days in a row.
My son died -- then my wife, who had been holding out with superhuman strength, began wailing as she held his corpse, before succumbing herself on the spot.
I was beside myself, not knowing what to do with the bodies of my wife and my child. But in our village where everyone was dealing with starvation, not a single person offered to help with the burial. It was a time when you would have to make an offer of food before anyone would come forward. I went through a bad time when I had to say goodbye to my mother as well. When my mother passed away I didn't even have a pillow to lay her head on. Mom had previously emptied the contents of the pillow (acorns and gruel) to pound into powder for gruel. Then in 1994, all hell broke loose in our family. My nephew was sent home from the army due to malnutrition. When he arrived he was almost dead. My brother, who made the mistake of complaining out loud that, "this world is the shits," was taken away by the 00 kun security department and never heard from again.
Hardly anyone was left alive in our family. Who was going to be next to die? It was just a matter of time. I don't have the words to express my feelings, when the only treasures left in our family were my two daughters, and they'd both been reduced to nothing but skin and bones from malnutrition. I thought of the rat poison in the cupboard drawer. I thought about 00, from the Yongsong district of Pyongyang, who had fed rat poison to his family and then hung himself. Should I do that too, I wondered? Wouldn't it just be easier for all of us just to take some poison and die together? When I looked at my daughters' sweet faces, with dark circles under their eyes, staring at me in the hope that I might find some food, I couldn't bear the thought of killing them. For the first time in my life I understood the saying that 'even tigers don't kill their young.' If one of the three of us left alive had to die, I wished it could be me. Still, we stubbornly clung to life. I will never forget the day in November 1995 when my youngest daughter 00 staggered to her feet and went outside. I was in a daze, thinking she must be going to the bathroom. A little later I heard a sound from somewhere and opened my eyes to see my youngest daughter smiling a me. "Dad, say 'ahh.'" Without thinking I opened my mouth. When she opened her tiny hands I saw about 20 grains of rice in her hand. I asked her where she had found them and she explained that she had remembered seeing several rice husks beside a nearby pig sty. My daughter had pried out each grain of rice from the husk with her fingernails and then awakened me. "Dad, you have to eat this and get up if we are going to live." I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and holding her tightly I shed endless tears. My daughter, at such a young age, was thinking far ahead of her thickheaded father. I told her to share the rice with her older sister, but the children were taking charge. If I didn't at least pretend to eat some, they weren't going to have any either.
The plastic bag that I found on my daughter's body
That night I felt overwhelmed by a moral obligation to keep my children alive. Instead of waiting in resignation for death, I decided it was up to me to do everything possible for my children until either they or I died.
As I lay thinking, I remembered having seen some kernels of corn on the first floor of a neighboring apartment. I went out and after looking down several alleys, eventually found the house. When I touched the window, I was relieved to find it wasn't glass but vinyl. My legs shook from fatigue, but I was filled with optimism out of relief that I had found some food. I cut the vinyl with the knife I had brought, reached in and gathered the kernels of corn. My whole body shook with the excitement of having food in my possession. I wish I knew how to express the joy I felt. Although my steps were faltering, I felt light-footed. This was the first time I had ever stolen anything. And having pulled it off, I felt confident that if I tried hard I could succeed again. From then on, I became a thief, taking any and every opportunity to steal food to feed my kids.
That night we had a feast at our house. Things were starting to look up. The simple law of survival, that what's alive is alive and what's dead is dead, had forced us to stand on our own two feet again. While I was cooking the corn for my daughters, I gave them some kernels to chew, which they did with gusto. For the first time in a long time they were happy to be alive.
From that time on the three of us begged, stole or scrounged food to feed ourselves, wandering from Shinsongchon to Kowon and Wonsan to Danchon. We experienced many hardships and saw many people dying, even as we kept up our own fly-like existence. However, during this period my oldest daughter died in Kowon, and then later my youngest daughter's body was found in a garbage dump in Soonchon. This latter experience devastated me. My youngest daughter had remained devoted to me until the very end, my revolutionary comrade, and the one who turned me into an orphan, my last blood relative. When I retrieved her body, I found a plastic bag tucked in her clothing. In it were items she was likely going to share with me -- some peels of pear and a discarded pear core, as well as a pork bone. I couldn't stop crying as I thought about my daughter saving those bits of food to share with me. I buried my daughter on a sunny mountainside and put the plastic bag over her mouth. She was only 12 years old.
A knife in my heart
This is how, one by one, my loved ones died after desperately struggling to survive. I didn't want to live any longer. I had nothing to live for. I would rather be dead than live like an animal. Besides, where was the honour in living when everyone else in my family had passed on to the next world!
I became so despondent I stuck a knife in my chest!
I felt no reason to carry on. I didn't have control over my life. Full of bitterness I jabbed a knife into my chest. The tip of the blade ended up 0.5 mm short of my heart and once again I was forced to climb back on the road of life. I was diagnosed with open pneumothorax and received treatment in Room 7 at the 00 city hospital. With no heat, no medicine, no meals, it was a hospital ward in name only. Again I was confronted with enormous difficulties. As for food, I was able to get by on the bits of food other patients' visitors gave me. I suffered tremendous pain from my festering incision, for which I never received a single shot of penicillin. With nothing to live for, I loathed my life. One day a friend who had brought me two pieces of cold kimchi (fermented cabbage) told me to put them on the sore. Strangely, the constant pain from the wound was soothed. But then, as the cabbage warmed up, the pain started again. I alternated the two leaves on my sore over and over as I struggled for survival. Then one day those kimchi leaves that had seemingly saved my life were gone. I thought perhaps they'd fallen on the floor but I couldn't find them anywhere. I asked one of my roommates if he had seen them, and pointing to the person in the next bed, he said he'd seen him chewing on something a little earlier. When I looked at him he smiled sheepishly, embarrassed. I felt anger rising up inside me. I would have liked to use my fist on him, but then I realized that we were living in a world where even two leaves of kimchi were precious, so instead I stifled my resentment and sat back down on my bed with a huff.
For us North Koreans, we can't get hospital treatment unless we have food to give the doctors. They only dole out medicine according to how much they've been given to eat.
When a patient goes to a hospital, the doctor does a medical history, a check-up and writes a prescription, telling the patient, "You can buy such-and-such a drug on the black market. If you take such-and-such a dose for a month you will get better." But no one in their right mind would go to the hospital if they could afford to buy medicine on the black market! The only reason people go to the hospital is because there is supposed to be some semblance of a free treatment system. One patient who came to the hospital with a broken leg was told to go and buy 3-4 kilograms of plaster and bandages on the black market and then to get a carpenter to plane two boards and bring everything back so the doctor could set the fracture. The terrible situation arising in the medical field is directly related to the food shortage. Getting a diagnosis, medicine and treatment in the hospital only goes to those with food to offer.
A society that revolves around eating
It is not uncommon for teachers to go and sit at the back of the classroom, to tell the children to study on their own without even checking their homework. Some women who are teachers have told me they don't have the energy to teach. They just go into the classroom and tell the students what subject to study. And if a student wants to be the class representative, he or she must come from a family that has access to rice. They won't get to be class rep if they come from a family that eats gruel, whereas even idiots can become class rep if they come from families that have rice to offer. Teachers put kids from families that have rice on center stage and then appeal to their parents for food. Children from homes that eat gruel are frequently missing some textbooks or they don't have any at all, while the kids from better-off homes always seem to have a complete set of textbooks in the best condition,
During the farm support period, the teachers get the children to plant, glean and to shell peas. In spring they get them to prepare the fields and to weed.
It is even hard for party members to get a travel permit, but if you have 10 kilograms of rice to offer as a bribe you can get one the next day. Everyone in North Korean society knows how prized party membership is and how valuable it is. Our parents give us physical life, but party membership is a badge of recognition that the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il) has given us eternal political life. The front page of the party membership booklet has a picture of Kim Il-sung on it, so storing it improperly can result in problems or outright expulsion from the party if it gets lost, burned or otherwise defaced. On occasion, the punishment can result in being sent to a detention camp, and it can have implications for family members. I've even seen party membership booklets being used as collateral for borrowing money or buying rice. When you see such things, which were previously unheard of, being traded so openly, you get some idea what the food situation is like, what desperation there is. The following statistics give some indication of the situation at Kowon station, South Hamgyong province on April 20, 1999.
The situation at Kowon Station, South Hamgyong province, April 20, 1999
Total number of people at the station: 1,896
Number of people boarding trains: 136 Wanderers (adults): 840 Wanderers (children aged 4-17): 896 People who have eaten 3 meals: 204 People who have eaten 2 meals: 192 People who have eaten 1 meal: 640 People who have had no meal: 742
As this data shows, apart from the 136 travellers, the main waiting hall at the train station was home to the homeless. The fact that there are more children than adults, reveals that many families have just dissolved. And the fact that there are more people who have not eaten than those who have eaten, indicates that starvation is ever at hand and serves as a dire warning that the food problem is ongoing.
There is something I always request from my like-minded brothers and sisters. I ask that they respect their neighbors and keep in mind that although they may be warm and well fed, they could just as easily be cold and hungry. I am one of the people who has experienced the pain of the class struggle that obtaining food involves. I once went to prison for leading a ring that stole from those wealthy people who ignored the plight of the starving poor to buy food on the black market to give to the unfortunate, mostly children and the elderly. On the morning of the lunar new year, I was beaten to a pulp in the security department torture room. I experienced first hand North Korea's jail system. Although I was bleeding profusely as a result of my beating, when I realized it was the lunar new year I felt uplifted. It almost seemed as if the spirit of those times when our family gathered together was present in the jail and I thought that my family was better off having departed this cruel world. I was also curious to see what kind of food I would be served for new year's, somehow feeling excited for no reason. "Hey, eat up!", bellowed one of the jailors, to which no one paid any attention but peered through the bars in anticipation. The new year's food consisted of 38 kernels of corn boiled in salt water and 3 beans. The older inmates seemed satisfied that there were beans. But there were no side dishes and they didn't give us spoons, so I guess we were supposed to lap it up like dogs. Inexperienced people like me ate with their hands. I wiped my blood-stained hands on my pants and picked up each kernel, each bean, one by one.
People who had been to prison called it hell -- and it was. The amazing thing about it, however, was that at least we were fed about 40 kernels of corn, three times a day, at the appointed time. Still, I think prisons are representative of North Korea.
In our cell, prisoner No. 8 was laid out from malnutrition. He eventually died but prisoner No. 3, who was charged with taking care of him, didn't report that he was dead for three days so that he could eat his food. When this was discovered, No. 3 was beaten so badly that he, too, died. He was brutally struck with a pickax. When he moaned in pain the head jailor demanded: "So how does it taste?". With tear-filled eyes he said: "I'm getting a beating, but it's better than being hungry." He was living to eat.
There was a father and son in our jail who were apprehended for having used the writings of Kim Il-sung as wallpaper. No. 23, the father, was reported by a jailor for whispering to the inmate next to him. He had to stick his legs out of the cell to be punished with 20 whacks from an oak club on the bottom of his feet. It was a scary punishment whereby they increased the number of whacks by five for every scream. No. 23 couldn't help but let out some excruciating yells for which he got many, many more whacks. And because he kept yelling, despite the extra whacks, the jailor imposed the scariest punishment of all, saying: "You reactionary bastard, there's no dinner for you tonight," I thought for sure he'd get to eat, but the jailor put a stop on his food as he said he would. The jailor brought everyone their food that night and shouted, "Hey, No. 22!"
No. 22 replied, "Yes."
"You take care of No. 23's food!" "Thank you sir, I will be good." This was the answer all inmates had to give when concessions were made on their behalf. Everyone in the cell was envious of No. 22's sudden good fortune. I looked to discover who No. 22 was, only to see it was No. 23's son. The 25-year-old brat took the dish his father was holding and poured it into his own in front of everyone. The moment the 40 kernels belonging to the son and the 40 kernels from the father were put together it appeared there was still a faint look of hope in the father's eyes. It appeared he was still hoping that his son would slip him his share.
But the son opened his mouth wide without so much as a glance at his father. The father looked pitiful. He watched his son's lips, and then unable to contain himself he tapped his son's side.
"Hey, just leave a bit!"
It wrenched my heart to hear the son's curt reply to his father's plea: "Dad, this is a jail. Please hang on, eat when you get out." We were living in scary times -- at least if it hadn't been his father, it wouldn't have sounded so bad.
"He ate before he died"
Every day I was in jail there were on average 6-7 people dying of malnutrition. Now whose turn was it? The saying, "If you're going to die, at least make sure you get a meal before you do!" was very popular in the jail. Occasionally someone would die during mealtime, and if they appeared to be slipping away, inmates would whisk their bowls away from them. And then they'd lick their fingers. Those who didn't get a turn would grab the empty bowls away and start licking them. People would lose their reason, acting like animals. When someone died at mealtime, it was common for the inmates to finish off their food and then report to the jailor, "he finished his meal before he died," thereby avoiding any accusations.
With people dying everyday, the Political Bureau ordered a food inspection. They called us in one at a time to ask how much food we were getting. They wanted to know how long we hadn't been getting beans. It appeared there was corruption involving the food allotted to the jail, knowing that the prisoners had nowhere to appeal. When outsiders came to visit, the jailors only allowed those who brought food to have a visit; and for those whose offering was inadequate, they said visits were not allowed and said they would pass on the food. Although I didn't find out about it until after I got out of prison, apparently I had caused a lot of trouble for people. The provincial detention camp was in 00 city, South Pyongan province. It is notorious throughout North Korea. Human rights violations there are outrageous, mostly in the interest of extracting confessions from inmates. The story of one confession goes that a man stole a locomotive from Shinsongchon, South Pyongan province and took it to the rail yard in South Hamgyong province, Danchon, where he sold it. The mandatory detention period at the provincial camp was one month, after which inmates were either released or sent to prison.
I was also dragged off to the 00 provincial detention center. I worked at turning human excrement into dried clumps to burn as coals in the kitchen. At the end of the day when we were collecting ashes, there would be some radish ends or cabbage roots mixed in with the soot. Whenever a cabbage root would appear, we would have a dog fight to pick it up first. Some people would even try to pry it out of your hand. There was no time to wipe it off, it had to go straight into your mouth. Even raw beans tasted delicious there. When it was time to plant the potatoes, only seven out of 100-odd inmates were chosen to do the planting. A monitor with a leather whip was assigned to each inmate. The monitors walked backwards in the furrows and we put the seeds in as we followed them. Then someone was caught putting some potato seeds in his mouth. The monitor ordered him to stop work and asked him to open his mouth. The monitor tried to remove the potato seeds from the inmate's mouth, but realizing that he was already in trouble the inmate kept chewing and trying to swallow them. The fight lasted about five minutes in which the monitor tried to get his finger into the inmate's mouth and the inmate struggled to swallow the seeds. When the monitor realized he couldn't retrieve the seeds, he sat on the inmate stuffing dirt into his mouth, screaming: "You bastard, stuff this down your throat." The inmate wouldn't consider spitting out the dirt, but swallowed it along with the seeds.
I was 43 kilograms when I got out of prison, a cripple, a shadow of my former self. Just as I had gained strength by eating the cat my friend had caught for me after my surgery while I was in the army, I was now able to gain strength by eating rats.
Cooking dead rats to eat
Walking the streets of Pyongyang at dawn, one can find dead rats that have eaten the rat poison laid out for them outside apartments. I was able to pick up quite a few. With no other way to tide over my hunger, I had an uncontrollable urge to eat those rats. I couldn't resist eating the rats, despite realizing that I might meet their fate. I took the rats I had collected to the banks of the Daedong River, removing their insides from the head to the abdomen. I built a fire with some scrap paper and roasted the rats. Although they looked scary, the meat tasted good. It made me feel pretty smart to be roasting rats in the middle of the capital. Behind Namsan hill I could see the Party Central Committee building. My hands and mouth were black as I chewed on the rat meat, and in my heart I asked General Kim Jong-il:
"General! My grandfather died before he ever saw the white rice with meat soup, the silk clothes and the tile-roofed house that the Great Leader had promised. Father and mother also departed. Now my children have left, too, and isn't it time the General made good on the Great Leader's promises?" This is the truth. No one said anything as three million North Koreans starved to death. We believed our Great Leader would make good on his promises, remaining dutiful even unto death. Now it is your turn General. Your loyal people do not think that you would deny us, but we believe that you will carry through on your promises. I speak as a bereaved family member, as an ordinary citizen. I am sure you will give us these things, but I want to say, don't ask us to wait any longer! This is because I have given up 54 years waiting for white rice with meat soup, silk clothes and a tile-roofed house . . .
My life is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the desperate situation of my brothers and sisters in the North. As I conclude, there is something that I must emphasize. We have lost too much. But if I only lament what I have lost, then what would the fate of our fatherland be? Although I'm not certain how many people have died, it seems plain more of our people are dying than are being born. I have travelled all over the country for years as a begger, but I have only ever seen three women who looked pregnant. Never did I hear any word of a newborn baby anywhere. According to recent research data, young men and women are no longer interested in marriage.
Parents oppose marriages in 23% of cases; in 47% the man does not feel confident enough to marry; only 6% feel that they could get by if they were married; 17% are waiting to see how things develop; and 8% prefer to remain single.
It is also a disgrace that there are so many broken families in the DPRK, and that there are women who haven't become pregnant even after 5-6 years of marriage. Moreover, the number of women seeking abortions is sky-high, which should make us stop and wonder how this will affect our future. Who will be left to pass on the customs and traditions of our ancestors?
I cannot help but lament. What about the reality in which the chastity of Choson [Korean] women is being traded for a 10-won bowl of corn noodles (3 cents US) on the black market. I beg my readers to do anything they can to help North Korea!
There are 12,613 people in this country whom I am thankful to for comfort and compassion when I experienced misfortune. To help those people alone, even if it were to be used only as medicine, I would need 60 tons of corn, 6 tons of rice, 2 tons of salt, 500 kilograms of parasite medicine and 500 kilograms of lice medicine. One hundred dollars will buy 180 kilograms of corn, or about 85 kilograms of rice. Just as you can't use the rafters to replace rotten beams in a house, everything so far is makeshift, just games. As the saying goes, even a king cannot save someone from poverty, so amidst the ups and downs I have felt it was paradoxical to talk about ordinary citizens doing anything. I want to do whatever it takes to live. I want to live out the years for my wife and my three children who starved to death. My final wish is to live with my brother and sisters in a world in which starvation is unknown. I could die happy if the innocent smiles could return to the faces of our children, if the mothers' tears could only dry up. April 23, 1999.