North Korea: Testimonies of Famine

In April and August of 1998, members of MSF traveled up and down the Sino-Korean border in an attempt to gather information on the situation in North Korea. The team, which included Korean and Chinese speakers, explored the district of Yanbian and the riverside of the Yalu and Tumen rivers, meeting with some twenty refugees in 13 different points along the border. The team also interviewed a number of ethnic Koreans who had traveled into North Korea to visit their families, some Han Chinese doing cross-border trade with North Korea and members of networks supporting North Korean refugees. All the following interviews (but one) are of North Korean refugees who arrived in China over the summer.

Young men, 15 and 19.
Crossed the border August 20, 1998
Interview conducted in Yanji, Yanbian Autonomous District, August 24, 1998

We were a family of five, from the town of Haeliang. Father was a simple worker in a metal factory. Four years ago, he died of paratyphus. Our mother died of typhus the same year. Soon afterwards, our younger brother, who was five, died of an inflammation of intestines. We then were left alone, my older brother and I. At first, neighbors helped us with a soup of rice or maize, so we could survive. But then people had nothing to give anymore. Situation was getting harder and harder. There were corpses in the street. We had to leave the house and venture out further and further to find something to eat.

Four months ago, some friends and I joined forces and decided to cross the border into China. I begged on the streets of Yanji and in the market places, managed to earn 300 yuans and went home. My five friends were arrested by the Chinese police and I haven't seen them since then. I sneaked back into North Korea and headed home. When I got back to Haeliang, older brother had already sold the family house for 300 wons. I told him about China, explained him that there was food on the other side of he border. We thus decided to hit the road again, together with two other boys. We didn't cross the river at Haeliang this time, but further North, right across the Chinese city of Kai Shan Tun. Thanks to the money from the house, we took the train for Xichuan, the border town. The cars were loaded with people and dead bodies were simply thrown out of the door.

We crossed the river by night. It was easy, we only had water up to the chin. Here, in Yanji, the four of us live together, near the market, where we can find things to eat. I am tired all the time, I can only think about sleeping and there must be something wrong with my digestive system. I cannot swallow food properly. We've been her four days. When we have enough money, we will go back to North Korea.

Young men, 19 and 25.
Crossed the border July 29, 1998.
Interview conducted in Yanji, Yanbian Autonomous District, August 22, 1998

There are six of us in our family, my father and mother, my older sister, my two younger brothers and me. We grew up in Musan, a town close to the Chinese border. In 1989 my father, who was 45 years old, died of a bowel infection. My mother remarried in 1992 and we went to live on the east side of the country in Chongqing.

We lived reasonably well during 1992 and 1993. However, at the end of 1993, the distributing of corn became more and more infrequent. Up until this time, the highly organized system for issuing rations was clearly defined:

  • Adult - 700 g
  • College Graduate - 600 g ·
  • 4th year Senior school - 500 g
  • Junior school - 400 g
  • Infants - 100 g
  • Honored Senior Citizens - 600 g + 2 won per day

Nowadays, this same criteria is used on national holidays for distributing rations. In 1995, rations were distributed every 3 to 4 months. Then, they were distributed on national holidays, which are the 1st January, 16th February, 15th April, 9th September, and the 16th November. On each national holiday, we would receive the equivalent of two days worth of corn which is 1.2k g per family. Our 22-year-old brother died of hunger in 1997, proof that the distributions were not enough to live on.

My older sister is married and lives in the country where she works on a collective farm at Kyangsan in Hangyan Bukdo. Occasionally, she would give us some maize or farm produce which we could resell on the markets. We could then buy corn flour or larger quantities of cheaper corn with the money we made. She is able to help us because she is allowed to farm a small plot of land in the mountains and keep the produce for her own consumption. Evidently, the same thing is not possible in town and town life is much tougher than life in the country.

Another way of making a living was to go to the coast and collect shellfish and seafood to sell in the markets. North Korea has markets instead of shops where everyone trades and is able to buy corn, food and medicines. These markets are only allowed to trade in North Korean foods. It is forbidden to trade in foreign produce, which is what everyone is looking for because Korean produce is of a very poor quality. Those who trade in clothes from China remove the labels to avoid being caught. The only way to obtain medicines is to buy them from the markets because there are none in the hospitals. Doctors also recommend that herbs and roots be gathered from the mountains.

The government gave us very little explanation in 1993 when the reduction in ration distribution began. We would see the international aid come in to the port of Chongqing. It would be stored in the distribution centers, then divided in order of priority between the army and executives. More than 70% of the aid would be allotted to them with the remainder being distributed to the people on national holidays. Some of the executives together with members of their families would take advantage of their position and their contacts to make a very profitable living by reselling the corn in order to amass other goods; consequently, a small portion of the aid would end up in the markets. Bearing in mind that a kilo of rice sells for 70 wons and a kilo of maize for 35 to 45 wons, most people buy corn flour or its by-products whereas executives buy goods of a higher quality.

I graduated after two years at a college specializing in car mechanics run by the army. After graduating, I was assigned to work in a factory but I am only a name on a list of employees as I did not go to work because we were not paid either in money or in corn. My brother and I spent most of our time doing a little trading in order to buy food but life in North Korea was becoming more and more difficult and we could no longer make ends meet. We have family living in South Korea and America but it is not possible to contact these countries from North Korea. Consequently, my brother and I have come to China to contact these members of our family and ask for their help.

Travel nowadays is possible providing you are discreet and do not shout about where you are going nor where you come from because the tight restrictions on traveling which used to make it very difficult to move about are not so rigidly enforced. However, there is a 50 won fine for unauthorized traveling if you are caught. We left Chongqing by train on the morning of the 29th of July and we arrived in Musan after travelling for 3.5 hours. We then walked for 2 to 3 hours until we came to the border. Everyone in Haeliang knows that the way of life is better in China and lots of people would like to cross over the border but we cannot say this sort of thing openly. You are committing a crime by saying "It's better in China", and everyone is busy watching everyone else.

You do not see bodies piled up by the side of the road because there is a regular collection service. However, there are often accidents on the overcrowded trains. I have seen people traveling on the roof get electrocuted and others hanging on to the doors who fall from the train. You see lots of very thin children who have to steal to eat wandering about. Many of the young would like to join the army in the hope of receiving rations however poor they may be. They do say that particularly weak soldiers are sent home to get their strength back. In any case, I could never join the army. I am automatically disqualified because I have family in America and South Korea. This does not affect my daily way of life but I could never improve my social standing. There were elections this last 26th of July which gave the government the chance to change the residence permits known as "Huxi". This does not change a great deal for us and so is not really very important.

35-year-old soldier and his 9-year-old son
Crossed the border June 28, 1998
Interview conducted in Hongcun, Yanbian Autonomous District, August 21, 1998

I'm a soldier. I was stationed in the demilitarized zone at Ponmunjon from 1984 to August 1994. When I left the army in 1994, after serving a little over ten years, I realized that there was nothing to eat on the outside. In the army, we knew that times were hard but we didn't think they were that hard. I made the rounds of my family and friends to get some help but everybody was in the same situation. In the cities these days, it's the same everywhere with the possible exception of the border zone where people do a little better. Things are a bit better in the countryside as well - even if the soldiers come and take away your harvest, there's always a way to keep a little aside for yourself or work a small piece of land for your own use.

I was given a job in a glass factory in August 1995. I worked there for eight months without ever receiving a salary or even grain. We lived off my savings. When I left Ponmunjon, I had 8000 wons to my name. With this money we were able to buy some corn. Since we lived in Nampo, on the coast, we would go looking for shellfish and seafood to either eat or sell on the market. This enabled us to survive. We were actually getting by rather well. Better than most people. In March 1996, my wife fell in the water and drowned while we were gathering shellfish.

A few months ago my son and I left for Sonbon where I had family. There, we were told that you could find clothes and grain in China. So I decided to cross the border. We arrived in China on June 28th, 1998. I found a job as shepherd on a farm very quickly. I was paid 8 Rmb/day and both my son and I were fed. We stayed there for a month and then left for (XXX) where we were taken in by the church. We had heard that they might help us, which is why we came looking for them. We've been here for 5 days.

I was head of a platoon in the army, but in 1994 two of my soldiers defected to South Korea. Their superior officers up to the fourth level of responsibility were fired. I was one of them. I had to leave the army and I won't be able to go back. In the army, we got a daily grain ration. For an ordinary soldier the ration was 200g/meal in 1995, keeping in mind that we had three meals a day. The largest rations went to the pilots, who received 800g/day. On my ration, I was able to put a little bit aside to bring with me when I went home.

They say that people eat well in Pyongyang these days. Security service officials, secret police and executives also. They receive distributions every three to five months. International aid? When I was in the army in 1991/1992, we got rations that came from an "International group for Peace". We were vaccinated for free at the same time. As for more recent aid, we hear that some is getting to Manpo, but we rarely see any sign of it. When a shipment arrives - for example 30 tones of grain - 20 tones are given to the army, then the executives help themselves. What's left is sometimes distributed to the general population on special occasions. Once, in 1997, we got some rice that came from the United States. In 1998, we got some corn flour from China twice.

Obviously, these distributions are not enough to live on. The rest of the time people get by as best they can. Sometimes they buy grain on the black market - a few grams to make rice or corn soup. On the black market a kilo of rice costs about 80 wons. Rice costs about 50 wons/kg. On bad days, we would gather rice stalks and grind them down to flour to make soup. This soup was extremely constipating and I had to go to the hospital because I couldn't defecate anymore. As they didn't have any medicine, the only thing the doctors could do was resort to "mechanical methods". They injected soapy water into my rectum and then put my feet in the air and my head down. They shook me every which way ... and out it came.

At the end of 1995, I was in Nampo. I didn't hear about DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS or the presence of foreign doctors. It was always the same thing in the hospitals: no medicine. You could find great quantities of medicine on the market, however. Some of them came from Japan or China - you could see where from the labels. Others had labels in foreign languages. 80% of the grain you saw on the market came from China; 20% from Japan and other places. My son was enrolled in school but he never went. How can you go to school when you're starving? Lots of schools are closed. As for the children of executives, they go to school in Pyongyang.

(What does he think of the system? No answer. What's the climate in the army these days? No answer.) We came to China because we were hungry. Unless we are caught and sent back to our country, we will stay.

Couple (30), one child
Crossed the border in early July 1998
Interview conducted in the Baishan area, August 24, 1998

My wife and I are from the Hyesan area. After graduating from high school, I started to work in a 'Danwei' in charge of the city gardens and green spaces. This work unit main goal was to organize the celebration for Kim Il Sung's anniversary and other national festivals. The danwei was in charge of maintaining the trees along the main avenues of the city as well as the parks dedicated to the Great Leader. I worked there for 9 years and it is where my wife and I met.

In 1993, distributions of cereals stopped following a regular schedule. In 1994, after Kim Il Sung's death, distributions completely stopped. Luckily, my wife had family in the countryside and we beneficiated from their precious support. That's how we managed to get by. Despite the fact that I didn't receive a salary anymore, I still had to go to work daily. If I hadn't gone, the consequences would have been terrible. All men below 60 are supposed to have a professional activity. Wives, however, do not have to work. But in fact, they are the ones who insure the survival of the family by taking care of the food supply and roaming the cities to find enough to eat. My wife also used to make clothes that she would go and sell on the market. The problem is that, today, no one can afford to buy clothes anymore. The last pile of clothes that my wife made is still at home.

There were no more drugs in the hospital. Today, drugs are sold by doctors on the black market : they, too, have to live. Last year, my wife became opium-addicted. She started using opium when she contracted a paratyphus... that's how people start, when they are sick or hungry. The education system is also suffering : children are often to weak to come to class and teachers, that are not being paid, desert the classroom to look for food. People leave the city for the countryside. Family explode. Some parents, unable to support their children, abandon them. Children and elderly can be seen laying on the street, too weak to stand. Life was getting harder and harder and we found that we couldn't live like that anymore. We talked about leaving, but we were scared of what would happen to us on the other side. Then this year, the situation became unbearable and we left.

We didn't have money in the bank, no personal savings. So we sold our house, for the equivalent of 300 Rmb. Thanks to this amount, we bought two tickets for Nanyang and some food. Train tickets were difficult to find. We finally found two and boarded the train. It then took us ten days to get to destination: the train was stopping all the time, because of power cuts. Some people were traveling on the roof, while other were hanging from the side.

We could have tried to cross the border at Hyesan, but we knew that the Chang Bai Shan area was very dangerous. The violence is now so widespread on the border that people do not open their doors to North Koreans anymore. On the top of that, whoever shall be caught helping a North Korean will be severely fined (up to 5000 Rmb). We crossed the river early in the morning : it was easier to see were the guards were standing and avoid running into them. Once on the Chinese side, we stopped a taxi and had him take us to XXX, where we had a friend's contact. We used what was left of our money to pay him. We have been hiding since then. When we left North Korea, we thought we could settle down in China and have the rest of our family come over. We now realize that it is impossible.

Couple, one child
Crossed the border in early June 1998
Interview conducted in the Tumen area, Yanbian Autonomous District, August 23, 1998

We come from the border town of Hyesan. Life has become increasingly difficult in North Korea, so we decided to return to China and ask for help from our family in South Korea and the United States. Today, we live on a farm in the countryside, and we are very afraid of being caught by the Chinese police. We move often and have to be extremely careful. Almost all of the North Korean refugees who were here have been caught and sent back to North Korea.

In Hyesan, grain distributions stopped in 1993. After that, we received sporadic distributions for national holidays. It wasn't nearly enough to live on. The work unit I belonged to was authorized to engage in cross-border trade. We used this license to exchange wood for corn flour with a Chinese Danwei from Changbaixian. It wasn't an official agreement, just a local-level arrangement. The flour was then redistributed among the employees. We were able to live for some time in this way.

My wife also had a small business activity. Through family connections, she gathered a few vegetables and some grain in the countryside, which she could then go and resell on the market. With the money she earned, she was able to buy more flour of an inferior quality, but in greater quantity. Many women engage in this type of activity to keep their families alive. On the market, a kilogram of rice sells for between 60 and 80 wons, depending on the season. Prices increase in the summer and go down at harvest time. Prices reached an all time high in 1994, after the death of Kim Il Sung. At that time a kilogram of rice cost 120 wons!

We've never benefited from any of the international aid, except maybe on national holidays. When international aid arrives in North Korea, the cargo is loaded on trucks and sent to army warehouses. The drivers are changed at regular intervals and the last one, the one that takes the grain to the warehouse, is always a loyal member of the party. In these warehouses, one can find everything necessary to support a war effort: grain, of course, but also medicine and clothing. Today, soldiers still receive rations, but even they don't get enough to eat. In Pyongyang too, people still benefit from the distribution system, but everywhere else the average person has an empty stomach.

Today, only executives still receive sufficient distributions. They don't need to go to the storage center, goods are delivered directly to their doors. They get everything they need: grain, clothing and sometimes even gifts (alcohol, etc.). Of course, all of that makes us seethe with anger, but we can't say anything: everyone keeps everyone else under surveillance. If one is denounced for making subversive remarks, the family will suffer the consequences down to the third generation. So, we keep everything inside. Everyone is afraid.

The situation today is terrible. Many people come to Hyesan hoping to find a better situation. People don't move around in large groups, but rather individually or in small groups of 2 or 3. They wind up in parks, train stations, public places... we see a lot of children, sitting, weak. Their heads are swollen out of proportion and their eyes are barely visible. Their legs also are swollen, straight like pillars from the tops of their thighs to their ankles. Their skin is black and they have skin infections all over their bodies. In winter, they die quickly from the cold, but in summer, they remain there for days on end, haggard and weak. We also see adults, thin, exhausted... In the parks of coastal towns, bodies sometimes remain up to two or three days before they are taken away. These are the bodies of people who left their places of origin and who died with no one to worry about them.

Propaganda is rife. We are told that we'll have to tighten our belts until 2003, that we haven't yet finished with all the efforts we'll have to make. Korea is much too proud to accept foreign assistance, it would mean losing face. So, we are told that clothing from China spreads viruses, that food from international aid projects causes weight loss and that the foreign medicine causes sickness! In any case, there is no medicine in the hospitals. The only drugs available are for sale on the market, so nobody goes to the hospital. The drinking water is unsuitable for consumption and the sanitary conditions are deplorable. Everyone is more or less sick: diarrhea, stomach aches, typhus and paratyphoid, cholera. In the end, when people die, we don't know if they died from hunger or disease.

Couple, 68 and 63
Crossed the border in August 1997
Interview conducted in Yanji, August 21, 1998

Counting children and grand children, we were a family of 14. Seven died while in North Korea, the rest of us have been hiding here for over a year. We crossed the border by bribing a guard. For one bicycle, he would make sure to turn his head when we would cross the border. It was actually very easy : even the guards want to eat and are ready to accept bribes for their clemency.

My wife comes from Hamhung and I come from Rajin-Sonbong. We lived in the city where the conditions of life where extremely hard : though it was still possible in the countryside to cultivate a small piece of land for oneself, it was totally impossible in the city. We therefore had to rely on the rations given by the government, rations that stopped in 1993. The government said that in the interior of the country, every district had to solve its own food problems. And that within each district, every county had to solve its own etc. At the time people wrote to the government expressing their dissatisfaction : they ended up in camps. The government doesn't care about the people anymore. In the cities, hungry people are roaming the streets and children are begging to survive.

I am a retired soldier. Many years ago, I fell sick and so I had to leave the army. My younger son was also in the army. There, soldiers received daily rations, but those were not enough to live on. So the chief of my son's unit ordered them to forage in the countryside. Small companies were sent out to steal village stocks and if they found nothing in the granaries, they robbed people's homes. One day my son protested and said he was not in the army to steal from people. He was immediately shot. Today, people are afraid of the army. They dare not even raise animals for fear they will be stolen. After the death of my son I went to his superior officer and asked for an explanation. It got heated and I fought with the officer. I was sent to labor camp for three years. My wife was also sent to a camp for two years after the police questioned her about family members who had crossed into China.