July 4, 2005


Trading Ideals for Sustenance: Hunger is driving North Koreans to capitalistic enterprises and weakening the communist regime's iron grip. (Barbara Demick, July 4, 2005, LA Times)

For most of her life, Kim Hui Suk had spouted the sayings of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and never for a moment harbored a doubt: Capitalists were the enemy. Individualism was evil.

But then disaster rained down on her hometown, Chongjin, on North Korea's remote east coast. Factories ran out of fuel. Food rations stopped. Watching her family slowly succumb to the famine — her mother-in-law, husband and son eventually would die of starvation — Kim realized she had to change.

Once a stickler for following the rules, she bribed a bureaucrat so she could sell her apartment. Then, with no business skills other than the ability to calculate on an abacus, she used the proceeds of the sale to set herself up in a black market business, hawking biscuits and moonshine she brewed from corn.

Kim could have been sent away for life for such crimes. But obeying the rules would have meant a death sentence.

"The simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told — they were the first to die of starvation," said Kim, a soft-spoken grandmother who now lives in South Korea and has adopted a new name to protect family members still in the North.

The famine that killed 2 million North Koreans in the mid-1990s and the death of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 sparked vast changes across the secretive communist country.

Markets are springing up in the shadows of abandoned factories, foreign influences are breaching the borders, inflation is soaring and corruption is rampant. A small nouveau riche class has emerged, even as a far larger group has been forced to trade away everything for food.

This is the picture of life in North Korea as painted by more than 30 people from Chongjin, the nation's thirdlargest city. Some are defectors living in South Korea. Others were interviewed in China, which they had entered illegally to work or beg. Accounts of aid workers and videos taken illegally in Chongjin by disgruntled residents were also used to prepare this report.

Although the North Korean regime has a reputation as the ultimate Big Brother, people from Chongjin say the public pays less and less heed to what the government says. There is little that might be called political dissent, but residents describe a pervasive sense of disillusionment that remains largely unspoken.

"People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation," said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China. "We all know we think that, and we all know everybody else thinks that. We don't need to talk about it."

Kim Sun Bok, a 32-year-old former factory worker who came to South Korea last summer, said the country was "changing incredibly."

"It is not the same old North Korea anymore except in name."

Unfortunately for all those folks who believe in isms, there's none that offers a way to grow an economy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 4, 2005 9:20 AM

>"People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation," said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China.

I am truly flabbergasted that the LA Times has the gall to write this after having run numerous articles this year that were nothing but propaganda pieces for the DPRK, stating that the people love the regime and blame America for everything.

Posted by: at July 4, 2005 11:41 AM

Fudging the facts is inconsequential. The objective is checking the hyperpower's advance by playing on its people's conscience.

Posted by: at July 4, 2005 6:34 PM

The question is at what point in time does this dissatisfaction begin to extend to soliders in the Army. When the army will no longer defend the regime against the people, then it will fall. But not sooner.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at July 5, 2005 11:50 AM

Starving to death is an ideal?

Posted by: joe shropshire at July 5, 2005 6:28 PM

Was for Simone Weil.

Posted by: oj at July 5, 2005 7:09 PM