‘Stuck waiting to die’: North Koreans give first-hand accounts of starvation, crackdowns in rare interviews

‘Stuck waiting to die’: North Koreans give first-hand accounts of starvation, crackdowns in rare interviews
via KCNA Watch
Iris Jung
June 28, 2023
Three North Korean citizens have risked their lives to expose the reality of starvation, crackdowns and disaster in their closed-off country.
For several months, the interviewees – whose names have been changed to protect their identity – secretly shared their stories with British broadcaster BBC, which published the interviews earlier this month, aware that they could face death if their government were to find out. 
Myong-suk: A businesswoman selling smuggled medicine, Myong-suk is no stranger to the threat of prison. She once ran a successful business, but after North Korea closed its borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed.
“Before COVID, life was stable,” she shared with BBC. “But since COVID, my earnings have halved. It’s become much harder to smuggle things over the border and the crackdowns have become much stricter.”
Since her husband’s mandatory state job does not pay enough, Myong-suk became the main breadwinner of her family. She managed to keep herself, her husband and their children afloat with her business, but due to North Korea’s border closure on Jan. 27, 2020, Myong-suk and her family ended up “living on the front line of life.”
“Most of the products in the market came from China, but it’s empty now. You could always find grain, but not these days,” Myong-suk explained. “The scarcest thing is medicine. Even if you can find it, it’s too expensive.”
In desperation, Myong-suk once attempted to smuggle the medicine herself, which resulted in her capture. Barely able to provide a bribe that kept her out of prison, Myong-suk now lives under constant surveillance and suspicion of those closest to her. 
“Really [the authorities] want to crack down on the smuggling and stop people escaping,” she shared. “Now, if you even just approach the river to China, you’ll be given a harsh punishment.”
Chan-ho: A construction worker, Chan-ho spends his time working his compulsory state job that barely pays 4,000 won (approximately $4.44) per day.
“Often, we have to work late into the night, and I sleep at the site,” he told BBC. 
In the mornings, Chan-ho helps his wife set up shop at the market, which provides the family with the means to stay alive.
“I wouldn’t be able to survive if my wife didn’t work at the market,” he said. “When they closed the border, everything became scarce. The price of grain sugar and seasoning has shot up. Food supplies are so low, people have started dying.”
Currently, starvation is more of a threat than COVID to Chan-ho, who has seen several people around him die from hunger, including a mother and her children in his village. Initially, the mother was able to survive by begging. However, as she fell sick, she and her children inevitably starved, Chan-ho recalls.
He also mentions another mother who was forced to work hard labor for violating the country’s quarantine rules and eventually starved to death with her son.
“If I live by the rules, I’ll probably starve to death, but just by trying to survive, I fear I could be arrested, branded a traitor, and killed,” Chan-ho was quoted saying. “We are stuck here, waiting to die.”
“I want people to know that I am regretting being born in this country,” he continued. “I can’t sleep when I think about my children, having to live forever in this hopeless hell.”
Ji-yeon: In capital city Pyongyang, Ji-yeon works at a food shop to support her husband and two children. In the past, she used to take fruits and vegetables from the store to sell for additional income at the market. Meanwhile, her husband would sell cigarettes and other goods he received as bribes.
However, Ji-yeon lamented that it’s now “impossible to have a side hustle.” With thorough searches of her bags, people can no longer steal or give goods away.
Faced with the threat of starvation, Ji-yeon and her family were once forced to consume puljuk – a porridge-like paste of vegetables, grass and plants that was prominent during North Korea’s famine in the 1990s – for a week. But despite her hunger, Ji-yeon reveals that she pretends to have eaten three meals a day, choosing hunger over the humiliation of poverty.
“We survive by thinking 10 days ahead, then another 10, thinking that if my husband and I starve, at least we will feed our kids,” Ji-yeon explained to BBC. “I thought I was going to die in my sleep and not wake up in the morning [after not eating for two days].”
In addition to her own hardships, Ji-yeon noted the suffering of those around her.
“I know one family that starved to death at home,” she recalled. “No one came in or out for three days. Water was brought around, and we knocked on their door telling them to get some.” With no answer from her neighbors, the authorities were called, only to find the family had died from starvation.
“It’s a disaster,” Ji-yeon stated. “With no supplies coming from the border, people do not know how to make a living.”
Some people have resorted to begging, and “if [the beggars] are lying down, we check them and usually find they’re dead,” Ji-yeon shared.
Meanwhile, others have opted for suicide, choosing to “kill themselves at home or disappear into the mountains.”
“Even if people die next door, you only think about yourself,” Ji-yeon said about the mentality of those who live in her city. “It’s heartless.”
Food shortage: In recent months, concerns regarding the country’s food shortage have only increased. Despite its insistence on its agricultural innovations – which include increased greenhouse vegetable production, new vegetable strains and cultivation technology – assessments by the United Nations and South Korea have exposed dire food supply conditions.
According to research analyst Lucas Rengifo-Keller, the North Korean food supply has “dipped below the amount needed to satisfy minimum human needs,” CNN reports. In these circumstances, “you would have hunger-related deaths.”
COVID-19’s impact: According to Ji-yeon, COVID-19 has heavily impacted the people of her country.
When speaking with a doctor, she discovered that one in 550 people in each Pyongyang neighborhood had died. However, despite the pandemic heavily impacting North Korea, the deaths would be attributed to alternative causes such as tuberculosis.
The COVID-19 pandemic also presented itself as an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to completely close North Korea’s borders. In satellite images taken by Human Rights Watch, North Korean border security was seen increasing via additional walls, fences and guard posts over the past three years.
Alongside border closure, the pandemic has also allowed Kim to strengthen crackdowns. One such legislation was the Reactionary Ideology and Culture Rejection Act in 2020, which authorized the execution of those who smuggle foreign videos into the country. Called “the scariest new law of all” by Chan-ho, the presence of foreign videos in North Korea has significantly decreased out of fear of imprisonment or death.
“People were shocked how much harsher the punishment was,” Ji-yeon told BBC, referring to the act and its subsequent crackdown groups. “People don’t trust each other now. The fear is great.”
However, despite Kim’s attempts to control the country, Chan-ho and Myong-suk do not believe in the government’s propaganda.
“The state tells us we are nestling in our mother’s bosom. But what kind of mother would execute their child in broad daylight for running to China because they are starving?” Chan-ho asked.
“Before COVID, people viewed Kim Jong Un positively,” Myong-suk stated. “But now almost everyone is full of discontent.”

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