I’m currently in Dandong, on the border between North Korea and China, after visiting some other border towns such as Yanji and Tumen. The situation here has been fascinating. I will post some of the insights I have gained on this trip over the coming days.
Some people ask me why I am so interested in North Korea… You only have to know a little bit about what is going on there, and have an iota of heart to realize how much these people need us.
A few examples (of many) from the last few triweekly newsletters put out by “Good Friends”, an organization with many ties to “the inside”:
- “Even in my dreams, there is no food”
All the students and teachers in Taetan County seem to have lost hope and say that the school is very quiet. Teachers give their students classroom assignments such as reading and other activities, but soon retire to another place to lie down because they are suffering from constant hunger. When recess begins, the teachers leave the classroom. The students barely make any trips to the restrooms and do not run around on the field. Both the children and the teachers sleep on their desks because they feel so hungry. Jung Chul, a 12 year old student, says that he does not have the physical strength for anything other than sleep. He says that he needs to maintain himself with minimal body movements because his hunger makes him feel like he will faint at any moment. He went on to say, “During sleep, I enjoy dreaming about eating. But in the middle of my dream, no food appears, and when it does, somebody takes it away from my mouth. This situation makes me very sad.”
- Serious Body Swelling Due to Grass Poisoning in Taetan County
The farmers at the collective farm in Taetan town(태탄읍), Taetan County(태탄군), South Hwanghae Province do their work while living on a few potatoes and grass gruel. Despite the burden of weeding all day long on such minimal sustenance, their workload is never reduced. The farmers are complaining about the pain of such hard work. Although there is an assigned portion that has to be accomplished in a day, many farmers fall short, saying that it is impossible for them to do the work. Farmers in Taetan County now survive on grass porridge. Unfortunately, in the current season the grass contains a toxin. As a result, people are suffering from serious swelling in the face and in the body no matter how hard they try to remove the toxin. Due to the fear of grass poison people are now eating fresh water fish, marsh snails, and frogs in the rice field or in the marsh.
- Children Killed By Eating Toads
In Sambong District of Daehongdan County, Ryanggang Province, there has been an increase in the number of children being killed by eating toads. Children used to catch and eat frogs that hatched in the marsh regions along the Suhdoosoo River until the number of frogs declined noticeably. Presently, toads are hatching. Old wives tales tell of toad’s poisons being used as medicine in cases of cancer. But toads can also kill if eaten without being treated to get rid of the poison, especially weak children whose immunity have been compromised already by malnutrition. Han Myung-sun (43 yrs old) of Sambong District, Daehongdan County, says, “Frogs that are just hatched don’t have any poison, but they start to develop them just when the tadpoles begin to develop legs and tails. Kids can’t wait till the tadpoles grow into frogs and eat the tadpoles by scooping them up with screens but some died last month through food poisoning. Now we no longer have frogs but have toads. Kids think that they are the same and eat them by roasting them. They ate the toads with potatoes, which also are poisonous when they start to sprout. So 5-6 kids were killed eating toads and potatoes in one night. The whole place was overcome with a sense of foreboding when we had to take care of these little bodies.” Choi Seung-chul (42) also agreed, “Kids thought that they could cook toad meat with corn power into some type of porridge but instead they roasted it and ate, and died.” One class in Sambong Middle School lost over 10 kids in just two months out of a class of 36 to starvation or food poisoning.
- Soldiers in Ryanggang Province Eat Cooked Leather Belts
In early June, the commander of a unit stationed in Ryanggang Province was arrested upon inspection. The charge was that he sold army uniforms in the market. The Army had neither rice nor money and the enlisted men cooked their belts to eat. On May 28th, he had witnessed the enlisted men boiling their leather belts in a hope to drink the liquid. He asked them, “What are you doing?” They answered, “We were too hungry.” Shocked and horrified by that answer, he sold the winter uniforms in the market. He bought rice with the money and fed the men once or twice, but caught during the inspection. “Right now the men are dying. I had to sell the uniforms to feed them,” he explained but they did not allow for the extenuating circumstances.
Kim Chul-seung ( 38 ) said all the leather belts distributed to the soldiers last March had disappeared completely in his unit. “(The liquid from the boiled leather belts) I even tried. It fills your stomach and you feel better. Boiled cow skin tastes pretty good. You cannot eat leather by itself but once boiled in the water, the taste of meat soaks out in the liquid and you drink it. The drums, made of pig skin or cow skin, have all gone without a trace. Even in the time of Arduous March, we did not dream of eating leather belts. But, now everything that was made of leather is cooked for food. Some soldiers can’t wait and rush to chew leather from the drums. Now is tougher than it was in the mid 90s.
He begged for anything to eat, saying, “What have we done in our previous lives to suffer like this? How resentful are those soldiers that eat even their leather belts? They were all our children, drafted to the army. They were forced to, knowing that they may die of hunger in weakened physical condition. Please find some food to feed them.”
- Kkotjebis (Homeless Children) Suffocated While Trying To Pilfer Potatoes in Storage Caves
Daehongdan County of Ryanggang Province has a reputation for being a place where one can eat potatoes that cover the streets. That’s how well the potato crops do here, although it’s too high in altitude for corn to grow well. The first potato crops come in around August 20th. Right now, June and July are the most difficult time of the year for food. They store the potatoes in large storage cave over the winter. When April rolls around, workers cut off chunks of the potatoes with the bud attached and plant them. The rest of potatoes are given to the farm workers, which amounts to less than half of the original volume of the stored potatoes.
The potatoes are stored in underground chambers that can measure up to 40 meter on each side. The air is filled with the poisonous vapor from potatoes. There is a lid every three meters for ventilation and the potatoes need to be turned over to prevent rotting. It takes one whole day to fully ventilate the storage chamber, and only after that workers get in to remove potatoes that have rotted
This year, there are many kids who die by suffocation as they tried to sneak into these underground chambers and pilfer potatoes. Although there are guards they are inside the post and the kids sneak by and enter down through the lids and close them behind since they don’t want to get caught. In this state, the kids soon gag on the poisonous vapor and die due to lack of oxygen.
Kwon Soon-young (35 yrs old) says, “This past May and June, there are many kids who suffocated to death as soon as they entered these storage sheds. You have to have oxygen tanks, but obviously kids don’t have that. Probably less than one out of ten kids succeed in stealing potatoes. But the hungry kids still try out of desperation.”