Marching Through Suffering
eBook - ePub

Marching Through Suffering

Loss and Survival in North Korea

Sandra Fahy

Share book
  1. English
  2. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  3. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Marching Through Suffering

Loss and Survival in North Korea

Sandra Fahy

Book details
Book preview
Table of contents
Citations

About This Book

Marching Through Suffering is a deeply personal portrait of the ravages of famine and totalitarian politics in modern North Korea since the 1990s. Featuring interviews with more than thirty North Koreans who defected to Seoul and Tokyo, the book explores the subjective experience of the nation's famine and its citizens' social and psychological strategies for coping with the regime.

These oral testimonies show how ordinary North Koreans, from farmers and soldiers to students and diplomats, framed the mounting struggles and deaths surrounding them as the famine progressed. Following the development of the disaster, North Koreans deployed complex discursive strategies to rationalize the horror and hardship in their lives, practices that maintained citizens' loyalty to the regime during the famine and continue to sustain its rule today. Casting North Koreans as a diverse people with a vast capacity for adaptation rather than as a monolithic entity passively enduring oppression, Marching Through Suffering positions personal history as key to the interpretation of political violence.

Frequently asked questions

How do I cancel my subscription?
Simply head over to the account section in settings and click on “Cancel Subscription” - it’s as simple as that. After you cancel, your membership will stay active for the remainder of the time you’ve paid for. Learn more here.
Can/how do I download books?
At the moment all of our mobile-responsive ePub books are available to download via the app. Most of our PDFs are also available to download and we're working on making the final remaining ones downloadable now. Learn more here.
What is the difference between the pricing plans?
Both plans give you full access to the library and all of Perlego’s features. The only differences are the price and subscription period: With the annual plan you’ll save around 30% compared to 12 months on the monthly plan.
What is Perlego?
We are an online textbook subscription service, where you can get access to an entire online library for less than the price of a single book per month. With over 1 million books across 1000+ topics, we’ve got you covered! Learn more here.
Do you support text-to-speech?
Look out for the read-aloud symbol on your next book to see if you can listen to it. The read-aloud tool reads text aloud for you, highlighting the text as it is being read. You can pause it, speed it up and slow it down. Learn more here.
Is Marching Through Suffering an online PDF/ePUB?
Yes, you can access Marching Through Suffering by Sandra Fahy in PDF and/or ePUB format, as well as other popular books in Geschichte & Koreanische Geschichte. We have over one million books available in our catalogue for you to explore.

Information

Year
2015
ISBN
9780231538947
1
THE BUSY YEARS
“Famine is something that happens in South Korea, or Africa, but not in a socialist country like North Korea,” Hye-jin Lee (23) explains; it never occurred to her that what she was living through was, in the international arena, referred to as a famine that was both contemporary and anachronistic in its character. Precipitated by the floods of the mid-1990s, food insecurity was well under way because of political and economic stubbornness toward opening up in the wake of the Soviet bloc collapse, but for Hye-jin Lee (23), what was happening in North Korea was first understood by what it was not: it was not a famine.
North Koreans, cut off from the information flows of global media, still managed to learn the stereotypical representations of famine: a skeletal body, usually black, in a parched and sun-cracked landscape. Not well known in the wider world, least of all in North Korean school books, is the history of socialism’s relationship to famine or the conspicuous way that censorship and famine occur together. In North Korea, famine is a feature of capitalist systems, which naturally run amok. In such descriptions, usually seen in the North Korean media organ KCNA, hunger in places like America is conflated with famine.
What North Koreans were experiencing was, officially, a March of Suffering. On the ground it was often referred to as “the busy time.” Life got busy. People were swept up in the process of getting by. In the oral accounts, in the earliest years of the March of Suffering, people identified the starting point differently according to where they lived geographically and their occupations. Those farthest from Pyongyang and to the north, for instance, and those farthest in the employment network from government office, such as farmers and miners, identified the start of the busy years as the late 1980s into the early 1990s. Because of the gradual and insidious way famine occurs, and because famine is not general to a whole nation or area, this gradually developing archipelago muddles recognition of what is happening. For North Korea, too, preexisting undernutrition already predisposed people to going without and making do, and this blurred recognition of anything being amiss.
In the late 1980s the Soviet Union cut aid to North Korea, there was a 10 percent reduction in Public Distribution System (PDS) rations under the rationale of patriotism. The vast majority of people in North Korea obtained access to food through the PDS, which was tasked from its earliest history with distributing food, among other things, throughout the country. This food came from the surplus production of farmers, purchased at low cost by the central government. In exchange, farmers were given seed, fertilizer, insecticides, and farming equipment, and they were permitted to grow a small plot of vegetables for personal household consumption. Farmers were also given a food ration from the harvest. The central government transferred the purchased food into the PDS. Non-farmers received a ration twice monthly at a low, subsidized price.1 Local warehouses were tasked with distributing the food rations.
Two key features of the PDS food ration system are worthy of note. First, the system ensured that mobility was discouraged. To receive their ration, individuals had to appear at their designated local warehouse. Second, the system of distribution was not equal, but differences in political rank, among other factors, determined the amount given to each recipient. At its earliest history, North Korea had sixty-four categories. The Kim family and Politburo were at the top, “below them Communist Party Cadres, internal security, military officers and at the bottom descendants of families who had been members of the old Korean nobility, business people and large land owners.” Although this sixty-four-category system simplified its categories over time, the PDS was in operation from 1950 through the mid-1990s.2
The food shortage got to the worst point during 1988 at Cheongjin. I lived in Cheongjin. But how did the food situation change since 1988? The distribution started to slow down bit by bit. Before in 1987, there was some sort of distribution. In society, when a woman gives birth, then she gets some benefits. It was good treatment. When she gives birth, they give 10 kg of rice to congratulate her. That was the happiest moment. For instance, if the mother would try to breast-feed her child, but there would be no milk, then there was a special powder for the baby to eat, a formula called ahm. They would give you that for six months. So the baby can eat even when it isn’t being breast-fed. There were those benefits. That program was there during 1987, but it started to slow down in 1988. Because of the food shortage, the supplies that would be given twice a month changed to once a month. Then often the supply cart would just check in at the supply station and say that you would get food the next time the supply comes in, and leave. Then you just go back home. After a few days, when you hear from the department that the new cart had arrived, people would get in line to get the food. You were supposed to get 15 days’ worth of food, but we only got 3 days’ worth. So the people would start to complain on the way back home. Can’t we get more? Why aren’t the supplies coming in? We would start saying those kinds of things. (Mi-hee Kun, 53)
Seasonal variations in nutrition are reflected in the development and height of children born in autumn, who fare better than those born in the winter.3 Son preference, a feature of both Koreas before the division, is largely absent in the North. This has been attributed to the resiliency observed in women and girls, particularly during the famine years.4 North Koreans had adjusted to inadequate food resources since the partition of the peninsula. The society Jung-ok Choi (21) knew was described as hard-working and determined: “Whenever, whatever happens, people are quick on their feet, North Korean people. They always lived like that. They were ready to do whatever they had to do on their own.” North Koreans were used to shortages of food and other resources such as fuel and electricity. Adapting to fluctuations in resources was a regular feature of life.
It was difficult for interviewees to recall a precise moment in time when the famine took hold in North Korea. This is certainly due to the fact that famine is not a sudden event, but it is also because North Koreans were familiar with undernutrition and shortage. North Korea has long triaged resources and food according to regional and occupational rationale. Whether or not the situation slipped into famine for certain individuals depended on their geographic location, social class, occupation, and some means by which they could increase their access to food. The emergence of famine was contingent on these variables. Therefore, a family in a northern remote town who earned their living through farming or mining fared far worse than someone in the same town who was a factory worker, a member of the labor party, or a local authority figure in charge of supervising the housing estate. Greater inconsistency for the starting point of the famine emerged in the oral accounts of those individuals coming from Pyongyang, for many of them didn’t realize anything was amiss until the late 1990s. A family in Pyongyang may only have known about the famine as late as 1997, while others in Cheongjin noticed food shortages as early as 1988.
The year 1995 was suggested by many as the year it all began, perhaps because that was the year floods first destroyed enough crops to compel the government to seek international aid, setting a precedent. The floods were a convenient opportunity to request aid without losing face. Shortages of food had been an issue many years before this, but the shortages resulting from the floods brought a new point of comparison. The spectacle of famine is seen long after the contributing and precipitating factors have already done their damage. By the time people saw wandering, homeless children, beggars, and bodies of the dying and dead piled in train stations, the famine process had already been well under way for years. When the state provided an explanation for what was wrong—the flooding and cold snaps, sanctions from the outside, enemy forces, U.S. and Japanese imperialism—this seemed rational, and the solution for it, which was collective endurance, would ensure both individual and, more importantly, national survival.
Lack of information, misinformation, and extensive adaptation to undernutrition and shortages limited a critical interpretation of the earliest famine years. Reaction to shortages was dulled by previous familiarity with shortage, which had been met with ingenuity, adaptation, and endurance. Adept at getting by on little, interviewees explained that they put their hopes on the future, trusting that soon things would turn around. They prepared themselves by enduring as best they could and waiting. People continued to work hard; they knuckled down, endured the hunger without complaint, and reassured themselves that the postponed delivery of the public distribution was only temporary.5 As this cycle between reprieves grew larger, the famine years created a new norm. It was only when coping strategies were more socially extreme—for example, theft, disappearances, and parents leaving children to search for food—that interviewees identified signs that the busy years had become something different, that the social life they had once known had begun to change. Jung-ok Choi (21) shared her earliest memories of North Korea, just before the onset of the famine.
A lot of people from my region, North Hamgyong Province, come out [from North Korea]. It’s because the region is near the Chinese border. I was born in Cheongjin in 1984, my parents were laborers, average laborers. From when I was very small we had livestock. We raised pigs. With those pigs and our labor we were able to eat. We didn’t eat well, but we had enough maize growing up. (Jung-ok Choi, 21)
There were others who were comparatively better off, deemed more politically loyal. They were in charge of keeping an eye on others. Young-mi Park (65), a grandmother, lived comfortably in North Korea, and although she lived in the same small city as Jong-Ok, she never had the experience of eating maize. She lived on a better diet that was the privilege of her class, but she also witnessed how differently those around her ate and lived. As an apartment “monitor,” a position that involved keeping an eye on the activities of others and rounding up people for work units and other activities, she understood the circumstances of her surroundings better than most.
From the time I was born until I escaped North Korea, I never tried the so-called maize. My family never ate that. My kids had friends who ate it, but we didn’t. We lived in an apartment, and I was positioned as the monitor of the entire apartment complex (inminbanjang). The office selects people who are better off for the position of monitor because you aren’t working all the time and can keep an eye on things. In that job I got a close look at things. There were many occasions where people were so poor it was considered fortunate to have two meals of maize a day. Many people passed lunch and dinner hungry, leaving for work early the next morning. If they earn some money they can then buy some corn rice or corn flour to live on. Being monitor of the whole apartment, I knew the situation of all thirty families I was responsible for. You just know, once you are monitoring, what they are eating in that house, what is going on in this house or that house. There was a family of five that didn’t even have proper clothes to wear. There was nothing for them to wear when the clothes were washed. And nothing to eat. They would head out each day to figure out what to sell to make some money to get food. On the days that they didn’t get anything I would give them some of our leftover food, I would call them over during the holidays to give them a little bit of meat and some side dishes. The mother told me that her children always had diarrhea after visiting, but it was because they weren’t used to eating foods with oil or fat. (Young-mi Park, 65)
The greatest number of defectors in South Korea left provinces such as North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, Ryanggang, and North Pyongan. These regions, in addition to Namp’o, were some of the worst-affected areas during the famine years. Leading the way in numbers of defectors is North Hamgyong with over 65 percent. In terms of occupations, a great number of defectors are farmers, miners, or factory laborers, followed by office workers and professionals.
Each individual family experienced these earliest stages of the famine as shortage, but there were sometimes wide variations and contradictions among them. The North Korean government made decisions based on political classification, which meant that certain portions of the population were relocated to the northernmost provinces of North Hamgyong and Yanggang-do. In 1957–1960 North Korea engaged in purges similar to those under Stalin (1936–1938). Political classification determined not only employment but also geographic location. These classifications should not be understood as accurate for assessing genuine political loyalty as many individuals who were staunchly loyal to the state were classified as wavering and relegated to marginalized positions in society, both geographically and socially.
The northernmost provinces of North Hamgyong and Yanggang-do are where the largest number of defectors comes from. These are also the two provinces most harshly affected by the famine of the 1990s, and they continue to experience consistent food shortages. The preexisting inequalities in society mapped the greatest impact of the famine in terms of the decline of food availability and extreme difficulty in altering one’s access to food. Some households did not belong to collectives, while others did. People were able to benefit if their jobs provided an opportunity to do so. The type of work individuals did was determined according to their degree of reliability and loyalty to the government. Those working in the mines, for instance, were some of the least trusted classes in North Korea, and of course the prison camps were full of so-called hostile class individuals and their family members.6
There is evidence of regional variations in biological living standards in North Korea throughout the 1990s, revealing that children living in triaged areas of reduced food distribution, the northeastern provinces, fared worse, and there is evidence that as early as the 1970s North Koreans were living with nutritional stress.7 According to Schwekendiek, children born in Pyongyang are healthier, providing evidence that elites residing in the capital seemingly possess comparative advantages in food supply.8 When controlling for further variables, Schwekendiek found that boys and older children suffered more during the crisis, although cohorts born before the onset of the famine were significantly better off.
Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is home to those deemed most politically trustworthy. Entry into the capital is strictly controlled. Although movement within North Korea is tightly regulated, Sung-hoon Kang (36) traveled from Pyongyang to his hometown during his military service.
We first knew of it when, for instance, we went to school and people would fall asleep. You know, so hungry you fall asleep. Or people had symptoms of illness, that kind of thing. When I was in North Korea I was in my military service during the time of the starvation deaths. I was working on a construction site in Pyongyang. We were sent to our hometowns later and that’s when I knew all of North Korea was starving. In the military we were hungry too. There was always very little. No side dishes, no rice, so we couldn’t eat. So how could things remain ordinary? What shall I say? Was there no rice from early times? When I was little, we got the food distribution and it was shared out. But from 1992, it collapsed. When I went into the military, I was very hungry.
People were hungry so they cut down the trees to grow corn in their place. There was corn, barley, millet, potato. Because the farmers couldn’t farm—the farms couldn’t be farmed in the condition they were in and so there was no food distribution given. So what was the connection with the trees? People couldn’t cultivate, because there is no private land. It is all collective. The mountains were set on fire and the trees went up in flames. Some people just went up into the mountains and died of starvation. People went to plant corn. So at the very start the country tried to regulate it. They couldn’t stop the famine. From the time it started the mountains were taken over for farming. The people who got there first had the lower parts and those who got there last were way up at the top. So for that reason, none of the mountains had trees. There were some regions that were given over to tobacco farming, but not all. They were called tobacco farms. There were tobacco farmers in Onsang, in the village. (Sung-hoon Kang, 36)
A government decision to allot large sections of northern land to tobacco production, when farm land was already scarce and depleted of nutrients, demonstrates a distinct lack of foresight for the needs of the population. Chi-hye Kim (25) left North Korea in 1999, but she recalled a time when the farms in her village, Dongkwon, with around three hundred families, were converted over to tobacco production. She correlated the agricultural conversion with the military. Preposterous as it may sound by contemporary global standards of health, interviewees told me that North Korean soldiers were encouraged to smoke, perhaps because tobacco is a stimulant and appetite suppressant. However, North Korea’s illicit economic activities may indicate another explanation for the transition to tobacco production. In 1995, twenty forty-foot shipping containers were seized in Taiwan. The contents: counterfeit wrappers of a major Japanese cigarette brand, bound for North Korea.9
Up until 1989 we had farmed corn, but at the end of the 1980s that changed and we were instructed to plant tobacco. I can’t recall the exact year, but there was some story about the change. Something related to how soldiers who lack tobacco did not fight as well. We were growing tobacco for the soldiers. Kim Il-Sung gave a directive that the entire area should farm tobacco for the soldiers. The entire area was changed over to farm that crop instead of corn. ...

Table of contents