Glimpses of a Hermit Nation

Times Staff Writer

His day begins at 4:30 a.m. The 64-year-old retired math teacher doesn’t own a clock or even a watch, but the internal alarm that has kept him alive while so many of his fellow North Koreans have starved to death tells him he had better get out to pick grass if his family is to survive.

Soon the streets of his city, Chongjin, will be swarming with others doing the same. Some cook the grass to eat. The teacher feeds it to the rabbits his family sells at the market.

At 10 a.m., he eats a modest meal of corn porridge. A late breakfast is best as it allows him and his wife to skip lunch. Then he goes with a hand cart to collect firewood. He has to walk two hours from Chongjin, mostly uphill, to find a patch that has not been stripped bare of vegetation.


“There is no time for rest. If you stand still, you will not survive,” said the teacher, a lean, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair who could be described as elegant if not for his threadbare trousers and his fingernails, as gnarled as oyster shells from chronic malnutrition.

Later, if it is one of the rare evenings when there is electricity, he might indulge in reading Tolstoy. More often than not, he collapses for a few hours of sleep before the routine is replayed for yet another day.

Such is the quest for survival in North Korea, an impoverished country that is the most closed in the world.

Although North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has captured the world’s attention, outsiders know relatively little about its people or the miseries they have endured since a famine in the mid-1990s wiped out an estimated 2 million people. In the rare instances in which foreigners are admitted to the totalitarian country, it is on strictly escorted tours of the capital, Pyongyang, and a few other carefully selected sites.

To penetrate the secrecy, the Los Angeles Times spoke in China and South Korea with more than 30 people from Chongjin, North Korea’s third-largest city. Their stories, along with hours of surreptitiously shot video, present a portrait of the city and of daily life in a nation struggling with deprivation and change.

Most of the factories in Chongjin, a former industrial port, are rusting into ruin. Those still operating can barely pay salaries; the average worker’s wage amounts to $1 per month at current exchange rates.


Even with international aid, many people go to bed wondering whether they will eat the next day. Residents, along with officials of the United Nations World Food Program, say food shortages have grown worse again in the last year.

“Maybe people are not dying today out in the streets like they were before,” said a coal miner who lives in Chongjin, “but they are still dying -- just quietly in their homes.”

The prolonged hardship has left North Koreans increasingly disillusioned with leader Kim Jong Il and the ideology of national self-reliance that once held the nation together. People say the regime has less and less control.

With corruption running rampant, the state is no longer solely in charge of commerce. People hustle to sell anything they can -- prohibited videos of South Korean soap operas, real estate and official travel documents. In this free-for-all, some people have prospered. Many more are just a step ahead of starvation.

Like the retired math teacher, many of the people interviewed are Chongjin residents who have slipped into China temporarily to work or beg. Others are defectors who live in South Korea.

They may have prejudices. Current residents may minimize their difficulties out of lingering loyalty to their country. Some refuse to be quoted by name, fearing that they or their family members in North Korea might be punished -- unauthorized contact with foreigners is a serious crime in North Korea. Defectors are often bitter, sometimes recalling only the darkest aspects of their lives in North Korea, and may exaggerate hardships to win sympathy.

To a great degree, however, their stories are supported by the few foreigners who have visited the area. And their reminiscences overlap.

The retired math teacher, a well-spoken man who seems like he should be on a college campus, receives a monthly pension of 700 won, about 30 cents at the unofficial exchange rate. It is not even enough to buy 2 pounds of rice.

Although his wife, son and daughter-in-law work as hard as he does, the teacher’s family survives on various “substitute” foods, mainly ground corn -- not corn meal, but a powder made from the entire plant, including husks, cobs, stems and leaves.

“We fry it like pancakes, we make it into cakes. We drop it in water like noodles,” said the teacher, who cried unabashedly as he described his life in Chongjin. “We try to cook it this way or that, but it still gives you indigestion.”

At first glance, visitors say, Chongjin almost looks like a pleasant place to live. The coastline in this remote northeastern stretch of the country is as rugged as Maine’s, the ocean waters a vivid aquamarine.

Although Chongjin is only 275 miles from the capital as the crow flies, the journey takes three days by car, or about 27 hours by train. Most visitors arrive from the south on a treacherous dirt road that twists around the mountains girding the city of 600,000.

On the outskirts of Chongjin, the road widens into a boulevard lined with trees, a video taken by a visitor in 2001 shows. But newcomers soon sense something strange: In a city nearly as populous as Boston, there are almost no personal cars, only military and government vehicles. The roadway is so empty that schoolchildren stroll blithely down the middle.

Power lines are strung overhead for trams, which run infrequently and are so crowded that people hang off the back. Even bicycles are a luxury, so most people walk, often with improbably large bundles on their backs.

Since there are no taxis, some people make hand carts and hire themselves out as porters. They wait at the roadside for customers. Many are homeless, so at night they sleep on their carts.

There are other oddities. The upper floors of an 18-story apartment building along the main boulevard are unoccupied because there are no elevators. There is a zoo, but it has no animals. There’s hardly any garbage because there is too little to go to waste.

Women have set up makeshift eateries on vacant lots, ladling out soup cooked over charcoal stoves, using hand-cranked blowers on the fires. Customers eat squatting at tables fashioned from wood planks propped on buckets.

Nowadays, Chongjin is not the worst-off place in North Korea, because its proximity to the Chinese border, 50 miles away, offers access to consumer products. Its markets are believed to be the largest in the country outside of Pyongyang. But as an industrial city in an area with little arable land, it was particularly vulnerable to famine.

Disaster struck in the early 1990s. Chongjin’s outmoded and inefficient factories had limped along on spare parts and cheap oil from the Soviet Union. When the communist bloc collapsed, suddenly there was no fuel for the power plants. Factories stopped.

Farms couldn’t produce because they depended on chemical fertilizers and electric irrigation systems. Heavy rains and floods in the summer of 1995 exacerbated a famine already underway.

Chongjin used to be a busy port, with Japanese and Soviet ships loading products from the factories. Now it is filled with flimsy squid-fishing boats; most of the larger vessels in port are bringing in humanitarian aid. The foreign sailors are not permitted to disembark.

Aside from a small, ragged seafood market at the east end of the harbor, the waterfront is desolate. The government has installed high fences to keep residents from leaving or fishing, which is illegal for individuals.

Perched above the port, in the style of the Hollywood sign, giant letters crumbling into the hillside proclaim, “Long Live Kim Il Sung,” referring to North Korea’s founder, who died in 1994. Other signs throughout the city herald his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, as the “Son of the 21st Century.”

The city, though, looks like it never emerged from the 1960s. Most buildings are whitewashed cinderblock apartments or row houses built after the area was heavily bombed by the United States during the Korean War, and they give Chongjin a monochrome bleakness. Even the red paint of the propaganda billboards -- “We are happy,” and “We have nothing to envy,” read two of the slogans -- has faded in the sun.

“I had the impression of a ghost town. It was really colorless, gray. There was no life,” said Violaine de Marsangy, a French aid worker who spent six weeks in Chongjin in 1999.

The big power plant on the waterfront operates at about 25% of capacity, so when dusk falls, swaths of the city vanish into darkness. Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic charity Caritas recalls being driven into Chongjin: “It’s pitch dark at night, so dark you can’t even tell there is a city.”

West of the port is an industrial area, home to Chongjin Steel Co., Chemical Textile Co., May 10 Coal Mine Machinery Factory and Kimchaek Iron & Steel. These were once the pride of North Korea’s industrial sector. No longer.

“Chongjin was like a forest of scrap metal, with huge plants that seem to go on for miles and miles that have been turned into rust buckets,” said Tun Myat, who in 1997 became one of the first senior U.N. officials permitted to visit the city. “I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

In a working-class neighborhood in southern Chongjin, the 39-year-old coal miner lives in a squat, drab house. The homes in Ranam are organized in blocks, usually with five units on either side of an alley and an outhouse at one end shared by the 10 families.

His only piece of furniture is a wooden table with folding legs. He has one cooking pot. One knife. A couple of bowls. A cutting board that he made himself. A large urn to store water he brings from the well.

He has four pairs of chopsticks and four spoons -- exactly enough for himself, his wife, 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. He traded away his extra utensils for food years ago.

When there is electricity, he screws a bare lightbulb into a wall socket. His children have no toys or books. Each member of the family owns two sets of clothes -- one for summer and one for winter -- that they store on a homemade hanger suspended from a nail in the wall.

On the opposite wall hang the obligatory framed portraits of Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, who seized power in the northern half of the Korean peninsula after World War II.

The government forbids people to put family photos or other decorations on the same wall. Party cadres used to drop by almost daily to make sure residents kept portraits free of dust, but that stopped two years ago.

“They don’t worry so much about ideology now,” he said. “All anybody cares about is finding enough food to get through the day.”

The miner is a pleasant man with a broad, welcoming smile, handsome despite a missing bottom tooth. He seems cheerful by disposition, but when he talks about the famine, a scowl spreads across his face.

The miner estimated that four or five of his housing block’s 30 residents, and half of his 3,500 co-workers at the Poam coal mine, had died of starvation and related illnesses since the mid-1990s.

For years, one of the hallmarks of North Korea’s government was its public distribution system, which doled out food and other goods to citizens nearly for free. The regime considered coal mining a strategic occupation, and miners were given extra rations.

But in the early 1990s, the lights in the mines went out, as did the pumps that kept the shafts dry. Beams rotted and equipment corroded. As the mines ceased production, the rations stopped.

The children were the first to start dying, then the elderly. Next to perish were men, who seemed to need more calories to survive than women.

Chongjin residents learned to recognize the stages of starvation.

First, the victims become listless and too weak to work. Their vision grows blurry. They become bone-thin, then startlingly, their torsos bloat.

Toward the end, they just lie still, sometimes hallucinating about food.

While some people seem to fade away, others die in agony, their intestines blocked when they can’t digest substitute foods, such as corn powder and oak leaves. Particularly lethal to children’s digestive systems are ersatz rice cakes -- molded out of a paste made from the inner bark of pine trees.

Among the victims was the miner’s 60-year-old father, an otherwise strong and robust man who had never been ill as long as he could remember. The miner’s best friend, a co-worker and childhood buddy, dragged himself out to the mountains to look for food and never returned.

The miner also vividly recalled his daughter running home screaming because her best friend, the 5-year-old boy next door, had died of a blockage.

“He died on his father’s back while he was carrying him home from the hospital. My daughter saw his body and came home crying. She said Myong Chol was lying still and not moving,” the miner said. “Five or six of her friends died after that. We just had to tell her they moved away to another neighborhood.”

Like everyone in his housing block, the miner and his family sleep on blankets on the vinyl-covered concrete floor. In a traditional style that vanished decades ago in South Korea, they cook on big pots over a fire whose hot air is directed under the floor to warm it.

But the miner rarely has much firewood, so his wife often cooks outdoors on a neighbor’s portable charcoal stove.

The neighbors try to help one another. During Chongjin’s bitter winter, when temperatures can plunge to 10 below zero, they pool their firewood to heat one unit where everybody sleeps. But people rarely have enough food to share.

“We have a saying that a full heart comes with a full stomach,” he said. “If you can’t help your own child who is hungry, you won’t help your neighbor’s.”

Officially, he still works for the mine. But he hasn’t received a salary since May 2003, so he seldom shows up for work. He taught himself to recognize medicinal herbs, and now he hunts them in the mountains to sell.

Looking for more money, he jumped a freight train to the Chinese border and sneaked across the Tumen River last August to work illegally in the fields. On days that he found work, he made about $1.80, which he considered a fortune. He planned to return to his family in Chongjin over the winter.

Three years ago, the miner and his wife decided to have another baby.

“North Koreans aren’t having many children because they can’t afford to feed them,” the miner said. “But my daughter complained she was lonely, and we really wanted to have another child.”

The baby, a boy, was born at home, a neighbor helping with the delivery. He was full-term but weighed just 3 1/2 pounds at birth and had difficulty nursing from his undernourished mother. The child, unable to digest powdered corn, remains underweight.

The miner said the food situation in Chongjin had gotten worse in the last year because of inflation.

“There is food in the market, but people can’t afford to buy it,” he said late last year in China. People are “getting weaker physically, financially.”

“In North Korea,” he added matter-of-factly, “I don’t remember a single day when I had a normal, happy life.”

North Korea’s schools are free, but children in Chongjin have to buy their own books and uniforms and bring firewood for heat. The World Food Program is supposed to supply 632 nursery and primary schools around Chongjin with biscuits and other food, but that aid is often suspended because of insufficient contributions.

When the food runs out, many children stop coming to class. The nation once boasted near-universal literacy, but now it is common to see kids working in fields or markets during the day. Children get leave from school in the autumn to collect acorns for food.

Seo Kyong Hui watched as the students vanished. She was a feisty and idealistic 21-year-old graduate of Chongjin’s Kim Jong Suk Education College -- named for Kim Jong Il’s mother -- when she was assigned in 1994 to teach in a mining village on the southern outskirts of the city. Her school had 50 pupils then, but by the time she left the country in 1998, enrollment had fallen to 15.

The Saenggiryong Mine Kindergarten was housed in a dank, concrete building. Seo had little equipment, save for an accordion, which all kindergarten teachers were required to play so they could lead their pupils in songs praising the Kim family.

Her kindergartners sat at worn wooden desks, often wearing heavy overcoats and hats to stay warm.

Until 1995, a full-time cook prepared lunches of soup and rice. But as the crisis worsened, the school closed its cafeteria and asked children to bring their own meals. Many came empty-handed.

“We would take a spoonful from each kid who had lunch and give it to the one without,” Seo said. “But the parents didn’t like that, because they didn’t have enough for themselves.”

Seo could tell when a pupil was in trouble. His hair would turn dry and yellowish, and his eyes would sink into their sockets. At recess, while the better-fed children ran and squealed, the hungry child would lie on a mat. Sometimes the child would flop over in his chair during a lesson, cheek pressed against the desktop.

“One girl I remember used to be pretty as a doll, with black eyes and long lashes,” Seo said. “But her ribs showed, and her belly was swollen like one of those Somalian kids. She would doze in class. I remember I once picked up her head off the desk and looked at her face. It was yellow, as though she were jaundiced, and her eyes were half-closed.”

The girl stopped coming to class. Seo assumes she eventually died of starvation. Others dropped out, in what became a pattern.

“The first time I saw a dead body, I shuddered with fear. But with time, you get used to it. You become ... insensitive,” Seo said.

“It was really strange. If only one or two students had died, I would have been shocked. It would have been a big tragedy and I’d have gone to the home to pay condolences. But when there are so many, you get numb.”

The students who remained received an education heavy with propaganda; course materials depicted the U.S. soldiers who fought in the Korean War as wolves who had massacred the general population.

More important than math or even the Korean language was the study of juche, the national ideology of self-reliance put forth by Kim Il Sung.

“Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il Sung. How many children are singing in total?” is one question from Primary School Grade 1 Mathematics, published in 2001 -- or Juche 91 under the North Korean calendar, which begins with the year of Kim Il Sung’s birth.

“There is so much emphasis on ideology that other areas of education invariably suffer,” said Seo. Having escaped North Korea in 1998 with her mother and two sisters, she lives in a suburb of Seoul and studies child welfare.

“At the time I didn’t know. I just thought, ‘This is how education is done.’ ”

Physician Kim Ji Eun worked for nearly a decade at Chongjin’s Provincial Hospital No. 2. It is the teaching hospital for the city’s main medical school and is located in Pohang, the district of the party elite.

In the 1960s, much of its equipment and some staff came from Eastern Europe. Older Chongjin residents still proudly refer to it as the Czech hospital. But Kim, 40, cringes with embarrassment as she recalls its privations.

Her patients were expected to bring their own food and blankets. There often were no bandages, so they would cut strips of their own bedding. To hold their intravenous fluid, patients usually brought empty bottles of Chongjin’s most popular beer, Nakwon (Paradise).

“If they would bring in one beer bottle, they’d get one IV. If they’d bring two bottles, they would get two,” Kim said.

It wasn’t always that way. Until the 1990s, North Korea provided free healthcare to its citizens and its pharmaceutical factories produced medicines. But when the economy collapsed and the factories closed, drugs became scarce. Doctors could prescribe medicine, but the prescriptions could be filled only if the patient had the money and the luck to find the pills at a private market.

Traditional remedies began to play a bigger role. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, the physicians at Kim’s hospital would be required to travel into the mountains for up to five weeks to hunt for medicinal plants. They would collect peony root to treat nervous disorders, and wild yam, dandelion and atractylodes for digestive disorders.

Each doctor had a quota, and the herbs were weighed and inspected for cleanliness by the hospital’s chief pharmacologist.

But herbs could not take the place of powerful anesthetics. Doctors would use acupuncture for simple surgeries such as appendectomies.

“When it works, it works very well,” Kim said. As for when it doesn’t, she said, “North Koreans are tough and used to bearing pain. They’re not like South Koreans who scream and shout about the slightest thing.”

Kim had wanted to be a teacher or journalist. But North Koreans aren’t allowed to chose their own professions, and because of her good grades in science, she was assigned to medical school. She graduated in 1988.

Early in her career, Kim recalled, she saw a 27-year-old patient recently released from a prison where he had been sent for “economic crimes.” That meant he had engaged in private business. He was malnourished and badly bruised from a beating.

The hospital director forbade Kim to give him medicine. “He’s a convict,” the director told her. “Let’s save it for someone else.” Kim protested.

The clashes with her boss prompted Kim to switch to pediatrics. But she found that even more frustrating.

“I saw a lot of 2-year-olds to 4-year-olds dying of malnutrition. Often it was not the starvation itself. They would get a minor cold that would kill them,” said Kim. “They would look at you with these big eyes. Even the children always knew they were dying.”

She switched again, to research. But by this time, Kim was hungry herself. Her salary had been discontinued. She clearly remembers the first day she went without food.

It was Sept. 9, 1993. She and her family had hiked into the countryside to search for something to eat. Finding a single rotting pear on the ground, they boiled it and split it five ways, among her parents, her sister’s husband and two children. Kim and her sister got none.

Hunger made people callous. Her best friend’s husband and 2-year-old son died of starvation within a few days of each other. Kim went to pay a condolence call.

“Oh, I’m better off. There are fewer mouths to feed,” her friend told her.

Kim started accepting food from people in exchange for doctor’s notes so they could skip work and search for food. (Those who shirk work in North Korea can be sent to prison.) But eventually the patients had no food to give doctors and were so desperate they no longer bothered with notes. Kim and other physicians stopped going to work. She fled North Korea in 1999 and now lives in Seoul.

Since then, North Korean hospitals have not improved, despite some international aid. People die of treatable illnesses such as tuberculosis and even diarrhea.

“The hospitals are no better. The equipment is in a state of disrepair,” said one aid worker who had visited hospitals in Chongjin and elsewhere in the region and spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his work.

“In most hospitals,” he said, “there is a pharmacy with a little carousel that might only have as much [Western] medicine as you have in your medicine cabinet at home.”

Some doctors support themselves by moonlighting. Abortions, though illegal, can be obtained in Chongjin for a bucket of coal or a few pounds of rice.

As of last summer, the only major factory in town with smoke regularly coming out of its stacks was that of Chongjin Steel Co., which dominates the city’s skyline. Kimchaek Iron & Steel, which once had the largest factory in North Korea, with a workforce of 20,000, operates only sporadically, as do some other small plants.

But just because Chongjin’s factories are largely idle doesn’t mean their workers stay home.

In what might seem an exercise in futility, Kim Sun Bok would put on her uniform each morning and walk 50 minutes to the 2nd Metal Construction Factory.

She had to be there by 7:30, dressed in regulation indigo blue slacks, cap and canvas shoes. But more often than not, she didn’t get to perform her job, which was making machine parts.

Instead, she and her co-workers were assigned to tend rice paddies or a cabbage field. Sometimes she performed construction labor. Kim, a bird-like woman who weighs barely 100 pounds, was told to haul paving stones and sacks of gravel for a road that was being built entirely by hand.

“Even if there is nothing to do, they’ll create tasks for us. And you have to come to work,” said Kim, 32, who fled North Korea in 2003. “People constantly visit your home to make sure you’re coming.”

Before the workers could go home, there was an hourlong lecture in the factory’s auditorium that ended about 6 p.m. A common theme was the importance of the collective over the individual.

At least once a week, there was another hourlong session in which workers had to criticize themselves and one another and promise to do better. The trick, Kim said, was to pick a relatively innocuous failing. “I should have worked harder to meet my quota” was a popular confession.

Factory workers had one day off per week, but workers often came in on that day anyway to clean the plant.

For their efforts, the 3,000 employees received hardly any salary, but there was a powerful incentive to show up: The factory would often dole out food. It was rarely rice and often animal feed, but it was better than nothing.

Kim had been assigned to work there from the age of 18, and much of her social life revolved around the plant. On the biggest public holidays, such as Kim Il Sung’s birthday, April 15, there might be a company outing in the mountains or at a youth park on the waterfront. The workers would bring soju, a Korean grain alcohol, and an accordion or guitar so they could sing songs.

As other factories were closing, Kim’s boss tried to keep the plant going and find food for his workers. He would cut his own deals with shipowners to make metal parts in exchange for something to eat.

“Our manager was a quick thinker. He knew how to run the place so our factory wasn’t as much of a basket case as some others,” Kim said. “People who worked at other factories got nothing at all.”

Other factory managers also began to take matters into their own hands, sometimes with terrible consequences. Some of the factories were so dysfunctional that desperate managers dismantled their machinery and sold it as scrap metal or bartered it in China for food.

At times, authorities looked the other way; in other cases, they cracked down. Chongjin residents recall that from 1995 to 1997, factory personnel accused of dismantling their factories were executed.

Kim remembers that managers of Kimchaek Iron & Steel were executed by a firing squad on the banks of Suseong Stream, which cuts through the center of town. One of them was her neighbor’s son-in-law.

Residents were ordered by party leaders to come out and watch.

“Everyone thought it was a great pity,” Kim said. “They knew he was not a hardened criminal or common thief, but somebody who did it because his family was starving.”

Chongjin residents were learning a lesson at odds with the ideology they had been taught since they were children: The collective wouldn’t save them. Individuals had to do what they could to survive.

“We didn’t think of it as change at the time. But we were learning we had to survive. We had to create something out of nothing,” Kim said. “The individual had to change.”


Jinna Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.