Tuesday, March 20, 2007

"We don't understand politics, we only want to be able to eat"

Before slipping across a frozen river from North Korea last year, Jin measured time in kernels of grain: The two tiny servings of porridge he ate each day to make the food last.

"We were always hungry," said Jin, who gave only his surname because he plans to return to North Korea and fears imprisonment if he is caught. In Hoeryong, a city of some 170,000 people where Jin, 49, and his family live, food and fuel are scarce. The number of homeless —- in North Korea called kotchebi, or swallows —- has grown as people sell their homes to buy food. Many homeless in Hoeryong "are listless and have distended bellies," Jin said.

Jin, his wife and two daughters survived on two small meals each day. After breakfast, Jin walked to the factory where he worked on an assembly line producing bean paste, earning the equivalent of about $1 a month.

Before he left in the fall, the government had distributed 5-pound bags of rice marked with U.N. labels to most adults each month, and because rice is more valuable than corn, Jin was able to trade it for low-quality corn and, sometimes, a few potatoes. Stretched over a month between four people, there was barely enough to survive, he said.

Jin left Hoeryong in November in search of work in China. When Jin arrived in Yanji he was shocked by how prosperous the city is. The sight of Yanji's markets and tall buildings shook his faith in the North Korean government.

"We don't understand politics," he said. "We only want to be able to eat."

[Excerpt of an article by Craig Simons, Atlanta Journal Constitution]

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