In 1995, the infamous “March of Tribulation” started. In 1996 people in my hometown started starving to death. Kids couldn’t go to school. Instead, they had to work in fields, gather wood in the mountains or collect wild herbs and mushrooms. When more and more students started missing more and more school, the teachers made the biggest students class president and ordered them to control the absentees. This caused something very unlikely to transpire. I, who was always at the bottom of the class, was made class president.
In my new role, I had the job of visiting absentees at their houses. There were some students who couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have a school uniform or shoes, and there were also students who couldn’t go to school because they didn’t have enough to eat. I started to realize that I was relatively lucky compared to my classmates, thanks to my mother who worked her fingers to the bone. It wasn’t like I was brought up in a wealthy family or anything, but I even gave my winter hats to my friends, and occasionally exchanged my warm gloves for their old, worn out ones.
There were 36 students in my class, and only eight of them suffered no overt hardships. Those kids were also sympathetic to their poor classmates, and they often gave up their gloves and hats as well. When parents asked about the disappearing clothing, they lied that they were lost while hanging out with friends.
One day, I suggested to the other eight that we go to collect wood with other wealthy friends from neighboring schools. At first they thought I had made the suggestion because I needed firewood for myself. However when I explained that it was to help out poor classmates, they changed and even called up their friends; finally 40 of us got together, took 15 small wagons and headed to the mountain.
Three of us were in charge of each wagon. Soon, we were able to collect quite a lot of firewood, and when we appeared in the market, all the other people selling wood seemed rather surprised to see us. But our wood didn’t really sell that well. The wood other people were selling was all cut into small pieces and tied neatly into bundles, but ours was either as wide as an adult’s arm or two to three meters long! When it was already dark, one man approached us and asked if we could give him all our wood for a cheap price. So we were forced to sell all of it for 4,000 won, and even had to deliver it to his house!
Either way, with the money we got, we went to the house of Kang Hyuk, the poorest in our class. He had a family of six, and food was always their biggest problem.
When we arrived at his house, we couldn’t see any signs of life. When we went inside and lit up the lamp, however, his three siblings and he himself were revealed, lying down on the floor as if dead. He could barely stand up, but said he was sorry for his absences anyway. Ignoring that, I made Young Chun go to buy some oil, and started to cook some rice with the rest of my friends. I found four pots in the kitchen; three of them were already rusty and the other one was filled with water. I emptied out the water. One of us went to the market to buy some rice, and the rest of us made a fire in the stove and drew water from the well. At that time, a kilogram of rice cost 200 won, a kilogram of corn rice just 180 won.
Once the fire was set in the stove and smell of rice cooking was starting to spread, Kang Hyuk’s youngest sister Eun Hee crawled out of the kitchen. She looked terrible; her lips were dry and her eyes were sunken. She came over to me and started to cry in my arms. Hunger turns perfectly normal human beings into utter fools. Eating is the most important thing for a human being, but it can also make humans the ugliest creatures on earth.
As everybody knows, during the ‘March of Tribulation’ thousands of people starved to death. But it wasn’t just starvation; those who risked their lives to go to China were caught by the Chinese police and died in North Korean prison as ‘traitors’ and a ‘spies.’ Now, starvation in North Korea is less common, but there are still a lot of orphans and elders dying of malnutrition. Kang Hyuk’s family would have died too if it weren’t for our help. At the beginning of the March there was still sympathy among the people, but as time went by it easily disappeared.
One additional source of fear and stress in North Korean society was the security services. I don’t know whether it was on Kim Jong Il’s orders or not, but, regardless, the security officials exploited powerless people just like stray cats on the street. They especially liked to confiscate the belongings of peddlers, most of whom were elderly and/or women. No wonder little kids liked to change the lyrics of a song sung during the 3rd revolution. Originally the lyrics were very cheerful; “If it’s the leader’s request or the party’s request, we shall do anything.” However by those days the lyrics had become like this;
Security is coming.
The peddlers are running.
The jangmadang (market) is moving up and down.
An old woman tripping.
An old man running.
Security officials screaming out
The Leader’s request, the Party’s request
We shall do anything.