In the L.A. Times, Barbara Demick has a stunning two-part piece (Part 1) (Part 2) about life in Chongjin, North Korea's third-largest city. Her report is based on interviews with over 30 residents who made their way to China to work or beg for food, or who defected to South Korea.
Demick begins by focusing on the mid-1990's famine in which some 2 million North Koreans starved to death:
Chongjin residents learned to recognize the stages of starvation.As Demick reports, the utter failure of Kim Il-sung's Stalinist regime forced the development of a rudimentary, if still illegal, market economy for those who can afford to participate:
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.
Shoppers can buy 88-pound sacks of rice emblazoned with U.S. flags, and biscuits and corn noodles produced by three factories in Chongjin run by the U.N. World Food Program all intended to be humanitarian handouts.Click here for the Times' rare undercover video (WMV format) of an illegal North Korean market.
Some people cut hair or repair bicycles, though furtively because these jobs are supposed to be controlled by the government's Convenience Bureau.
"They will bring a chair and mirror to the market to cut hair," Kim said. "The police can come at any moment, arrest them and confiscate their scissors."
Another new business is a computer salon. It looks like an Internet cafe, but because there's no access to the Web in North Korea, it is used mostly by teenagers to play video games.
More products are available, but inflation puts them out of reach for most people.