The Chollima district of Nampo City is a decidedly working class area. The blocks of flats are basic, while the roads are bumpy. Every spare patch of ground seems to have been turned into a vegetable garden. But it is clean and orderly.
At the tender age of 20, Jang Jong Hwa adopted seven orphans and cares for them as their mother. [When we visit,] Jang is at home, as are three of her children. We’re told the others are out playing as it is a Sunday. She excuses her wet hands, she’s just been doing her substantial laundry, and invites us into the living room.
The flat is quite a reasonable size. Four rooms and a bathroom. It’s basic but comfortable. There did not appear to be any electricity during the time of our visit, though there is a flat-screen TV and a DVD player. With very little furniture, we sit on the floor to talk, which is quite usual here.
Jang Jong Hwa is herself an orphan. She was born into troubled times, at the height of the great famine that raged through North Korea in the 1990s — years of bad harvests, coupled with economic catastrophe following the collapse of the socialist block elsewhere in the world, led to famine throughout the land. It’s estimated hundreds of thousands died. Among them Jong Hwa’s birth parents.
She was lucky enough to be adopted and still lives with her adoptive mother. When she was visiting her mother’s workplace a few years ago she came across the three children, all siblings, and now in the room with us. Their parents had both worked at the Nampo Iron and Steel Works but had both died of unspecified illnesses. They were being cared for by different workers in turn. Jong Hwa felt she had to give them a home.
Every morning she gets up to cook breakfast and get them ready for school, before heading off to her own full-time job at the local catering service, before rushing back to prepare lunch. With evening meals to prepare, clothes to wash, homework to supervise, she reckons she’s getting by on only five hours sleep a night.
She gets help from her own mother, and friends and neighbors. Everyone pitches in, she tells us. The state provides free housing, as it does to all its citizens, as well as free schooling and free school uniforms all hanging neatly on the wall of the room where the children sleep and do their homework.
Jong Hwa’s selfless spirit has not gone unnoticed. She was even awarded the title of “model youth” at the National Congress of Good Virtues held in Pyongyang in May this year. The group photo hangs on the wall in their living room and she points herself out, standing just a few places away from DPRK’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. He shook her hand and called her “child mother,” she proudly tells us.
“Our country is one huge family,” she says. “We are a socialist collectivist society. We all try to help each other.”