In North Korea, the price of rice (so important, with the word for “rice” synonymous with “food”) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, the result of declining foreign aid, a weak harvest and hoarding by speculators.
“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old North Korean man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers.
Outside of the relative privilege of Pyongyang, the North Koreans said, it is still common for people to die of starvation, albeit not at the same rate as during the famine of the 1990s.
One North Korean interviewed said that from January through May of this year she’d seen three elderly women out on the streets who appeared to be dead. “Young people have a hard time surviving themselves, so sometimes they have to kick the old people out of the house,” she said.