Discontent in N.Korea Turns to Anger After Currency Debacle

      February 04, 2010 11:37

      The fallout from North Korea's disastrous currency reform is mounting, with public discontent at skyrocketing prices reportedly growing into serious unrest in places. Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday that an anti-regime mood is growing among people who are prevented from earning a living by a crackdown on the use of foreign currency and closure of open-air markets.

      Quoting sources in North Korea, the exile radio station said North Koreans now call leader Kim Jong-il simply by his name without using any honorific, which is unprecedented in the North.

      One Korean Chinese told the Chosun Ilbo on telephone, "I was astonished to hear a North Korean official call Kim Jong-il a 'ttorai' (an idiot)." Before the currency reform, that same official would get angry when others disparaged Kim, he added. "Ttorai" is not common in North Korea but is now frequently used when denouncing Kim Jong-il, having become popular through South Korean TV series watched clandestinely in the North, the source said.

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (center), accompanied by senior officials including the Workers' Party's Finance Director Pak Nam-gi (second from right), visits a new swimming pool at Kim Il-sung University in March last year. Pak escorted Kim on 123 so-called "on-the-spot guidance" tours last year but he has been dumped from the entourage since Jan. 3. /[North] Korean Central News Agency-Yonhap

      Discontent at a crackdown on the nascent market economy is also reaching boiling point. RFA reported that people are posting threatening letters to the homes of security cadres in Pyongsong and Nampo in South Pyongan Province or lobbing stones through their windows.

      "As the memory of the mass starvation in the mid-1990s returns, North Koreans are apparently becoming radicalized," said Lee Jo-won, a professor at ChungAng University. People who trusted the authorities and waited for food rations starved to death, while those who engaged in market activities survived, so they will not longer put up with crackdowns on markets as food prices soar and food rations are suspended. All security officers are said to have recently been supplied with live bullets and appear to be living in a state of siege.

      The North Korean economy is deteriorating since the currency reform in December. Rice prices have risen 30 times from 20 won per kilogram late last year to 600 won a month later, according to sources. The black-market exchange rate soared from 30 won per U.S. dollar in early December to 530 won at the end of January.

      Though the authorities have supplied quantities of new bills, North Koreans rarely use them because prices have spiraled so sharply that supply is drastically short. Threatened by the authorities that goods will be confiscated unless sold at prescribed prices, people have resorted to barter.

      More and more people are also refusing to go to work because their salaries are worthless. Good Friends, an organization providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, said in a newsletter Wednesday, "Citizens in Tanchon, South Hamgyong Province, staged a group protest asking 'Will you starve us to death?'"  and added, "The number of households who can afford barely one meal a day is increasing."

      "To overcome the crisis, the North has to increase the supply of goods. At the moment it can rely only on China and South Korea," said Cho Young-gi, a professor at Korea University. "That's probably why Kim Jong-il's visit to China and an inter-Korean summit within the year are under discussion."

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