About the Author
View more articles by Tae-il Shim
Tae-il Shim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. He left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
CORRECTION at 1245 KST, March 25: This article was written by Tae-il Shim, not In-hua Kim.
Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and even good night to those of you night owls out there — whatever the time is where you are, welcome to Ask a North Korean! The feature where you, NK News readers, can email in and ask your questions to North Korean writers In-hua Kim and Tae-il Shim.
Today’s question comes from Jeran, from Salt Lake City, Utah, who asks about how those from Hyesan (like In-hua) prepare and live during winter.
Hyesan, in Ryanggang province, is right at the north of the country, and winters can get incredibly cold. While spring weather has just started here in South Korea, Tae-il talks about winter in her hometown, where the cold has still not quite yet come to an end.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Hyesan is a small city in Ryanggangdo province with a population of less than 200,000. It’s not as cold as on Mount Paektu in Samjiyon county but it has a similar climate.
The region’s temperature is the lowest in North Korea so locals undergo more hardship that those in the south. Creating heat is one of the biggest challenges about living in Hyesan — if you don’t do it, you’ll freeze to death.
Electricity supply is limited in Hyesan. Certain spots receive a constant supply day and night: for example, the Pochonbo Victory Monument that commemorates one of Kim Il Sung’s battles against the Japanese, the recently re-built statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and the revolution history center named after the two former leaders.
The buildings of the municipal and provincial authorities are provided with electricity during certain hours.
No electricity is assigned to residential areas, with the exception of about the 0.5% of households that secretly extract an electric line from certain governmental organizations that run on electricity.
For example, the May 8 Forest Machinery Munitions Factory (5.8림업기계군수직장) receives electricity 24 hours a day, so the rich people who live nearby pay a bribe and connect a line to their houses.
The supply doesn’t go as far as to get them traditional Korean floor heating (ondol), but it does allow them to turn on the lights and television.
North Koreans heat their houses by burning wood or coal briquettes under flat stones installed under the floor (the original version of ondol). The minimum firewood one household requires per month is one cubic meter, or half a ton of coal briquettes.
From October to April, Hyesanites struggle for survival. At a minimum, 600 RMB (720,000 won) is spent on heating for room and cooking. This isn’t affordable for the 20-30% who are lucky enough to be privately employed but even so hardly earn 5 or 10 RMB a day.
Buying food and winter clothes is important but preparing fuel tops it. You can simply purchase wood or coal briquettes if you have money, but most people forage for their own fuel by collecting grass and thickets.
Considering how cold Hyesan is, it would be great if coal was produced locally, but that’s not the case.
There is a tiny badger burrow-like coal mine in Masan-dong but its output is never announced nor have I ever heard of someone having used its coal. It’s possible that a cadre or some wealthy people took it away.
Trains transport coal from mines in South Pyongan province to Ryanggang province. It’s all for military, not civil, use.
Hyesanites suffer from adverse living conditions due to the cold climate
People also make sure to cut off all the stalks and straw after harvesting corn, sorghum, barley, millet, sunflower seeds, and wheat. All of them are bound up into sheaves and stacked up for the winter.
Potatoes, the most popular crop in Ryanggang province, are used for food, but their stems are dried and burned for fuel.
Sweet potatoes don’t grow in cold Hyesan, but their stems are also used for the same purpose in South Pyongan province.
Corn, another popular crop in Hyesan, has many parts for heating: stalks, roots, and the corn bodies with the kernels extracted.
Up until I left for the military, the mountains in the village were full of huge larch trees and nut pines, all of which were cut down in the 1990s by individuals and the log trade the government began with China.
Most mountains in North Korea are now stripped bare. The so-called trees still left and used for fuel are the thickets that are scythed with a sickle because they are as thin as fingers.
Dried grass and corn roots actually catch fire like gunpowder and have strong heat output compared with expensive briquette or wood. Their downside is that they fill the entire house with dust, smoke, and soot, turning the ceilings and walls black.
And yet, this is a price North Koreans are willing to pay if it can keep them warm during the winter.
Next in the winter preparation process is kimchi-making (gimjang). Kimchi plays a crucial role in the North Korean diet.
Wealthy people make delicious kimchi with chili powder, garlic, ginger, pollack, anchovy, squid, or octopus.
Poor households, which are the majority, make baek kimchi preserved in salt. Instead of the earthenware pots that South Koreans use to store kimchi during the winter, North Koreans buy plastic bags and use them for a year.
The main ingredients of Kimchi also vary depending on what you can afford: Chinese napa cabbage for the wealthy and dandelions for the poor.
Wind-proofing is another thing you must do for winter. Windows in North Korea, unlike those in the South, are single-layered which makes them very drafty.
People counter the cold by covering their doors and windows with plastic wrap. The price varies depending on the thickness, and its sold by the meter.
People also buy thick wooden boards that they use to fix the plastic wrap on the door.
Those who can’t buy the board use sticks cut off from the ticket on the hills. Those sticks are uneven and crooked, so wind still makes it through to indoors.
While people’s own houses are still drafty and chilly, government-owned buildings pass through winter with expensive and nicely-cut firewood in abundance.
The budget for their firewood is comprised of contributions from the locals. Your ideology is questioned if you don’t pay your portion, so you have to find a way to afford this before worrying about your own house.
Hyesanites suffer from adverse living conditions due to the cold climate. Farming doesn’t produce as much and breeding stock is not an option even when it’s not the hellish six-month-long winter.
But on top of all this, Hyesan residents must participate in keeping vigil at the Kim statues and mosaic wall three times a month, since they are living in the so-called Daerochon Museum (an honorable nickname given to Ryanggangdo, implying that the entire province is like a museum).
At the very least, I just wish that more statues had been erected in warmer provinces than in the coldest one, Ryanggang, because locals struggle with life and death issues regardless.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell