Chinese Koreans feed the hungry in hermit kingdom

Teresa Poole reports on a reversal of fortune which brings begging letters from North Korea to China

Tumen, China - At the Tumen Gate Bridge border crossing between China and North Korea, an unofficial food-relief effort for the world's last Stalinist state begins each morning just as the sun's rays emerge from behind a hill engraved with an unintentionally appropriate North Korean revolutionary imperative: "Battle speedily".

Waiting for the customs office on the Chinese side to open, a local couple in their thirties were trussing up heavy cartons and bags to carry across the border. "All the other North Korean relatives of the Chinese Koreans around here have written letters saying no one has anything to eat," explained the man. So he and his wife were taking provisions to his aunt: "Grain and other foodstuffs ... all food." China now limits the amount of grain which relatives can take across to 100kg. "But that is not enough, so sometimes we must go through the `back door' to take more," said another Chinese Korean woman.

Following disastrous flooding in 1995 and 1996, North Korea is in the grip of severe malnutrition, and may be on the brink of widespread famine. Begging letters arrive regularly in this corner of north-east China, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where 40 per cent of the 2 million population are ethnic Koreans, the result of population migration between the late-19th century and 1945.

Many Yanbian Chinese Koreans here have relatives in North Korea; one local government official said he had received 15 letters from his cousin asking for help. These increasingly desperate missives provide one of the few channels of regular information out of the closed Communist state. While the border is shut to foreigners, Chinese can cross from Yanbian to North Korea with just a permit, laden with food for starving relatives - or sometimes with a more commercial approach to China's hungry neighbour.

In Tumen's market, second-hand Chinese clothes are on sale for locals to buy for relatives. And for anyone interested in North Korean souvenirs, the stalls offer traditional stone soup pots, metal cooking pans, brass chopsticks and large stuffed birds - the few North Korean products still manufactured. Some of the soup pots are well-used. "They are selling their old pots, just to have enough to eat," said a stallholder.

One truck parked in front of the Tumen customs building had rumbled back into China piled with bulging sacks. The driver was from Heilongjiang province, China, where the last harvest was so bountiful that "the peasants could not sell everything, so they thought about selling to North Korea". He had taken a truckload of wheat flour and bartered it for medicinal Korean herbs. How did the North Koreans look? "I heard that people died of hunger ... everyone is very thin." The driver pointed out that he himself was rather fat. "In North Korea I seem like I am an exploiter," he said.

There was a time when trucks passed frequently along the long, narrow bridge across the Tumen river, one of seven border crossings from Yanbian. But the economic woes of the "hermit kingdom" have resulted in a spectacular collapse in the value of trade between Yanbian and North Korea, from a peak of $300m (pounds 190m) in 1993 to just $17m last year, said Huang Denan, director of Border Trade Management at the Yanbian Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation Bureau. "North Korea has almost nothing to provide ... Most border trade is barter trade, so if one side has nothing to supply...", he shrugged. North Korean state enterprises at present owe about $10m in bad debts to Yanbian trading companies.

North Korea can just about still supply some wood, fertiliser, scrap metal (including old railway track) and seafood. But even the amount of seafood has declined, with only dried squid and "mingtai" fish still plentiful. "The North Korean fishermen don't have the gasoline to run the boats. Also their boats are quite old and [so is] their equipment," said Mr Huang.

North Korea's financial collapse began in 1991 with the break-up of its former economic patron, the Soviet Union. The floods of the past two years have wiped out much of the harvest and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Since then, an international aid effort has done its best to stave off mass starvation, but international sympathy has proved limited, not least because no one can be sure the food aid is not diverted to the army.

Nor can anyone know for certain the seriousness of the situation. Arthur Holcombe, the resident representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Peking believes there is widespread malnutrition in North Korea, with people rationed to just 700 calories a day. Children are suffering from night blindness, scurvy and rickets. So far, says the UNDP, people are not dying in great numbers, but Mr Holcombe warns that between June and September this year "there will essentially be no cereal grain crop available" and forecasts "a period of particular hardship".

Peering into North Korea from Tumen offers few clues. Along the river, Chinese entrepreneurs have set up telescopes for rent to Chinese tourists and to visiting South Koreans who journey here to get a glimpse of a forbidden land. On the other side of the river one can see the North Korean town of Nanyang, its railway station decked with two giant portraits of the late Kim Il Sung, and festooned with the slogan "Long live our Great Leader". The drab apartment buildings have plastic and boards in many windows, and apart from some children playing there are few people on the streets.

For Chinese over a certain age, it is like looking back in time. Until China's economic reform started in 1979, Yanbian people were poorer than their North Korean neighbours. "Our skates and cosmetics all came from North Korea," remembered the government official. Now it is a destination which makes Chinese people feel lucky.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own