Sharon LaFraniere interviews North Koreans on the dire situation of the state-run economy in North Korea in the aftermath of the November 30, 2009 currency devaluation.
YANJI, China — Like many North Koreans, the construction worker lived in penury. His state employer had not paid him for so long that he had forgotten his salary. Indeed, he paid his boss to be listed as a dummy worker so that he could leave his work site. Then he and his wife could scrape out a living selling small bags of detergent on the black market.
It hardly seemed that life could get worse. And then, one Saturday afternoon last November, his sister burst into his apartment in Chongjin with shocking news: the North Korean government had decided to drastically devalue the nation’s currency. The family’s life savings, about $1,560, had been reduced to about $30.
Last month the construction worker sat in a safe house in this bustling northern Chinese city, lamenting years of useless sacrifice. Vegetables for his parents, his wife’s asthma medicine, the navy track suit his 15-year-old daughter craved — all were forsworn on the theory that, even in North Korea, the future was worth saving for.
“Ai!” he exclaimed, cursing between sobs. “How we worked to save that money! Thinking about it makes me go crazy.”
North Koreans are used to struggle and heartbreak. But the Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.