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North Korean teens sell charcoal on the streets to afford food

Uncirculated banknotes of North Korea with bank seal. (Zhimin Pan/Flickr)
May 12, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean teenagers in some areas of the country are giving up their studies to take menial jobs because their parents cannot adequately provide for them, while authorities who know about the problem aren’t taking any steps to help, sources in affected areas said.

A source from South Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service in an interview Thursday that hungry teens are turning to peddling charcoal used for cooking to support themselves.

“Recently in provincial cities, including Pyongsong, there has been a sudden increase in the number of teenagers selling charcoal for a living,” the source said.

“With the money their parents make, eating three meals a day is difficult, so they become street peddlers.”

Peddling charcoal is a fairly easy business to get into, because it can be done by practically everyone and it requires no seed money, the source explained.

“Kids who sell the charcoals are mostly middle school and high school students. Some of them are elementary school students who are not even 10 years old,” the source said.

But the source noted that although getting into the business is easy, the job itself is not.

“They carry bags of charcoal much bigger than they are, on their back, and they start selling it from dawn,” the source said, adding, “Then they will walk more than 4 kilometers (about 2.5 miles) to get more charcoal so they can sell it the next day, then walk back home. It’s really hard work,” said the source.

“These kids have to sell all the charcoal they have if they want to buy food for the next day, so even before dawn they are walking around the densely populated neighborhood with their charcoal bags on their back,” the source said. According to the source the kids can sell the charcoal for 1,500 North Korean won (19 cents) per kilo.

The source said that the best time to sell charcoal is in the morning, because this is when housewives need to start preparing food for the day before they go to the local market.

“They walk around shouting “Charcoal for sale!” in the neighborhoods at 5am, breaking the silence of apartments and residences, and stirring up sympathy.”

While charcoal is a needed commodity, it is the sympathy for the children that most likely drives sales.

“People in the neighborhood feel pity, so they come down from their apartment to buy charcoal from these children,” said a second source from North Pyongan province.

“You can see the teenagers selling charcoal very early in the morning in residential areas of the rural communities near Ryongchon town,” said the source.

The source said that the locals are amazed at the work ethic of the charcoal-selling teens.

“The children are so diligent and determined. People are astonished because they are out on the streets even before the roosters have crowed, shouting ‘charcoal for sale!” said the source.

“When a customer lives on a high floor of an apartment building, the children tell them they will deliver it to their door. Even for customers who buy only a kilogram, the children will walk up all the stairs,” the source said, adding “They’ll do anything for the money.”

But as impressed as the people might be with the enterprising youth, they are angry that economic conditions are forcing the youth to work so hard just to eat.

“People are resentful against the government because these are children who need to [be at school] trying to achieve their dreams, but here they are selling charcoal or doing other kinds of day-to-day labor,” the source said.

“Meanwhile the government makes false propaganda that North Korean children are living healthy happy lives.”