This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea commemorated a major national holiday Thursday by providing extra corn to select groups of veterans, but the people are complaining that the government is trying to force their loyalty through strict control of the food supply, sources in the country told RFA.
The April 15 birth anniversary of national founder Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), grandfather of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is known as the Day of the Sun, and it is the country’s the most important holiday.
The day is marked with festivals and celebrations honoring the architect of North Korean society. The government hands out candy to the nation’s children to express the “Eternal President’s” love for his people.
The central government ordered local authorities to provide bonus food to veterans who were injured in the line of duty, or who fought in the 1950-53 Korean War, during which about 406,000 North Korean military personnel and 600,000 North Korean civilians were killed.
In the impoverished country where life expectancy for men is about 68 years, few veterans of that conflict are still alive, meaning most receiving this year’s food bonus are so-called “honored veterans”—former soldiers of any age who became disabled in the line of duty.
As North Korea reveres Korean War veterans, the authorities ordered that they be given slightly more food than the injured veterans, a point of contention for the latter group.
Even so, local governments this year could not afford to provide everyone with what they were due, and the gifted food was of poor quality.
“On the occasion of the Day of the Sun, one month’s worth of food was supplied to Korean War veterans in Sinuiju,” a source from the northwestern city on the Chinese border told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“The food was supplied with Kim Jong Un’s special consideration. It is 15 kilograms [33 pounds] of corn, but with the cobs included,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said that the central authorities did not directly supply the food to the veterans. Instead, they delegated the task and the cost to local authorities, who distributed the gift through a food sales office. The central authorities ordered that the honored veterans receive half the amount of corn as the Korean War veterans.
“The food sales office was only able to give two weeks’ worth of corn to the honored soldiers, probably because they did not have sufficient stocks for both the war veterans and the honored veterans,” said the source.
“Even though the corn is supplied by local offices, the Central Committee [of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party] is promoting the gift as if it is their own and insisting that the veterans must not forget the Party’s grace,” the source said.
Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang, confirmed that authorities there were also distributing food to veterans.
“For the Day of the Sun, they distributed 10 kilograms [22 pounds] of corn to every war veteran, but among the honored soldiers, only those who were married and have a family got their food bonus,” said the second source.
“The honored soldiers excluded from the food distribution are complaining that they are not able to do business because they became disabled while serving in the military to protect the country, and now they are being discriminated against even over small things like corn rations. They blame the authorities, saying that the propaganda telling them they should trust the party doesn’t make sense because the party discriminates against them,” said the second source.
Residents condemned the government for brushing aside the concerns of the injured veterans, according to the second source.
“They think the behavior of the authorities is pathetic. They are forcing loyalty by suppling food only little by little. The authorities save meat, like rabbits, only for Korean War veterans on special holidays. The residents criticize the government for taking credit for holiday food distribution, when these honored soldiers cannot make ends meet.”
The amount of the food gift differs from region to region because the central government only tells the local authorities to supply the food, but the actual amounts are left to their own discretion, according to the second source, who also said that in 2020, two weeks’ worth was considered standard for every holiday.
Chronically food-short North Korea suffered a famine in the mid-1990s as a result of economic mismanagement and the sudden collapse of North Korea’s patron, the Soviet Union. As much as 10 percent of the North Korean population lost their lives, according to some estimates, millions of children suffered stunted growth, and hundreds of thousands of people fled to China.