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North Korea heralds sacrifices of Korean War veterans as many still suffer

North Korea is trying to encourage its exhausted citizenry to struggle on by highlighting the sacrifices made during the 1950-53 Korean War, a lesson sources told RFA is undermined by a growing number of deaths among elderly veterans to malnutrition and illness.

The country is set to celebrate the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities in the war on Wednesday, a holiday Pyongyang officially calls the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.”

In preparation for the day, the government has ordered people to stay after work for propaganda lectures telling them to “follow the heroic spirit of the ‘War Generation,’ who defeated the armed invasion of the United States and other imperialists in the 1950s and defended the leader and the country with their lives,” said a resident of South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons, in mid-July.

“The workers ended their shift at 6 p.m. and gathered at each workplace meeting room. It began with a question and answer session about the spirit of the War Generation and how they struggled. We discussed what we should learn and emulate from them even after the years and generations have passed,” the source said.

In a company-wide lecture, the workers learned about the War Generation’s revolutionary spirit, and how North Koreans overcame obstacles to construct a socialist society with “miraculous speed across 1,000 miles” during the post-war restoration period, the source said. 

“So, the workers were called to adopt that fighting spirit in the factory’s production plan,” the source said. “The workers have not been eating properly due to food shortages and are already exhausted from going to work in this heat wave.”

The poor living conditions of the factory workers in South Pyongan are causing them to resent being made to stay after work for propaganda meetings.

“They are complaining that they cannot live because of the heat wave, and the government is trying to increase its control over them,” the source said.

Food scarcity is a constant problem in North Korea, but the closure of the border with China and suspension of trade since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 has made it worse. With no imports to bridge the gap between food supply and demand, prices have gone up and the people have had to do without.

The propaganda lectures note that the heroes of the glorious past extend beyond the soldiers fighting in the war, a source in North Hamgyong province.

“The factory gathered the miners for lectures on the spirit of the War Generation, and they talked about the 1950s, when miners carried out missions that cost them their lives,” the second source told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Now that the COVID-19 crisis has been resolved and the major task as part of the five-year plan [2021-2025] is to be carried out, the lectures were given to encourage the miners to accelerate production with the fighting spirit of the War Generation,” the source said.

The lecture said they should devote themselves to the party and the leader without asking for any honor or remuneration just as their forebears did during the post-war period of restoration and construction, according to the second source.

“The miners complain that they are exhausted from the hardships of the pandemic and the severe heat, but the authorities focus on lectures and learning sessions that bind the thoughts and spirits of the residents instead of rationing food,” she said.

Though the second source said that the COVID-19 crisis has been resolved, reflecting the North Korean government’s declaration that it was set to “finally defuse” the crisis, the World Health Organization has cast doubt over the claim, saying instead that the situation could worsen.

North Korea has officially reported a minimal loss of life during the recent outbreak that caused the country to declare a “maximum emergency,” but reports have surfaced saying that those who die of COVID-19 symptoms are quickly cremated before a cause can be determined.

Sources told RFA that elderly veterans who served in the Korean War are among those who have died either from the coronavirus or malnutrition due to the lack of food, angering North Koreans who say the government uses the veterans for propaganda but does nothing when they starve or contract a deadly disease.

The country is set to hold an 8th National Conference of War Veterans in Pyongyang to commemorate the armistice holiday on Wednesday, but sources told RFA that the number of participating veterans has sharply declined.

In North Pyongan province’s Ryongchon county, about a third fewer veterans are participating in the conference this year, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

“[We’ve seen] a decrease of nine out of the 28 participants in the 7th National Conference of War Veterans held last year,” the third source said.

The third source said that three war veterans from the rural village of Sosok-ri were alive in the spring. In May, two had developed a high fever and shortness of breath, typical symptoms of COVID-19. They died without receiving adequate treatment, quarantined in their homes, she said.

“In Jinhung village, an elderly veteran living with his son and daughter-in-law died of malnutrition in April. Since March, the family’s food has started to run out, so they have been eating dried radish stem and leaves mixed with corn powder as a meal,” she said.

“In total, the number of veterans who died was nine in Ryongchon county, reducing the number of participants in the National Conference of War Veterans,” the third source said. “The residents are critical of the intention of holding the conference of war veterans when the elderly war veterans are dying for lack of food.” 

In Songchon county, South Pyongan, the number of veterans sent to Pyongyang fell by half compared with last year, a resident there told RFA.

“Every year, elderly veterans die from malnutrition because they can’t eat properly. This year, many elderly veterans showed symptoms suspected of COVID-19, such as severe high fever and coughing. They couldn’t even swallow water and died due to the symptoms. In June, in my town, three veterans died from coronavirus symptoms,” the fourth source said.

“Despite knowing the tragic situation of war veterans who are dying of lack of food and COVID-19 symptoms, the authorities have not come up with any measures to improve the lives of the veterans. Under such circumstances … they are using the veterans as a propaganda tool, calling them treasures of the revolution that they defended with their lives.”

The National Conference of War Veterans only recently became a regular event. The first conference was in 1993, marking the 40th anniversary of the end of Korean War hostilities. Since then, veterans conferences were held in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2020-2022. 

All but the first conference occurred after the country’s leader Kim Jong Un came to power, Seo Jae-Pyoung, the chairman of the South Korea-based Association of the North Korean Defectors told RFA.

“Taking care of the veterans is a political calculation to induce the residents to be loyal to the system,” Seo said.

Even though hostilities in the Korean War ended in 1953, North and South Korea technically remain at war because no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. 

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.