Children peddle spring water on North Korean streets to earn money

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Poor North Korean children are collecting water from springs and selling it in the streets to make money for their families during the Lunar New Year holidays, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

RFA reported last week that food prices sharply increased in the runup to the holiday, which began on Sunday, causing many to worry that they would be unable to celebrate the holiday with a special dinner.

But apparently some of the country’s poorest children are desperately trying to make enough money to eat anything at all during the holiday, and a local superstition suggests that drinking natural spring water on Lunar New Year’s Day will bring good fortune.

“There are many children carrying spring water on their backs to sell in the city of Tokchon. Some of them are as young as 8 years old,”  a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

The source explained that these children are not orphans, but they come from families in dire financial straits. For example, their parents might be factory workers who did not receive their normal wages or food distributions from the state this year, or the side business that most families must run to support themselves might be failing.

“It seemed like it might be difficult to eat even a bowl of rice on the Lunar New Year, so the children just started selling spring water on their own,” the source said. 

“Groups of three or four children put spring water into large buckets from the mountain behind the Tokchon food processing plant,” the source said. “They carry the buckets on their backs or drag them with handcarts and then walk around the city apartments, shouting ‘water for sale.’”

A liter (1.05 quarts) of regular spring water goes for about 300 to 500 won, or 4-6 U.S. cents, whereas a liter of mineral water with purported health benefits costs about 1,000 won, or 12 cents, according to the source.

Tokchon is surrounded by forests with lots of springs and the mineral water springs are in the area behind the processing plant, the source said. 

“Children walk around all day and can sell about 10 liters of spring water,” the source said, explaining that even with all the hard work, that means they will earn about 60 cents during one day if they are selling regular water or about $1.20 for mineral water. 

Around 10 children in a small town in the northwestern province of North Pyongan were lugging around heavy water jugs on their backs, desperately shouting to try to make a sale, a source there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“When apartment residents call the children to buy spring water, the children immediately carry the heavy spring water on their backs and walk up to the fifth and seventh floors to deliver it to the customer,” the second source said.

Most of the customers want spring water for New Year’s Day, but they are worried about the children who carry the heavy loads in the freezing cold to bring it to them, the second source said.

“The children say things like ‘I should be studying, but I can’t because I am so poor. Please buy some of my spring water,’” the second source said. “The state of affairs is worrisome for the residents … and they blame the North Korean authorities for their wrong policies.”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.