With the food crisis deteriorating in North Korea, the number of "kotchebi," (fluttering sparrows) a term for juvenile vagrants searching for food, is sharply increasing again, according to Korean-Chinese frequenting the North, North Korean escapees in China and North Koreans trading with China. Since food rationing was generally suspended in September, they say, the misery involving juvenile vagrants is nearly as severe as it during the peak of the food crisis, 1995 to 1998. "The sparrows, few of whom were seen until late last year, are now swarming the Rajin-Sonbong free trade zone," said a Korean-Chinese trader who often travels between Huichan, China and Rajin-Sonbong. When he visited Rajin late in February, he said, he was assailed by a group of 20 to 30 boy vagrants who begged him for money, addressing him "Elder Uncle" or "Uncle." He gave some of them one yuan each, equivalent to NKW100, but had to stop because many others persisted begging. "The North Korean authorities seemed to have given up looking after them," he added.
A resident in Chongjin who frequents China on private business said, "We have received little food rations since October. Some children from households lacking in food are swarming the streets since January. Beginning in February, the number of kotchebis has increased in Chongin as well. The situation at marketplaces and around railroad stations resembles the misery we experienced in 1998 when the food crisis was at its worst."
Children relief centers that used to accommodate juvenile vagrants can no longer afford to feed them because food supply has run out, it is rumored. "There are no longer any childrens' relief centers, but only centers leaving children alone," a 16-year-old boy who has recently escaped to China said.
The children relief center in the county of Musan, due to resources embezzlement by senior staffers and discontinued food supply, reportedly found it difficult to feed the children even gruel. Some children there are said to subsist by being mobilized at citizens' fields. Many children are on their own, and a majority of them attempt to flee to China for food.
A North Korean trader who was visiting Dandong, China, said, "Kotchebis are gathering in groups to the border area where they can find something to eat with relative ease. In Sinuiju too, children are already swarming seeking food."
Food rationing is said to be insufficient even in the capital of Pyongyang, with 15-day rations allocated per month. Ph.D. holders at Pyongsong Academy of Sciences, who enjoy special treatment, have reportedly been supplied with enough corn to feed their families for only 20 days a month.
"The currently sluggish instances of flight from North Korea are ascribable not to efforts made by China, but reinforced crackdowns in the North," said a public security official at the Yanji Autonomous Korean Area. Based on information that the North Korean famine has already reached the 1998 level, he expressed a concern that an uncontrollable current of escapees from the North might hit China in the spring.