Orphaned by famine: The 'child mother' caring for North Korea's - KMOV.com

Orphaned by famine: The 'child mother' caring for North Korea's parentless

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Tim Schwarz

CNN

NAMPO CITY, North Korea (CNN) -- We're driven out of Pyongyang early in the morning towards the city of Nampo, North Korea's largest port.

Our government guides tell us we have a choice: We can drive on to see the famed West Sea Barrage, an 8-kilometer (4.9-mile) system of barrages and locks that keep seawater out of the lower reaches of the Taedonggang River -- a symbol of national pride -- and therefore a frequent stop on the itineraries of visiting tourists, dignitaries and journalists.

Or, our guides announce dramatically, we can take a left turn at the next crossroads and try to find a young lady who has become the talk of the district -- the "child mother." At the tender age of 20, she's already adopted seven orphans and cares for them as their mother.

It's a risk, the guides tell us, we have not contacted her, we do not know exactly where she lives or even if she's at home. They ask if we want to take the chance.

It's no contest. We turn off the highway. Our guides randomly stop two young passersby who just happen to know her exact address and agree to jump in the van and accompany us.

Off the beaten track

The Chollima district of Nampo City, which we pass through, is not the kind of North Korean neighborhood we're usually allowed to visit. It's a decidedly working class area. The blocks of flats are basic, while the roads are bumpy. Every spare patch of ground seems to have been turned into a vegetable garden. But it is clean and orderly.

We're not authorized to film as we walk down a dusty back alley, where children play soccer and residents seem a bit bewildered at the sight of a western news crew.

We walk up seven flights of stairs, and are in luck. Child mother Jang Jong Hwa is at home, as are three of her children. We're told the others are out playing as it is a Sunday.

If she's shocked to see three foreigners with a large camera come into her flat along with an entourage of government officials, she doesn't show it. She excuses her wet hands, she's just been doing her substantial laundry, and invites us into the living room.

Great famine

The flat is quite a reasonable size. Four rooms and a bathroom. It's basic but comfortable. There did not appear to be any electricity during the time of our visit, though there is a flat-screen TV and a DVD player.

With very little furniture, we sit on the floor to talk, which is quite usual here.

Jang Jong Hwa is herself an orphan. She was born into troubled times, at the height of the great famine that raged through North Korea in the 1990s -- years of bad harvests, coupled with economic catastrophe following the collapse of the socialist bloc elsewhere in the world, led to famine throughout the land. It's estimated hundreds of thousands died. Among them Jong Hwa's birth parents.

She was lucky enough to be adopted and still lives with her adoptive mother.

When she was visiting her mother's workplace a few years ago she came across the three children, all siblings, now in the room with us. Their parents had both worked at the Nampo Iron and Steel Works but had both died of unspecified illnesses. They were being cared for by different workers in turn. Jong Hwa felt she had to give them a home.

"It's a tough job looking after all these kids," she says, as the youngest -- four-year-old Jang Ja Myong -- climbs around her shoulders. His elder sisters huddle close, smiling at his antics.

Every morning she gets up to cook breakfast and get them ready for school, before heading off to her own full-time job at the local catering service, before rushing back to prepare lunch. With evening meals to prepare, clothes to wash, homework to supervise, she reckons she's getting by on only five hours sleep a night.

Model youth

She gets help from her own mother, of course, and friends and neighbors. Everyone pitches in, she tells us. The state provides free housing, as it does to all its citizens, as well as free schooling and free school uniforms all hanging neatly on the wall of the room where the children sleep and do their homework. Jong Hwa also shows us three dusty laptops neatly lined up on the children's work bench. But when we ask her to turn them on she smiles, and says "no battery."

Jong Hwa's selfless spirit has not gone unnoticed. She was even awarded the title of "model youth" at the National Congress of Good Virtues held in Pyongyang in May this year. The group photo hangs on the wall in their living room and she points herself out, standing just a few places away from DPRK's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.

He shook her hand and called her "child mother," she proudly tells us.

"Our country is one huge family," she says.

"We are a socialist collectivist society. We all try to help each other."

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